Prev Next

The Miracle of the Latkes


One of the motivations behind choosing Not a Rom-Com month was that we wanted to draw attention to the fact that life, in all of its complications and imperfections, is so much better than the fantasy we’re sold in the movies. But I understand why the movies need to deal in broad strokes. Because it’s almost impossible to transpose onto film the feeling you get when invisible life shifts happen. Like finally being trusted with an old family recipe, or when the holidays move to your house instead of your parents’, or when your kids start turning into little people with their own personalities. So today we bring you a story from Julia Halprin Jackson that proves to me the miracles of life are wrapped up not in the grand gestures, but in the minutiae of our everyday existence.

—Maddie 

The Miracle of the Latkes | A Practical Wedding

My mom has written before about Hannukkah miracles. The most famous one took place about twenty years ago, when, in the midst of one of her renowned block-wide latke parties, her food processor broke down halfway through a batch of her famous potato pancakes. My dad disappeared into the garage while she and some of her friends huddled around the machine, patting it as if it were a dead dog, murmuring faint praise. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight and I was absorbed in a game of dreidel, which in those days we always played on the linoleum floor, watching to be sure that the tops never stuck in the cracks between tile, and when I looked up again my dad had surprised us all by sneaking in amongst all the neighbors, cradling a half-wrapped, brand-new food processor still in its box.

“I was going to give you this for Christmas,” he said, and before I could really understand what had happened, my mom had crumpled into him, hugging this most O. Henry of gifts. Before long the new machine was up and whirring, the kitchen buzzing with laughter and frying oil.

This is one of my mother’s signature stories. I’ve since learned the subtlety of it; the careful way my parents have navigated their interfaith relationship. This weekend I was reminded, yet again, of how much those gestures mean.

Ryan and I decided early last week that we wanted to ring in Hannukkah somehow this year, and so we invited a few friends over for dinner and started planning recipes. My parents were out of town and I didn’t feel right making latkes without my mom.

“But we can’t have a Hannukkah party without latkes,” Ryan said.

“It isn’t the same without my mom’s recipe,” I said. “Besides, we don’t have a food processor, so…”

The truth was, I was terrified of making latkes. Some part of me had always been terrified of all that hot oil, of laboring over a soaking tub of scrubbed potatoes, of straining the batter through towels, of getting stuck in the kitchen above the hot stove. Some part of Ryan still quietly persisted, bringing it up again when we went to the flea market to get ingredients. We bought fresh vegetables and spices and two pounds of potatoes…just in case. And then we passed a small stall selling kitchen equipment, where an entire row of used Cuisinart sat, their plugs trailing off the table.

“How much?” Ryan asked, picking each one up, spinning their blades with his thumb and forefinger. “Can you plug this in so we can see it work?”

Half an hour later, we walked back to the car with our arms laden, the new toy swinging in our farmer’s market bag.

That night we bustled around our small kitchen, chopping vegetables, layering lasagne, grilling chicken, peeling potatoes. I’ll never forget the feeling of slipping those first few potatoes into the machine, watching as the blade splintered carbohydrate into a fine batter. It awakened something in me that I’d left on my parents’ tile floor. And when it came time to drop the first few pancakes onto the frying pan, something small and important shifted: here I was, making latkes, without my mother, for the first time. And when our guests came, and ate the first batch, I leapt up and prepared the second batch, enjoying the hustle of the hot hot kitchen, enjoying the company of my friend Tiffany as she leaned against the fridge, catching me up on her life while the pancakes lapped up oil. I was reminded of my mother in one of her famous aprons, her hair bunched around her face as the heat rose ever higher, one hand on her hip, one hand on the spatula as she stood by the pan, chatting with neighbors and friends.

What was it, that feeling? Was it pride? Was it love? Was it awe? The feeling stayed with me until long after the guests had left and the dishes were washed. It was the sensation that a tradition had been passed down and I was there to honor it. And the realization that I wouldn’t have even tried if it hadn’t been for this goyische boy with blue eyes, the one who an hour before the guests came drove to Lowe’s and bought holiday lights for the patio—”Blue and white,” he’d said, “for Hannukkah.”

