Friday, December 3, 2010

Making latkes

Once a year, I make latkes. And normally not very well, either. I try, but the mushy, slightly soggy lumps that I’m able to pry out of the frying pan, leaving a thin coating of crispness stuck behind, have never reminded me one bit of the latkes that were a favorite food during my childhood. Back then my parents had a square metal electric frying pan that stood on the counter on its little legs, cooking potato pancakes to perfection after my mother had mixed the ideal batter. My yearly efforts didn’t even seem like distant relatives of those savory golden moons.

We don’t really celebrate Hanukkah other than stopping by my parents’ house once or twice during the eight-day holiday to witness their lighting of the menorah, and I usually don’t even think about latkes until I hear someone else talking about this.

But this year was different. A week ago, as I was drafting my weekly arts column, I included an item about a children’s museum that was hosting a Hanukkah party, and I started thinking, “Mmmm….latkes. This year I’m going to do it right.”

I didn’t do a lot of research, but through a stroke of serendipity, I got the date wrong: I thought Hanukkah started Thursday night rather than Wednesday night, and it was Thursday that I targeted for a latke dinner. The reason this was so fortuitous was that friends were posting on Facebook all day yesterday about the relative successes or failures of their latke-making efforts, and so even without setting out to do research, I was picking up helpful hints as the day went on: leave plenty of time for draining the grated potatoes, and use safflower oil heated to a very high temperature for optimal frying.

Ultimately, though, I think what made my latkes so successful this year was that I took all the time I needed to complete each step. In the kitchen, I have a tendency to scrimp on time, and my nonchalant willingness to improvise can cross over far too quickly into out-and-out sloppiness. Peel the potatoes? Who needs it! Grate the onions to a uniform size? Hey, the Maccabees had no Cuisinarts – just randomly chop! Applesauce? Sorry, didn’t think of it. Come on, latkes don’t really need applesauce, do they?

This year I started earlier and went through every step. I don’t mean I started days earlier, like the Orthodox Jewish housewives of a bygone day. I just mean I started an hour before dinnertime rather than the usual twenty minutes. I peeled every potato. I set the mixture in a colander over a bowl covered by a plate weighted down with a large can of broth in order to drain most effectively. I even chopped two apples, threw them into a saucepan with a little water and some sugar, and stewed them into applesauce. I didn’t cut corners.

And the payoff was irrefutable: by dinnertime an hour later, we had a platter of the most gorgeous, golden-brown, crispy, flat latkes I had ever seen. Even better than those I remembered from childhood (but that may have simply been because they were on a plate ready to eat rather than shimmering in my imagination).

From now on I’ll do this every year, I thought to myself. And I’ll do it the same way, too. I’ll leave enough time for every step.

It made me think about how one aspect of the holiday season that many of us tend to gripe about is all the cooking and planning. In general, no one needs more complicated rituals to add to their holidays. But this felt different, somehow. Unlike the arduous task of making homemade gingerbread houses rather than buying the pre-fabricated kind for the kids to decorate, this felt worth every minute I’d put into it. In the end, my latke-making didn’t feel like another stressful holiday exercise but rather an act of spiritual observance, almost. I’d taken time and care with every step along the way and created something wonderful, just as I’d done the night before in making chocolate truffles for gift-giving and would do later in the month when I chose photos for our annual photo calendars.

Ultimately, these are the holiday rituals worth retaining: those that soothe our souls and reassure us that the time we took and the attention we paid yielded beautiful results. Many of my friends have been searching for ways to make the holiday season less complicated and more enjoyable. And on the surface, making homemade latkes may not seem to be the answer. But I think yesterday it taught me something important about which holiday traditions to prioritize: those in which taking time to do it right seems to yield its own reward. As my family and I bit into our hot, crunchy, crispy, chewy latkes, I tasted every second of work that had gone into them. And at the same time, I knew I’d started a ritual that I would find worth keeping.

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