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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The Dark Ages

When night falls, it plummets like a stone and crash-lands with a resounding thud. Darkness overtakes the sky by brute force, smudging out the sun in an deepening stain marring the clouds. There’s no gentle transition, no ombre sunset nor starry twilight. Like flipping off a light switch, the day is suddenly, starkly over.

Shelter is found in pinpricks across the landscape, by the electric flames of a thousand burning bulbs. They illuminate houses in neat little rows, strung together like bulky Christmas ornaments adorning the city, spilling their garish yellow glow across swaths of concrete. Biting into chunks of impenetrable shadow, clearing away the blackness pouring down all around, each luminous oasis is provides a brief flash of comfort.

Welcome home, they seem to whisper, You’re safe here. Behind glossy window panes, families gripe and groan about daily chores over hot dinners. Couples young and old sit quietly in front of a flickering TV screens, immersed in the latest new scandal or big ticket movie available to stream. Life continues on without missing a beat, unconcerned with the oppressive plague of night that has taken hold just beyond view. The darkness disguises our reality outside, but does not change that constant truth.

Smoke and Mirrors

Cascading down the hills and clouding city streets, this was not the usual fog rolling in from the bay. This was smoke, thick and acrid, obscuring our vision, tearing at our throats. Fires burned just beyond eye shot, but the devastation knew no bounds. We all felt the pain of a hundred thousand trees incinerated in an afternoon, reduced to ash and deposited without ceremony upon cars and buildings miles away, like a deathly snow in the summertime blaze.

Escape from this unseen monster is impossible; it hunts you, haunts you through homes and offices. It lingers in the stale air underground across BART tracks. It condenses inside closed windows. It stays within your lungs long after you exhale. It suffocates from the outside in, and the inside out.

This is not a dystopian vision of the future. This living hell is the new normal.

2018 California Wildfires

Summer Rains

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the summer rains.

The cool relief of a cloud burst washing away the built up pressure of the day. The rumble and crack of rolling thunder in the darkness, a lumbering giant invisible in the night sky. The damp long grasses, freckled with pinpricks of dew in the morning. Each component, tactile and visceral, makes up its own flashbulb memory; distinctive, yet distinctly separate. There’s no timestamp, no geolocation, no metadata to click through and extract more information. Surely there were many rainstorms that visited through my childhood, appearing and fading away much like the last, blending into one amalgamated vision, softened by time and distance.

I don’t know how I grew so attached to the comfortable rhythm of weather patterns, so predictable that they were more reliable than the calendar as an indication of the passing days. Back then, summer was endless, stretching on through countless unscheduled weeks, lazy afternoons one after the other, not a hint of stress or guilt associated with inactivity. Punctuating the sweltering evenings with a quiet, soothing staccato on the window panes, their whispered song serving as a lullaby. Filling my mind and washing away the harsh edges, the summer rains were my meditation.

There are no more summer rains these days, far removed from the climate of my childhood. I miss them deeply because their music sang of comfort, an audible reminder of my shelter from the storm. It was my song, set on repeat for days on end; after so many years, it became my anthem.