Photo by Jesse Holland Photography (APW Sponsor)

More in Recent Posts Staff Picks

[Read comment policy before commenting]

  • http://poppiesandicecream.blogspot.nl/ Amanda

    Such a beautiful story, you are truly a writer, in that you were able to capture the universal in the “apparently” mundane. Thanks for sharing it with us. This made me think of Oma, my husband’s grandma, whom we lost last summer. She used to take her time to cook, perfecting every recipe, preparing every dish slowly and patiently… I am glad I got to know her (if only for 4 years) and that she invited me to her kitchen to teach me a few of her “signature” dishes. One of the projects we have with my mother in law is transcribing all her handwritten recipes (in Dutch) to a digital format, and maybe scan them too so her legacy is kept. I often think of her when I’m in the kitchen, as I too, love to cook.

    • http://thecelebrationgirl.com Marcela

      We are planning to do that with my grandma’s recipes as well. Unfortunately, some of them were lost but the ones we remember share too many precious memories to let them get lost in time…

    • Lisa

      We call my fiance’s grandmother Oma too. She’s a wonderful person and a fantastic cook. At 94 years old she still makes meals for the family when she’s feeling up to it. I have copies of a few of her signature recipes, transcribed by her in wobbly handwriting. They are some of my favorite recipes.

      • http://poppiesandicecream.blogspot.nl/ Amanda

        For those who want to share the recipe love, Any Other Woman is organizing a worldwide, year long, recipe swap it sounds like lots of fun. All the info is here!

  • One More Sara

    Was not prepared to cry over a post about latkes, but I totally understand the feeling. I had it too standing in my kitchen alone preparing a full Thanksgiving meal (in a small-ish European kitchen). I was a little stressed, but mostly just so excited to share one of my favorite holiday traditions with our friends here, and then full of pride that I actually pulled it off.

    • Caroline

      Me neither. I’m not a cryer. This is the first APW I’ve every reared up about, but I’ve been watery since your dad pulled out the cuisinart. Maybe because as a second generation interfaith Jew (my parents were interfaith and so are we), it’s… Nope, I don’t have words. Just tears. I’ve mostly had that feeling making my family’s birthday cake recipe for my partner. It makes me really want to host some Jewish holidays ourselves. We host Passover with my dad, but I’ve always been so stressed from school at holidays that we don’t really.

      It’s amazing to me how hard my non-Jewish fiancé works to encourage my Judaism. Two years ago, he saved up and got me tefillin for Christmas (a HUGE gift especially on our budget). He also is the one that makes Passover happen at our house, cleaning the kitchen which I freak out from stress.
      Thank you for sharing your story.

      • http://juliaintheraw.blogspot.com Julia

        Your partner sounds wonderful. How great to have such a loving and cooperative person right there by your side – someone who helps you make meaningful things happen. :)

        I LOVE Passover and hope to someday host it, though it is ambitious! We always go to our friends’ house out in the country and it is beautiful and springy and the food is delicious and we all sing off key and read a highly edited Haggadah (lots of political and feminist interpretations thrown in from everybody’s moms and aunts). The first time Ryan came with me to a family seder, his older brother joked that he was “turning in his WASP card,” something that makes me laugh to this day, because Ryan now says that Passover is is one of his favorite holidays.

        • http://thedilettantista.com/ The Dilettantista

          We hosted my family (parents and sister from out of town, uncles who live in the area and my grandmother from out of town) for the first night of Seder last year (my uncles did the second). It was great and not too too much work–I had a little bit of help from my mom and uncle but most of it was done by the manfriend and me. My father led seder since he is a cantor for a side job (when he’s not, you know, off being a lawyer). I sort of view Passover as Thanksgiving in terms of prep and size but with some dietary restrictions. In terms of what to make, brisket is pretty foolproof and other than the symbolic foods (eggs, haroset, etc.) you can make easy, kosher for Passover sides in the forms of roasted potatoes and other vegetables. So don’t be afraid to try it! The seder was fantastic and I just loved being able to host my 86 year old grandmother.

          • Caroline

            Yes, seders are totally doable. Cleaning for pesach, and managing to stay fed and not crabby all week are challenging, but a Seder isn’t too hard. You make the soup and matzo balls ahead of time, get a Haggadah you like, pick someone to lead (or someone to cook, the cook and leader can’t be the same person, if you want to do stuff like get up to put the matzo balls in the soup, etc). Make brisket, and get lots of veggie snacks that fall under karpas for Seder snacking. It’s otherwise pretty much a dinner party. Go for it!

