My hands gather egg dampened potato shreds, gently compressing, flipping top to bottom to shape the pancake; like how a nona shapes meatballs, like a tortillera, masa. Calculating and adjusting and at the same time reflexive. I’m mouthing a silent prayer the latkes won’t disintegrate when they hit the shimmering oil—as if I’m not sure the recipe works and a lifetime of experience is naught—as if I were embarking on the unknown. I suppose I am. The image of my mother is fading. I see differently. All is as has been but in new light.
It is the end of summer and latkes browning scents my house with unsettling holiday cheer. These latkes may well complete my mother’s culinary repertoire excepting for her braised cow tongue with disgusting raisin sauce I cannot bring myself to cook. I’ve spent almost two years cooking her dishes, letting the food lead me to feelings I had hardly dare explore before she died. I wanted the food to paint her portrait, all sunshine with me basking in her warmth, instead I’m standing under clouds, worring about what I’ve passed to my sons.
Death lingers in the air. Many of my friends mother’s are dying or have died and we are becoming the old ones. Our mother’s deaths is a topic we comb intently. They get teary. I am dry-eyed and wearying of this cooking and combing. Then along comes something simple—cradling a potato in one hand, the peeler poised in the other. Suddenly I am missing her with my heart, in my mind, my cells. The longing stops time.
Jews make latkes during Hanukah not for potatoes but for the oil they are fried in. Here is the story--at the time of the rededication of the desecrated temple, after defeating idolater oppressors, ancient Maccabean’s found themselves with only a days worth of oil to rekindle the eternal flame. Miraculously the oil lasted eight. Miracles demand faith. What’s fried in memoriam differs around the world. Potatoes were popularized by marauding Conquistadors. Latkes here were brought by my forebears, a tasty treat carried from cold steppes. In my mother’s house latkes were a tradition, the one thing we cooked religiously year after year. Tradition carries weight, or maybe its weightless, like carrying a ghost.
My mother used an old aluminum box grater. Helping her led to bloodied knuckles and stinging, onion induced tears. She had no recipe, only ratios; potato, onion, egg, a sprinkling of flour, then deft adjustments in the pan; number of latkes to depth of oil to the intensity of flame. Together in the kitchen we shared little talk, it never strayed to her parents or aunties. Her family fled with nothing towards the New World, she was just a baby, no one told her anything, but surely she must have overheard their dreams. Without stories there was only the two of us. I wanted our time to last forever. Only now it occurs to me to wonder what she didn’t tell. Stories are lamps in the dark. Without light it is hard to find my way.
Fresh from the pan, drained on torn brown paper to absorb excess oil, topped with apple sauce and sour cream, I eat the latkes out-of-hand, burning fingers and roof of mouth, one after another in rapid succession until uncomfortably full, filling something deeper than hunger, talisman against loss. I dash off emails to cousins. “Do you make latkes, did your mother teach you, did she tell you anything?” “Ah, yes, latkes” they reply. Everyone loves them, yet no one has stories to share, no one seems bothered. Alone I am twisting to peek behind myself, searching for hands at my back. I am lighting a wick, open to miracles, praying there’s oil enough to light my way.
One of my sons embraced latke making. He’d help twist the potato shreds in a kitchen towel to squeeze out their water. Soon his strength superseded mine and he became sole twister, catching the water in a bowl so the potato starch could sink to the bottom, then the water poured off and the starch retrieved to bind the shreds we’d grated in a food processor. That is the trick of latkes, to bind the shreds without weighing them down. Soon he could form and slip the latkes into boiling oil and flip them, braving blistering splatters and burns. Asked what he remembers it is that each year he became more adept, His competence was praised. Latkes measured time. Only now I realize I’ve kept the recipe to myself, that year after year I proportion the batter for him, as if revealing the recipe I might lose him too.