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The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

Another one of my seasonal posts:

The Great Potato Pancake Fry-Off

crispy-panko-potato-latkes-16According to my friend Rita, the invention of the blender spelled disaster for the potato latke. She insists that the blood dripping from our grandmothers’ knuckles as they grated the potatoes is what made their latkes so delicious.

My friend Larry swears that skimping on oil will produce an inferior latke; he fills the pan with three inches, which he regularly replenishes. He admits this makes for “an ongoing battle with grease,” but says it’s worth the fight.

My father used to criticize my mother’s latkes for lack of salt, and added it by the spoonful to his pancake batter. I had a cousin who reduced the amount of matzo meal to a scant two tablespoons. My sister adds flour. Martha Stewart uses scallions rather than grated onion in hers.

The point is, no two latkes are alike. I should not have been surprised, then, when my daughter Stacy, grown and with a kitchen of her own, had definite ideas about potato latkes. Thus, when we cooked together last Chanukah, conflicts surfaced as soon as she lined up the ingredients. which included a six-ounce bottle of vegetable oil. I immediately prepared to go to the store for more oil.

“We’re going to use more oil than that?” she asked, incredulous. I should mention that Stacy is a thin vegetarian who buys only organic produce and shops in health food stores. Using a large amount of oil in any dish is anathema to her. Ignoring her horror-stricken face, I went out and bought a half gallon.

When I returned, Stacy was putting potatoes through a food processor, from which they emerged shaped like tiny french fries. Horrified by their texture, I politely asked for a blender on the pretense that we’d finish faster if we both made the batter, and used it to grate my potatoes, onions and eggs.

When we got to the frying stage, all hell broke loose. Stacy poured in just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. She was about to lower a spoonful of batter into it when I grabbed her wrist.

“You can’t fry latkes in that little bitty oil,” I insisted. “They need to be almost covered to get crispy.” Stacy pulled free of my grip. “Ma, no way am I gonna use that much oil. It’s disgusting!”

“Disgusting? Grandma Sylvia is turning over in her grave.” Stacy rolled her eyes and continued to drop dollops of batter in her nearly oil-less cephalon pan. I suggested that, as an experiment, we each fry our own latkes–hers made of the batter from the food processor, mine from the blended batter. She agreed.

I stood in front of my burner, frying smooth-textured latkes in two inches of oil, while Stacy stood in front of her pan, sautéing mounds of teensy french fry look-alikes. When she briefly left her post for a bathroom break, I peered into her pan; without more oil her pancakes were going to stick. “It can’t hurt….” I murmured, tipping over the oil bottle and pouring some into her pan. Stacy returned from the bathroom, picked up her spatula and prodded one of her pancakes. “Wha…? Ma, did you put more oil in here?” Her tone was one of wounded shock.

“Yeah, “ I replied sheepishly. “Just a teensy drop—they were sticking.”

“I can’t believe you did that!” she shouted, on the verge of tears. “I would never do that to you! That shows complete disrespect. You don’t have any boundaries.”

Words to this effect have been uttered by daughters to mothers since time immemorial; I had once used them myself. As their recipient I could only murmur, “I’m sorry, bubala…I just wanted to be sure your latkes didn’t stick.”

“It’s not just the latkes,” she said, tears falling freely. “You do things like this all the time.” She lifted her arm for emphasis, spatula in hand. I raised my arms, intending to give her a calming hug, but our spatulas collided, clinking like dueling swords. Stacy stopped crying and burst into laughter. Relieved, I tapped her spatula again and we engaged in a mock duel, our laughter dispelling the built-up tension.

Later, when our separate latke platters sat side by side on the buffet table, I overheard Stacy talking to her friend Joann, a tall, extremely thin beauty. “My mom uses so much oil in her latkes,” I heard her say. “Don’t you think mine are better? They’re not as greasy.” Joann nodded. “You know how they cook,” she said, “all carbs and grease and sugar.”

Later on, though, I noticed Joann standing alone by the buffet. She glanced around furtively, then hastily grabbed one of my latkes and put it on her plate.

“What’s so funny?” Stacy, who’d been standing next to me, asked.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, “I was just thinking of the dueling spatulas.”

Stacy chuckled. “You’ll have to admit,” she said, “my latkes are less greasy than yours.