        • Caroline

          Oops, didn’t see this was in response to me. See my reply about Seders below. My fiancé is really awesome. I must say, I’m across the board impressed by the non Jewish spouses and partners of the few intermarried/interdating folks in my Jewish social circle. They work so hard, and do so much to help maintain Jewish households. I think that the non-Jewish spouses of Jews can actually be a significant asset to the community, web though there is often a lot of pressure for them to convert, and some communal disapproval (more or less depending on the community).
          My partner is not a fan of Passover. He likes Simchat Torah and Shabbat best. Passover is also known to us as “the week Caroline is really mean and crabby because she feels hungry all week and food is so expensive and she is really mean.” Which I’m working on, but neither of us are huge Passover fans, for that reason.

          • Lisa

            Thank you so much for saying this. I felt like you were speaking directly to me. As a non-Jew engaged to a Conservative Jew it’s been a hard road for us in terms of family acceptance. But we keep a Kosher household (where I do all the cooking) and celebrate Shabbat and other holidays. So even though I’m not Jewish, I participate a lot in Jewish life.

          • Caroline

            I can’t reply below any further, but:
            Lisa,
            My fiancé is the same way. We don’t keep really strictly kosher, but we don’t eat pork, or shellfish or meat and dairy together. Since my partner loves pork dearly, it’s a big sacrifice. He plans to be highly involved with raising the (theoretical) kids Jewishly, taking them to shul, helping with Hebrew school homework (when he can), and of course, everything he does for the holidays (umm, all of it pretty much). The non-Jewish partners of Jews who agree to have a Jewish household put some much love and labor into it, and I feel that we, as a community, do you a disservice by the community’s disrespect/lack of acceptance.

            It’s definitely hard to have an interfaith relationship, but sometimes it’s totally worth it. I hope you are able to find more acceptance. We’ve found it helpful in facing people who are less accepting to find someone respected in the community (or in your case, the family) who’s in your corner. My teacher, a rabbi, (who can’t marry us, so clearly not the most yay interfaith person ever) took to heart our explanation that my partner loves being a friend to the Jews, but isn’t, in his core personal identity, Jewish, and it is more important for him to be authentically himself than halachicly Jewish. So it means the universe (the world is not enough) when she tells someone nagging him about converting to back off “Because we love him how he is.” Maybe you can find a family member to play that role?

            I know it is so hard in so many Jewish families. Endogamy is such a strong imperative, and it’s true that much of the last generation of intermarried couples did a terrible job raising their children Jewishly (at least, my parents and their friends and family), but I think that had to do with their own apathy towards Judaism. I firmly believe it is possible to raise children with a strong Jewish identity in an interfaith household, which I think is much of what Jewish in-laws are worried about. If that’s not the plan, of course, it’s harder.

            Anyways, I’ve hijacked this thread enough probably. It’s just a subject I can talk about forever. I’d be happy to talk more about it via email if you wanted. (Fine if you don’t want to too.) caroskis at aol dot com.

          • http://www.thedilettantista.com The Dilettantista

            Caroline thanks for all of that–but a quick note on the Rabbi. While she herself seems to be very accepting of your interfaith marriage, her inability to marry you doesn’t necessarily make her not “yay interfaith.” If she is anything but a Reform or (I think?) Reconstructionist Rabbi then she is literally not allowed to do so–which is really lame, it is incredibly upsetting to me that my childhood Rabbi, who I think is brilliant and great–he is incredibly liberal and gave an amazing sermon on why Conservative Judaism needed to get with the program on ordaining LGBTQ rabbis and performing LGBTQ weddings long before the laws actually changed–will not be able to marry my manfriend and me simply because of the laws made by the Conservative Rabbi Ruling Council (not its real name I know). So while I am sure there are plenty of (non-Orthodox) Rabbis who are personally accepting of and willing to perform intermarriages, until things change on a halachic level it is what it is.

            I am not as observant as you are but I will likely be e-mailing you (if that’s okay) to get any and all advice/suggestions about making an intermarriage run smoothly. Thanks for sharing your story!

