For the long love of latkes
A Google search for latke recipes reveals 341,000 results, so popular is the Chanukah treat.
My earliest memory of Chanukah catapults me back to Winnipeg’s North End of the 1940s and my grandparents’ cozy, clapboard house on the tree-lined boulevard of Burrows Avenue East. My mother and I lived there then; my father was still away at war. It was the time in a child’s life before words, when smells and sounds and tastes made meaning of the world. Although I couldn’t say latke, much less describe its savory, greasy goodness or its mouth-watering fragrance, I knew what it was with every fibre and neuron of my little being, and could hardly wait for my grandmother to place a warm, tiny morsel into my impatient mouth.
My aproned baba, spatula in hand, bent over the sizzling frying pan in the over-crowded kitchen, flipping the golden discs of shredded potato and onion like a juggler. The tantalizing odor rising from the stove told me that Chanukah was near. My grandmother would make frying pan after frying pan of latkes, stacking them in her large roasting pan, the only container large enough to store the hundreds of latkes she churned out. I knew, once the covered roaster found its way into the old Leonard refrigerator with the compressor on the top, that Chanukah was only a day or two away.
And, joyfully, now Chanukah is almost here again. Though more than 65 years have passed since that first delicious bit of latke found its way into my waiting, toothless mouth, the visions of that kitchen and the image of my beloved grandmother, who has been gone for 31 years now, are as clear as they were then, the taste and the smell just as vivid. And to celebrate, it’s time to pay tribute to the wonderful latke, the traditional Chanukah staple. If we take a look on the internet, we discover the potato latke and its many oily variations listed innumerable times. Even kitchen diva Martha Stewart has her own special recipes posted on her website – 16 at last count. (She also has other sections dedicated to the holiday that are worth checking out.)
When Rabbi Marc Gellman from Toronto appeared on the TV show Good Morning America many years ago to talk about Chanukah, he shared a basic recipe for latkes, with one difference – the addition of nutmeg. He also shared his secret to good apple sauce: “Core but do not peel about eight Mutsu or Rome apples. Cook with one-quarter cup of apple cider and a cinnamon stick.”
If you ever tire of the traditional potato latke, don’t despair. Believe it or not, there is the Jewish Food Experience latke archives to consult. More than 100 varieties can be found there to tempt you, including drunken apple, walnut, cauliflower-cheddar, Sephardi bunuelos, and dozens more, such as chestnut flour, risotto, and Norwegian lox. But I think I’ll pass on the brain latkes!
What to do if you love latkes, but not the fat? The Canadian Cancer Foundation suggests trying a no-oil “lean” latke. Coat a skillet with fat-free cooking spray and smooth the grated potatoes into a large, plate-sized pancake. One serving contains 162 calories and less than one gram of fat. And, if a latke just isn’t a latke without oil, then go ahead and splurge by adding one tablespoon only.
Every year, amateur cook Roger Mummert holds court in his Long Island kitchen for chefs with the tastiest and most extreme latke recipes. Last year, the event was covered by National Public Radio, which archived its report along with recipes for winners, including Larry’s firecracker latke poppers, spana-latke-kopita, and Mexi-latkes with jalapenos and red peppers.
There are many websites that give recipes on how to make a great latke. At the All Recipes site, there are tips about what kind of potatoes to use (russet), how to keep them from turning pinkish-brown (keep them under water) and how to make sure they don’t fall apart when you’re frying them (squeeze the potato mixture in a cheesecloth).
Who would have imagined that there’s also a whole sub-genre of latke humor lurking on the web? In his article “Ritual slaughter of the latke,” Raphael Finkel elucidates the intricate (and phony) Jewish laws that ensure that latkes are kosher. For example, just as kosher meat must be salted, Finkel says we must “remember to salt the potato and leave it to drain for at least 24 hours. We do this in memory of Lot’s wife, Latke, who was turned to salt. Use a lotta salt, in memory of Lot’s daughter, Lotta.” Is that a groaner, or what?
Believe it or not, a scholarly book titled Desperately Seeking Certainty: The Misguided Quest for Constitutional Foundations has a recipe in it for potato latkes. Honest! The authors use that as a starting point to envisage how that recipe might be reinterpreted by leading jurists like retired U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonio Scalia. “Scalia would conclude that latkes were a liberal distortion of the recipe as originally understood, so he would make matzah (unleavened bread ritually eaten at Passover) instead.” Meanwhile, the heavy thinkers at MIT engage in an annual food fight on the same weighty subject.
Speaking of weight, I’ll leave the last word to writer Marjorie Windgall, whose wishes for a modern-day Chanukah miracle are probably shared by latke fans everywhere. She quips, “My hope is that a miracle will occur and the calories of eight days will count as the calories of one.” Me, too!
Sharon Melnicer is a Jewish freelance writer, broadcaster and artist living in Winnipeg.