A Whole Latke Love

Contrary to the frequently perpetuated oversimplification, latkes are not potato pancakes. They’re not hash browns nor patties, neither nuggets, tots, nor home fries. “Shredded potato clusters” don’t quite do them justice, but it’s hard to explain such a disarmingly simple dish. Sometimes it easier to describe what they aren’t, rather than what they are- Or ought to be. Strong opinions exist about what makes a proper latke, but in my family, that only means one thing: thin, crispy, silver dollar disks of starchy ribbons, all bound together with a scant handful of matzo meal and a whisper of yellow onion for seasoning. Deeply browned around the edges with a tender interior, some more so than others to appease a diverse crowd, they’re made by the pound and scaled up by tens; never trimmed back, never turned down. Rarely do leftovers survive the main meal, no matter how many buttery Yukon golds press through those sharp spinning grates.

For as long as I can remember, Hanukah has meant the smell of canola oil wafting through the house come midday, long before the menorah comes out or the table is set. My parents work in concert to sling the edible oily miracles well in advance of arriving guests to hide the laborious demands of each painstakingly shaped round. My mom stands guard inside the kitchen, cutting down armies of potatoes to form the raw fuel for this fire. Conveying them in heaping stock pots to my dad, he then dutifully, patiently shallow fries them outside on the grill. Through the bitterly cold winds, freezing rain, hail, snow, and thunderstorms, he faces the elements with steely resolve. There’s no Hanukkah celebration without the latkes, and they’re not about to cook themselves.

I’ll start by assembling my plate daintily, politely spearing two or three small clusters to save enough for the crowd, but after the first bite, proper manners quickly fall by the wayside. Seconds consist of a half sheet tray of the potato gems, shamelessly slathered with enough sour cream to sink a ship, if not lavished with a truly decadent crown of seaweed caviar. From age 3 to 30, if I don’t end the night with grease stains on my shirt and crispy potato shrapnel tangled in my hair, then it isn’t a real holiday dinner with my family.

Latkes aren’t the point here, despite their dominance on festive menus and historical authenticity- Or lack thereof. Latkes are about symbolism, taking on whatever meaning you assign them on this holy, yet entirely ordinary winter day. Latkes are whatever you want them to be, but the only way I’ll ever want them is back east in the house where I grew up, my parents lovingly slinging them from dawn to dusk. No recipe on Earth could ever recreate that kind of experience.

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A Working Holiday

It’s been quite a few years now since my last Thanksgiving on the line, but I can still feel it in my bones; a physical memory that persists like a scar, emblazoned deep within. The crushing heat of the oven, pumping out roasted vegetables and tofu steaks; the furiously boiling pots of thickening roux, destined to become bases for a dozen different gratins; the reverberations of the knife on the cutting board, mowing down everything from beets to scallions seemingly of its own free will. These sensations return in flashbulb moments, random and unexpected glimpses into the past. Every Thanksgiving wasn’t just Doomsday, but Doomsweek. Manageable lists of orders quickly swelled into a wild mass of demands, nimble hands always turned out in short supply, and yet the shoebox kitchen still couldn’t accommodate the number of bodies toiling away, jockeying for a place at the tiny four-top burner. It was a violent dance, or perhaps a dark comedy, but it was certainly a show for all to see. The utilitarian rubber mats became our stage- No, red carpet- As we all starred in our insular performance. Though anyone outside of the industry could only consider this affair a pre-show for the great event, this was our time to shine.

Time continues to put more distance between this memory and the present, as the cafe has been closed and darkened since the ravages of Hurricane Sandy took their toll. For as long, painful, and exhausting as those long days leading up to Thanksgiving were, I wouldn’t have dreamed of being anywhere else. Fierce loyalty to the business and the team behind it drove me forward; that sense of comradery kept us afloat. No matter how much I dreaded those days, I secretly adored them and looked forward to them just as much, if not more. While it’s a luxury to finally enjoy Thanksgiving like most other people do- with their families, partaking in the festive meal, and cooking only enough for a dozen rather than half the town- I miss the maddening Thanksgiving catering rush dearly. Nothing made me more grateful than completing a successful day-long shift, bidding farewell to my cooking compatriots with hugs and long goodbyes, and quietly departing into the dark, cold autumn night once more.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate, whether you’re working, cooking, or just lucky enough to be amongst family and friends.