          • Caroline

            Dillitantista, I know. We belong to a conservative shul and the rabbi there can’t marry us because of the conservative movement’s ruling on it. I feel totally respected and supported by my other rabbi teacher, who used to do interfaith weddings but does not anymore for personal reasons I’ve never asked. I’ve known her since I was 4, and do wish she could marry us, but I’m ok with it, because I know she is really, genuinely crazy excited for us. As a renewal rabbi, a movement ruling is not her ruling.
            Please do email me about it. I’d love to chat. I can’t say I know everything about interfaith marriages, but having seen many (most of my jewish aunts and uncles are intermarried), grown up in an interfaith family, and with 7 years of a long term interfaith partnership, I definitely know a lot, and I’m learning as I go. I also really like hearing other intermarried folks experiences.

    • http://poppiesandicecream.blogspot.nl/ Amanda

      Yeah, last holiday season I finally succeeded at making my mom’s spinach and ricotta lasagne. I had done it a few times before (maybe 3) but this last time, it was perfect, it didn’t fall apart as we cut it, it was moist, I had enough bechamel to the perfect consistency.
      Such a sense of accomplishment, and of perpetuating your own’s small family traditions.

    • Laura

      Agreed! This one should have had a crying warning :)

      • Maddie

        We need one of those buttons like the one we use with sponsored posts. :) It should just say, “This made the staff cry. Probably you will too.”

        The problem is, I cry at literally EVERYTHING (like…commercials…) so I just assume I’m a sap. If you got a cry warning for everything that made ME cry, they’d be plastered all over the front page.

        • ALEXIS C.

          Maddie, I cry at commercials, too. This is the mother of all tear-jerking commercials, IMO. It is amazing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHkqGgPpQOE

          • H

            Ok, the Publix commercials are just ridiculous. They always make me happy around holidays, and I cry so many happy tears at them. I also like the thanksgiving pilgrims salt and pepper shakers and the Christmas one where the angel turns out the lights and all of the decorations eat the Christmas dinner. Oh Publix – I love your marketing department.

  • Granola

    If I hadn’t been at work I might have actually cried instead of trying in vain to only let a tear or two escape.

    The times when I have prepared the recipes of my mother and grandmother and great grandmother and great aunts are some of the most mundane and meaningful of my life. It’s as if a very fine and strong thread is connecting us, through moving and illness and death and new things.

    It may sound overblown, but there’s a power in it that I think is the closest thing in this world to real magic.

  • Shiri

    Thank you. I’ve been there, with a hot pan of latkes, making my grandmother’s recipe, listening to a friend leaning on the fridge, as my non-Jewish husband bustles about, making it his celebration too. It is the most filling, satisfying, joyous feeling I never thought I’d have. Thank you for capturing it so beautifully.

  • http://juliaintheraw.blogspot.com Julia

    This is such a treat, getting to read everyone’s food and family stories! I feel really lucky to have Ryan as my partner, and also to have my parents as models of how to “be” interfaith and honor family traditions. Food seems like the perfect catalyst, too – the love and care it takes to prepare a special meal for family and friends is enough for me to stop and think, wow, this is a tradition I can get behind.

    (Also now I’m curious about everyone’s family recipes…)

    • http://poppiesandicecream.blogspot.nl/ Amanda

      My mom’s spinach-ricotta lasagne recipe is here

      I want to try latkes too, ever since I saw a few drool-worthy pics in pinterest.

      • Shiri

        That lasagna looks amazing! Thanks for linking to it.

        Latkes are actually kind of easy, except the frying part, which does require constant attention and a willingness to have your hair/apartment/life smell like oil for days. You should totally try them!

        • DanEllie

          The trick I learned from my mom (the goyim in my parent’s relationship, but also the maker of latkes), was an electric frying pan, and space outside. I hate that the smell of hot oil sticks around for days, but it dissipates immediately outside (and you don’t need to clean oil splatters off every surface of your kitchen…

          • Shiri

            If I had outdoor space, I’d be all over this!