“Uh huh,” I nodded, kissing her on the cheek, feeling exactly the way I used to when she was a little girl and I let her win at checkers. “Less greasy. Definitely.”



Top 5 Crimes Against Pedestrians in Car Crazy California

“In order to get across the street (in LA) you have to have been born there.”
     –Martin Amis in Money


It’s been over a decade since I chucked my car and began getting around, most of the time, by putting one foot in front of the other. By now I should be used to the low priority, invisibility and outright abuse of pedestrians in the Golden State, but if anything, I’m becoming more outraged the more time passes. In ascending order of importance, then, here are the worst offenses committed by car owners.

  1. Drivers waving me on

This is a petty complaint, I know, but I can’t stand it when a driver stops at a corner, with or without a stop sign, as I’m about to cross, and magnanimously waves me on–as if my crossing the street is entirely up to him or her, and aren’t I the lucky benefactor of such kindness? In fact, according to CA law, if a pedestrian steps off the curb, traffic must cease until they’re safely across. It’s a right, not a privilege.

  1. UnknownCracked and broken sidewalks

Sidewalk maintenance gets little attention in many cities, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. Even potholes, notoriously left unrepaired, are taken care of before sidewalks, since after all we don’t want our cars getting ruined on the road–and what kind of nutcase walks anyway? My first car-less year I tripped and fell four times; needless to say, I’ve become hyper-alert. Still, last winter’s rains took a heavy toll; one street I walk down regularly is so badly caved and crumbled that I have to step into the roadway, raising a hue and cry of honking. I’ve been told it’s the landowners who are responsible for their own sidewalks, not the city; I’ve been meaning to look into this.

  1. Dog shitUnknown-1

Why is it that the owners of the biggest baddest dogs are the ones who have yet to join civilization and clean up after their pets? Two lazy louts in my ‘hood are guilty of this, but I’ve never actually caught them in the act. When I come upon their infernal messes I hold my nose and circle past the sometimes steaming piles of poop. I’m closing in on one of these guys, though: I think I know where he and his dog-horse live. As soon as I’m certain I plan to file a report.

  1. Cars parked on sidewalks.Unknown-5

You have a ten-room house and a two-car garage, but you need even more, you greedy bastard! You park your car so it takes up all available sidewalk space. I cannot overstate my angry resentment of such people: all I want is a sliver of sidewalk! But no, here too I have to step out into traffic. Lately one of my neighbors has been making this a daily habit.  I’m planning to write them a note–I will attempt to be polite. (Or not.)

  1. Running red lights

Now this is more than a mere annoyance. The Bay Area and SF have the highest percentage of red-light-runners in the country. Frequent headlines tell of children or adults murdered by impatient assholes who speed up instead of slowing down at the amber light. My son was hit by one of these heinous criminals many years ago, and he’s suffered TBI (traumatic brain injury) ever since. If CA is supposed to be so mellow, why are these drivers in such a rush?

Ah, here’s the truth: Californians, driving or not, aren’t, despite the stereotype, mellow;. Having lived here for almost 30 years I concluded some time ago that they live in a permanent state of denial. Which is a whole other topic.



He Left His Scarf in My Car

Having just learned that musician Billy Faier died this past year, I’m posting a poem that he inspired many years ago. 

He left his scarf in my car.
Sleepily I fingered the hand-woven wool
that had embraced his neck
on countless winter sojourns.

Then I saw my empty finger:
my ring was on his piano
or perhaps on his hand now
playing Bach.

roadAs I drove into the morning sun
a million ghosts of one-night stands
faded into history:
my ring was on his piano
and his scarf was in my car.

Sleeping With The Dead (Poem)

I was in London last night
with Sondra, though she’s
been gone for 13 years.

I had breakfast with Fidel
in Woodstock
one recent foggy morn.

Sometimes I wake myself up
speaking Marco’s words
out loud.

I sleep with the dead,
prefer them
to the living.

Even my mother
and father speak words
of truth and beauty,
give me their wisdom
instead of their pain.

Gotta Move!

