Hanukkah has changed for me over the years, particularly as I aged out of the belief that gifts were all that mattered. But the smell of hot grease permeating my childhood home, bubbling away in my mother’s frying pans as she cooked an army brigade’s worth of latkes will always be the memory that travels with me from year to year. It’s an aroma and feeling I look forward to gifting my wife this winter, as we head into our first Hanukkah as a married couple.
I grew up a food-loving kid in a healthy household, and this was the one time each year my mom would make fried food. Being a Jewish mother, we knew that if she was going to celebrate the holiday by frying potato pancakes, she was going to fry a lot of them—you might’ve assumed the high school football team was going to stop by for a bite.
I always knew the fun had begun when I could smell it from my upstairs bedroom, even with the door closed. She’d spend all afternoon grating spuds and blending them with a bit of egg, baking powder, and whatever else went into her secret recipe. She’d fit as many deep-dish frying pans on the kitchen range as possible, fill them with cooking oil, and heat them to boiling temperatures. She’d drop spoonfuls of potato mixture into the hot oil and listen to it sizzle and watch it splatter, flipping it with a spatula at just the right moment, revealing the crispy brown doneness that highlighted each strand of starch. She’d pile them on platters, dividing layers with paper towels to soak up the excess grease as they cooled. She’d churn out batch after batch, changing the oil every now and again.
She’d place the majority into large Ziploc freezer bags so she could store them for our enjoyment on lazy Sundays in between this Hanukkah and the next, but there were plenty left over for dinner once my dad got home from the office.
The process took hours and by the end, the aroma infused everything in the house. My father would walk in the door on that first Hanukkah evening and say something like, “Well, I guess it’s latke season!” or some other dad-ism. I’d force him to light the candles right away so we could sit down for dinner. My belly couldn’t wait. It was always a vegetarian or fish dinner because we kept a kosher household, which meant no milk and meat at the same table. Veggie casserole or baked fish never excited me much, but the latkes were the star of the show anyhow; the rest was just filler.
The contrast of the warm, crispy potato pancake with cold, tangy sour cream and sweet, chunky applesauce is what my Jewish dreams are made of. I yearn for it every December, and as I got older and moved into my own place, I wanted to create the experience for roommates and friends. One year, in an effort to impress a Jewish girl I was dating at the time, I put on a latke party. I invited her and some friends over and I, like I had seen my mom do, made an obscene amount of latkes. I made the classics I remember from my mom’s kitchen, but also modern versions that incorporated sweet potato or shaved apple. I made dipping sauces and I had warm apple cider boiling on the stove. It was a fun and tasty spread, but I went too far, and lost the spirit of the tradition in an effort to impress the girl. But that was representative of the guy I was at the time—the guy who wasn’t sure who he was; who tried a little too hard. Fortunately, it didn’t work out, leaving me free to meet the woman who became my wife.
We were married just a few months ago. I’m excited to get back to my upbringing this Hanukkah, and to fill our small apartment with the scent of hot grease and russet potatoes. My wife loves complex, high-falutin food and fine-dining meals as much as I do, but there is something so wonderful about a food tradition as simple as latkes; it’s something I want to keep as part of our life as we start a family of our own. Every bite still takes me back to my mom’s kitchen, and the longer the aroma of hot oil and fried potatoes lingers in our apartment, the closer I’ll feel to those childhood memories which I proudly carry into my new marriage.