On the first night of Chanukah, two candles burn in my wife’s grandma’s vintage, ornate brass menorah with the hinged doors open to the Ten Commandments. It has not been cleaned – no one remembers the last time it was – so multicolored wax from many previous years fills the spaces between the shallow candle cups.
With a sense of duty to a glorious tradition of cooking real food and feeding my family, I make my way to the kitchen and start preparing to make latkes.
Put on Andy Statman. Shuffle the mix of bluegrass and jazzed up niggunim. In the kitchen surrounded by all of the requisite accoutrements, readying to chop, peel, grate, mix, stir, and fry, dancing a jig with a cold Cigar City Jai Alai IPA in my hand is practically de rigeur in casa Karpel.
Let’s do this.
As much as I enjoy experimenting with various flavors, I’m sticking to tradition tonight.
We start with simple ingredients: 4 potatoes, 2 eggs, 2 small yellow onions or half a large one, 1 ¼ teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of pepper, a tablespoon or so of flour or matzo meal, and canola oil. We need a grater, a bowl, and a pan.
We need counter space, stove top space, head space, heart space.
We need a sense of history so deep it’s more like memory.
The kitchen is my domain. (Note: I watch Anthony Bourdain globe-trotting and glomming exotic foods with envy.) Our house is small, so there is no division other than an island between the kitchen and the dining room and living room. Whatever happens in the kitchen happens in the whole house, whether it’s cooking or conversation. Whenever I’m cooking, the entire house is suffused with flavorful scents of herbs and spices, heated oils, meat or fish or chicken, sautéing mushrooms or onions or peppers or all three and more, and various and sundry vegetables, vittles, victuals, and grub. What pleasure I get from the smell of home cooking! What pleasure I get cleaning potatoes and onions, measuring amounts of salt and pepper and flour! What simple pleasures, my Gd, You’ve blessed us with!
Tonight, the kitchen is a holy place. There’s no place I’d rather be right now. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. In here, I am the embodiment of love and passion and memory and history. Stay out of my way. I’m a flesh and bone time machine living so many histories now, all of them hungry, all of them with watered mouths, desire stunning them stupid with confusion: where are we? who are we? what are we doing here? I’m on a mission. I’m a shliach for anxious dead bones whining for the Yiddishkeit of their descendents. I’m a bone clock moving forward and towing everything that’s ever happened to every blood relative in the past with me onward. I will feed them all. My wife, the kids, all the bubbes and zeides, all the distant relatives, the rich and the poor, the saintly and the boors, the fat and the starved, those that thrived and those that were slaughtered. I will feed them all. They are all alive in me and in the kitchen and sitting at the table and sitting on my couch with a book of collected Russian stories, smoking cigarettes, and knocking ice against their dentures as they down whiskey from a bottomless supply.
Listen. I know I’m a bit affected. It’s cool. Nothing is under any sort of control in the world, so why start with myself?
Listen. Really, it’s all about the oil and potatoes. Each is an ingredient in the illogical, irrational survival of the Jewish people.
Oil connects us to the Beit Hamikdash, to the kohen gadol, to the Temple service. Anointing oil on the head and in the beard of Aaron. Oil in the menorah to illuminate out over the city on the hill from the high walls of the holy edifice. Oil mixed into the meal offering. Oil connects us to the land, to the olive tree. Pressure an olive to glean the purest essence; pressure a Jew to reveal the very essence of our soul. This is one way we are eternally connected and connecting to Eretz Yisrael.
Every Chanukah we emphasize this connection with fried foods and the potato latke, the “little oily,” has taken on an iconic status on the menu.
The potato in the Ashkenazi diet has history as well and is ultimately responsible for the survival of so many Jews through good times and bad. How many Holocaust stories of black market survival involve scraps of potatoes used for trade? How many dishes involve the ubiquitous potato?
Through the simple oil and potato, our little latkes personify the ancient, the transcendent, the sublime.
But they are also an irresistible treat.
Back in the kitchen, still drinking, still dancing, but now with an essential kitchen tool in my hand: the peeler.
Curl the peeler around this earth-pear I hold, skinning it smooth and moist. Repeat.
Grate it into the glass bowl.
Remove the outer skin of the onions, cut off the ends. Clean and peel off the first layer. Grate it into the glass bowl.
Those tears that have burst from my eyes are of the joy felt by my Russian, Rumanian, and Polish ancestors coiled into my DNA.
Now drain the excess liquid from the grated potatoes and onions into the sink by hand pressing spoonfuls of the mixture in a mesh strainer.
Back in the bowl. Break two whole eggs, check them for blood, and drop them into the mix. Now the salt. Mix and stir. Now the pepper. Mix and stir. Now the flour. Mix and stir.
By now, the oil is hot.
The anticipation flames in my chest. I can barely contain myself. My kids and my wife and my dog are avoiding me.
Good. Come to me when I can feed you.
Spoon globs of the mixture into the oil and gently shape them. Cook on each side for approximately three minutes, depending on how crispy you want them.
When done, let them cool on paper towels.
Read the news.
Once again, the world denies history and the inseparable, eternal Jewish presence in Zion.
We are a people who feed on our own history. We are a people who nurture our love with our own memory.
We make latkes to commemorate a revolt that happened thousands of years ago in the very land they are trying to deny us.
My family gathers around the table where I’ve placed the plate of latkes.
Everyone takes one for themselves. Eyes wide, smiles wider.
Everyone wants more. What else could I possibly ask for?
Nothing that’s happened in the United Nations will take any of this away from any of us.