Posted on

Gotta move!
Got to get out.
Gotta leave this place
Gotta find some place–
some other place
some brand new place
some place where each face
that I see won’t be starin’
back at me tellin’ me what to be
and how to be it…

This song, belted out by Barbra Streisand on her second album, has accompanied me on upwards of 25 moves in a lifetime of searching for the elusive perfect domicile (one friend calls them “lateral moves”). I long ago learned that you take yourself wherever you go, yet even this painful lesson did not entirely abolish my need to keep moving. It did slow me down: I stayed in my last apartment nearly six years, a record – and I hated that place more than anywhere I’d previously lived. In fact, it’s probably the only apartment to ever defeat me: I have a facility with prettying up places, no matter how dumpy they are to begin with. My last apartment, though, must’ve seen so much misery it was embedded in the shit-colored industrial carpeting and clung to stained kitchen counters that, no matter how much bleach I used, were never entirely clean. Gotta Move has been running around my head for years.

The new place is bright and airy, with hardwood floors and spotless, shiny kitchen tiles, and the rent is actually less than the abovementioned hellhole. Of course, I’m slowly discovering this one’s drawbacks, primarily the busy street life below my second-story window. We’ve got kids who play outside until dark, roller skaters, basketball hoopsters. We’ve got men working on their cars, and a couple of motorcycles that come and go with booming regularity.  And we’ve got a dog who is not long for this world if I have any say in the matter. I just keep telling myself I’ve moved to a more urban environment, that I’ll get used to it.


Even if I hadn’t hated my last apartment, I would have moved. I get restless and bored, and moving is a chance for the adventures I’m not rich enough to finance through travel. Plus, given that both my profession and my personality keep me home most of the time, I burn out on my living quarters pretty fast.

Even when I was raising my kids I moved around a lot, for which I carry a hefty load of motherguilt. Once, sitting with Stacy on the back of a U-Haul on West 72nd Street in New York, waiting for my boyfriend Kenny and the moving man to bring down more furniture, Stacy suddenly announced, with four-year-old conviction, “I can’t wait till I grow up so I don’t have to live with nobody!” Still breaks my heart.

Then again, I honestly believed it was good for kids to have new experiences, to discover new ways of living and different kinds of places to live. Now that the chips are in, I can’t say I was right or wrong; all I know is, I’m a nomad, a runner, a girl who needs change on a regular basis or I stagnate. Maybe I just made up that child-rearing theory to accommodate my own desires.

In the midst of the move I turned 64, that magical iconic age when I’m supposed to “knit a sweater by the fireside/Sunday mornings go for a ride.” Instead, I was schlepping possessions from one place to another, wishing I had none, handing stuff off to anyone who’d take it (I gave away over 100 books this move, and a gigantic bookcase. So guess what? I still have too many books and now I need another bookcase to accommodate them.)

The older I get the harder it is to move, and a week later I’m still totally exhausted. I wonder about the women my age who have such busy productive lives, for instance, Hilary. Where does she get the energy to jet around the world meeting with heads of state and deciding the fate of the little people of the world? How does she keep up with everything she has to do for her job? I get tired when I go out to dinner. How does Ruth Bader Ginsburg dole out justice all day every day? I cannot imagine how these ladies do it. They put me to shame.

Not that I know what Hilary’s up to these days; I was disconnected from the Internet for a week, and too involved in stuff like where to put my unwanted, unneeded stereo. The one current event I couldn’t avoid, of course, was passage of the health care bill, about which there is just too much to say. Dennis Kucinich was a surprise – he’s a far better sport than I, and was probably right to cave in and vote for a bill that might benefit insurance companies more than people. He did it for the broader cause. What a guy.

But enough about the world. My adventures consume me.

Comcast pulled a fast one; I’m furious. Fed up with their outrageous fees and rip-off policies, I downgraded to Basic awhile ago. When, a few months later, I bought a flat-screen television, I discovered it was so powerful, it pulled in stations from distant planets. I had just enough time, before the move, to get addicted to Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker. When Cable Guy came to hook me up at the new place, he swore he wouldn’t report my freebie service — but two days later all I got, after the basic drek, was a darkened screen and the words “Scrambled Video.”

Why is this okay? Why is it okay for Comcast to scramble signals that my high-powered TV set picks up? I’m serious. Does Comcast own the airways? I always thought they were in the public domain. This is seriously fucked, and I’m wondering if there’s anything to be done about it. If anyone has a clue, please, please let me know.

No Comment Department:

Finally: While I was preoccupied, two new laws were enacted in the great state of California. You’ll be glad to know that from here on in you’re allowed to tote a gun anywhere you like within the public parks system – but don’t you dare light up a deadly cigarette.

Smoking Guns Only