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How I Learned to Love the Latke

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As one of two Jewish boys in my neighborhood (the other one was my brother), December was always the cruelest month. Let's just say it became very clear, very early on, that my friends -- Frank McDonough, Pete Tierney, Scott Christianson, I think you're getting the picture here -- had a way better gig going, holiday-wise, than the Zevin boys did. They got Santa Claus, we got Rabbi Schmekler; they got Rudolph, we got a band of Macabee slaves fleeing the oppressor; they woke up Christmas morning and tore open a sledload of toys that had magically appeared under their tree; we received one gift item for each night of Hanukkah, which sounded kind of cool considering there were eight nights, at least until we unwrapped the boxes to discover an umbrella, or some equally practical present. My parents, unfortunately, didn't want us getting sucked into the crass materialism brought on by the holidays. If we wanted fun, we were supposed to play with a dreidel. Do you know what a dreidel is? It's a top. You spin it. Is that fun? Why don't you try it some time while your chums are all playing with their new Donkey Kong video games, and then you tell me.

As if all of this wasn't enough, my friends not only got Christmas, they got Christmas Eve. From the way they described it, it sounded like some kind of fantastic eating orgy: ham, pork chops, suckling pig wrapped in bacon. As time went on, I'd come to call it the Forbidden Meal. I envisioned the McDonoughs sitting around the tree, singing their McDonough carols, eating their McDonough figgy pudding, washing it down with their McDonough eggnog. Still, while I was certainly curious about their strange and gentile feast, I wasn't exactly jealous of it in the same way I was of the Donkey Kong bonanza that ensued the next day. See, we Zevins had our own way of celebrating Christmas Eve. We went out for Chinese.

I know what you're thinking. Why would anyone spend Christmas Eve going out for Chinese food? And to you, I say: Because we're Jewish, that's why. Jews from Massachusetts to Montana go out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve (Assuming there are Jews in Montana.) (And Chinese food.). I've never really understood why Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve, but I'm thinking it's because so many Chinese restaurants have the word "temple" in their names. For us, it's like going to temple, but the food is better. And believe me, when all the other kids on the block get to stay up all night gorging on candy canes, sugar-plums and fruitcake, it's a welcome distraction to go out and nosh on some nice General Gau's chicken with fellow tribespeople from neighboring towns. What can I tell you? December was always a bit easier to bear when I realized I wasn't the only idiot toting around a new umbrella and spinning around a friggin' dreidle.

Now that I've evolved into a mature adult (OK, at least into an adult) I am pleased to report that December is no longer the cruelest month. And that is because I've concluded that there's one thing our holiday has over their holiday any day of the year. It is known as the latke, which translates from Yiddish into "delicious greasy fried round thing." If you are a gentile individual, you probably call the latke a "potato pancake," but I urge you not to treat it as you would an ordinary pancake, by putting blueberries or chocolate chips in it, as you have done to our other culinary contribution, the bagel. Please just take it easy with the latke. It's all we have this time of year. Just add a little dollop of sour cream or apple sauce on top of it, and that's that. (My wife mixes both together, and I've got to admit she's on to something. Not bad for a shiksa.)

For some reason, my older brother, Barry, has become the designated latke maker in our family. I myself have always been the designated latke eater. It wasn't until I had my own kids that I finally asked him for a little latke lesson. If you are Jewish, you probably already know a lot of this, so you might want to spend the next few paragraphs doing something else, like making a reservation at Hunan Temple for the night of the 24th. But if you're gentile, listen to what I'm telling you: Enough already with the Christmas cookies. This year, make a nice plate of Christmas latkes instead.

Brother Barry's Latkes (serves 6)

  1. Light a menorah. "If you light some candles, maybe someone will bring you presents," Barry explained. "Yeah," I responded. "But you should pray they won't be umbrellas."
  2. Peel and grate 2 lbs of potatoes and mix with some chopped onions, two lightly beaten eggs, a little salt, and four tablespoons of matzo meal. Don't bother with the Cusinart. It's just more to wash.
  3. Heat some oil on a skillet until it's good and sizzling. Chicken fat (schmaltz) is a tastier option, but you didn't hear it from me. I have enough guilt without giving you a heart attack from Barry's recipe. Use peanut oil. Oil plays a crucial role in the Hanukkah story. Why? Go read a book. Who am I, Rabbi Schmekler?
  4. Spoon some pancake-size servings into the oil, smush them a little and get the hell out of the way, unless you're trying to get third degree burns from splattering peanut oil. When one side is brown, flip them over with a metal spatula. (Barry says plastic will melt. Trust him, he knows from cooking.)
  5. Serve over one million layers of absorbent paper towels and...
  6. Eat already! You want they should get soggy?

This post was originally published at Dan Zevin's website.