          • http://thedilettantista.com/ The Dilettantista

            I actually don’t make latkes anymore because of this. My goysche manfriend was all into it at first, until he realized how it just DESTROYS your home. There was a grease sheen on our floors for a good week afterward, no matter what we did, and all our clothes just reeked of latke grease. Latkes are delicious but we’ve both agreed that we’re going to put off making them again until we have a larger, more well-ventilated home. I get my Chanukah latkes fix at one of the local restaurants that puts them on the menu for the holiday, and I’m good (no need to have all those greasy leftovers in the house anyways, my arteries are thanking me I’m sure…)

            We do have outdoor space but no electric fryer–I know I’d only get it to make latkes, and I’m firmly against uni-taskers (thanks Alton Brown!), so I’ll just hold off until I get my magical mystical dream kitchen, sigh.

            Unrelated but I think it is hilarious that we are getting a Chanukah post right before Purim! Someone out there share a Hamentaschen story stat!

          • Anon, as seems the trend

            This is at Dilettantista, but Alton Brown also had a second awesome use for an electric frying pan. He loaded it full of onions, set it to low and then walked away for 45 minutes to carmellize onions for French Onion Soup. It worked well!

          • http://thedilettantista.com/ The Dilettantista

            Alton Brown is a GENIUS.

            Now if only I had storage space for an electric fryer, ha…

            Dream kitchen, one day, you shall be mine.

          • Cleo

            To The Dilletantista – who requested a Hamentaschen story…

            I decided to make Hamentaschen right before finals a few years back at around 2am (because, you know, that’s what you do). Once I had my dough rolled out (I didn’t have a rolling pin, so I used one of those sticks you use to roll out your muscles. – http://intracell.info/2010/01/roll-away-those-knots-with-the-stick-geartalk/), I realized I didn’t have a cookie cutter big enough to actually cut out circles for the Hamentaschen, so after trying to free form it a couple times, I got fed up, poured the entire jar of jelly in the center of the dough, and made one huge Hamentaschen.

            The End. Happy Purim!

          • http://thedilettantista.com/ The Dilettantista

            Cleo — I’m reading Megillah for the first time tomorrow night, crazy excited, and so happy that I’ve finally learned Esther trope. My manfriend and I will be getting married Jewish-wise, but he’s anti-religion in general and so I’m trying to eeeaaaassseee him into the fun parts of Judaism. Like Purim. Purim is super fun and there is no mention of God in the Megillah so his atheistic-sensibilities (and to a lesser degree my agnostic sensibilities) can be spared.

            That hamentaschen sounds awesome btw, I would have nomzed it.

      • http://juliaintheraw.blogspot.com Julia

        Oooh! Yum! Thanks for sharing!

    • AIH

      Hola amiga! Te echo de menos! I hope the plannign is going well!

      • http://juliaintheraw.blogspot.com Julia

        Hola guapa! Thank you! I miss you too! xo

  • Alexandra

    I remember that feeling with making Schnitzels in University. It’s a bit of a process and our household generally made just big vats of pasta or chili, but for some reason one roommate who normally didn’t do the cooking decided to make some veggie of some kind. And another decided to try caramellizing sweet potatoes (It doesn’t work well, but the results were tasty anyways). And while that was going on, I started making Schnitzels. The roommate who did most of the cooking came down and volunteered to do the dishes when we were done. We cleared the kitchen table too, instead of all eating around the TV. And at the end of the meal, I put away a plateful of food for the missing roommate, who was at work and later became my boyfriend and fiance.

    It wasn’t any special holiday, but it’s still just this lovely memory of cooking food that’s special to my family for friends, without my mother there to help. Schnitzel’s too good to save it for special occasions anyways.

  • KATIES

    What a beautiful post – got me all choked up at work! This really hits home. Food is such an important part of life to me, and my family. Moving across the country from all my family has made me realize a lot of the little things I miss, like my grandma’s potato salad in the summer. And it just never tastes the same when I make it… Thank you for putting it so well!

  • http://www.missgiggles.com/blog Giggles

    Such loveliness for a Friday morning!

  • http://www.mollyeverafter.com/ Molly Ever After

    This is such a beautiful post. I felt the same way during the holidays this year when we took part in some of my family traditions for the first time as our own baby family.

  • Pingback: The Miracle of the Latkes | AtSet Productions - Pro Photography & Videography

  • Adi

    This did not come with a crying warning and yet here I am, out in public, trying to cover my sniffles. This was beautiful. This was absolutely beautiful. Tradition is so important to me, and yeah–it can be scary having the weight of generations on your shoulders, but it can also be so wonderful. I’m glad you got to the wonderful part.

