Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cooking oil, talcum powder: The smells of Chanukah

For the first night of Chanukah, I made a traditional latkes dinner, and the house filled with the fragrant aromas of this particular holiday.

Okay, that’s patently untrue. Sentimental, but untrue. The house smells like cooking oil no matter how much I run the kitchen fan, and not only that, my hands smell like dirt from peeling potatoes. Dirt is a pleasant smell in the spring when you’ve been out gardening, but it’s not as welcome when you can’t get it off your hands in mid-December.

Still, the latkes dinner was worth the stinky house left in its wake. It reminded me of the Chanukah parties my family partook of annually during my childhood. We’d go to my aunt and uncle’s house. Although Jewish traditions have phased out of our life almost entirely at this point, when I was growing up we still celebrated the major holidays with relatives. My favorite was Chanukah, just as it was with most kids: because of the presents, but also the food – latkes may in fact be the only Jewish ceremonial food anyone would actively choose to eat – and even the ritual of lighting the menorah. Even as a child, I enjoyed public speaking, just as I still do, and being asked to recite one of the readings was a treat for me.

My grandmother liked to shop at department stores, which was typical of her generation and station in life. She gave Chanukah gifts that I now realize were the kinds of things you find at department stores and were different from gifts I’d be likely to receive from anyone else, and I loved them despite what I now realize was their overall tackiness: bubble bath sets, perfume in fancy bottles marketed to little girls, miniature purses. The sharp, artificial floral scent of cheap talcum powder or bath salts still reminds me of getting presents from my grandmother.

Latkes were a once-a-year treat, and for good reason. I once read a description of this particular delicacy as “food that makes you feel like you swallowed a couple of rocks.” Not just one rock; a couple. And once I knew better, from a nutritional standpoint, I stopped seeking out opportunities to eat latkes. I certainly didn’t make them myself. But a year ago, I decided to try, and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. Plus they tasted delicious and brought back good memories.

So last night I made them again. Like last year, they took much, much longer than I expected – we didn’t eat until 7:30, an hour later than usual – plus I ended up with twice as much batter as I needed; I should really make myself a note on the recipe for next year. And did I mention that the whole house smells? And that my friend Jen, who will not know last night was the first night of Chanukah and whom I have not seen in over a year, is coming over for coffee later this morning and will think my house always smells this bad?

But oh well. My grandparents are long gone and so are our Chanukah get-togethers. Once or twice each December, we’re over at my parents’ house at the right time to help them light their menorah, but most of what my kids know about the holiday comes from discussions at school. It’s not really part of our family tradition anymore.

Still, this is two years in a row of latkes. So even without the floral bubble bath or the general excitement of a high-profile holiday, maybe we’ll make this Chanukah dinner our new yearly tradition.

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