  • Cleo

    I loved this post. I recently started eating a vegan diet and have been coming to terms with the fact that the recipes passed down between generations weren’t exactly simpatico with my new diet, so I’ve recently been trying to adapt them to become vegan. I’ve made sweet and savory tofu (instead of chicken wings), sweet and sour cabbage rolls with tempeh instead of hamburger meat, and I even found an eggless version of egg noodles so I could make my grandmother’s famous kugel! This weekend, I dusted off my mom’s latke recipe and substituted corn starch for eggs (to hold everything together). Although it’s been slightly painful to have to let go of certain foods just the way they have always been, adapting these traditions to fit my and my man’s lifestyle has been extremely rewarding as well.

    • Lisa

      I feel you. We eat vegetarian most of the time, and my fiancé keeps kosher so we can’t have dairy with meat even when we do have it. I learned to cook from my dad growing up, but most of his recipes are meat heavy and hard to make kosher, so I’ve had to learn to cook all over again and build up my own list of favorite recipes.

  • http://www.WillowynJP.com Willowyn

    I’ll need to wipe my tears before today’s wedding clients arrive! Your post was a beautiful way to emphasize the connectedness between generations, even as we forge our own paths. Thank you!

  • Laura

    <3<3<3!

    1) My parents are also interfaith, and I have strong, emotional memories of my shiksa mother lovingly making scores of latkes with her jumbo-sized, 1970's Cuisinart every Hanukkah.
    2) The first holiday gift that my now-fiance ever gave me was my very own jumbo-sized Cuisinart (but the 21st century version) for making scores of latkes.

    • Caroline

      I learned to make latkes from my non-Jewish mom too.

  • http://Www.marbleryephotography.com Melissa

    This brought me to tears. It is the subtlies of love, isn’t it? The best part?

  • kyley

    This made me cry. There is so much love in this post–love for your mom, for your partner, for your family traditions. It also made me *really* want to call my mom. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  • Meghan

    This should have come with the cry warning for sure! My fiance and I are not inter-faith (I’m not sure we’re anything-faith) but your post touched on something so sweet and beautiful I think it’s universally recognizable. The invaluable family traditions we hold in our hearts and the golden memories tied inexorably to them are a huge part of what we bring to our new baby families when we choose to make them; it is so special and wonderful that your fiance recognized that. Thank you for sharing!

  • Melissa

    Oh man, hello tears!
    This is how I feel about my grandmother’s Italian sour cream cookies, especially when we made them in my apartment for the first time.

  • Laura

    Wow – so many tears reading this. Beautiful story.

    My parents were from different cultures, and while their relationship ended before I turned five, my mom is the only person still cooking my dad’s family recipes. My paternal grandmother passed away 4 years ago, and now I’m so grateful that my mom could pass those recipes down to me.

    Funny enough, I had a pressure cooker (the trick to my grandmother’s famous black beans) for 2 years before I finally got up the nerve to use it. I always said I was afraid it would explode (it really looks like that could happen sometimes!), but this post made me realize I just wasn’t ready to take on that tradition – that it felt like cutting of one of my last ties to being a kid.

    Now maybe I’ll get around to picking up my great-grandmother’s china from my aunt’s house…

  • anonymous

    I loved this post. So sweet and simple and lovely. Like someone else mentioned on here, “its the subtleties of love, isn’t it?” – I love big romance and grand gestures but the blessing of love is being able to share the little things, day in and day out, the growing as individuals, and as a couple, and as a family. One of my favorite things that I get to do is to bring my girlfriend coffee every morning in the bathroom once I hear her shower turn off. <3 it is the little things that make the big thing…

  • amigacara

    Wow, this made me want to cry in such a good way.

  • pixie_moxie

    Ah the tears that came when reading this. You described the feeling of the kitchen so beautifully. Thank you for sharing.
    My recipe is my mothers cinnamon rolls for holiday breakfast. It is a tradition that I must carry on in my own home. Those morning/evenings hanging out with the family in the kitchen while prepping and baking are some of my favorites and now getting to share those memories and create new ones with my husband make our house feel like home.

  • http://www.ucscout.org kevin

    the most o. henry of gifts…!

  • http://www.foreveryoungadult.com erin

    This made me cry, but also it made me hungry. I hate hungry crying. (Absolutely beautiful writing!)