Friday, December 22, 2006

Great-Grandmother Lilly's z"l Latkes

חנוכה/ראש חודש העשירי תשס"ז

Many years ago, while visiting my aunt (my mother's sister) in Los Angeles, I asked her for my Great-grandmother Lilly's z"l recipe for latkes (potato pancakes), the famous one brought over from Lithuania I had been hearing about ALL of my life. The last time I had asked my mother (the older sister) for the recipe, I was told that I was "...not old enough to receive this family heirloom of wisdom."

Like most poor, Jewish immigrants to the US, my great-grandparents did not have any lavish family heirlooms to pass down to their descendants, save for my great-grandfather's potato peeler and chopper, and countless pieces of intellectual and sentimental items. (He was a chef.) Thus, this venerable latke recipe was considered priceless.

My Great-grandmother Lilly was a slight woman, who when mother or aunt was sick, she would "just know." Getting on the bus to make the two-hour journey across the Los Angeles Basin to the Fairfax neighborhood, she carried with her a new pair of pajamas and a jar of homemade pickles.

My aunt's response to my request for the recipe was one of shock. She knew that the wrath of my mother would come down upon her, if she were to reveal the sacred latke recipe. Trying to maintain her smile, she offered an alternate plan of action. She would prepare latkes as a side dish for the evening's dinner, believing that would be enough to appease me. Only after several minutes of manipulation and coercion was I allowed to bear witness to the latke preparation.

As my aunt relaxed, and started to enjoy showing me the secret ingredients and sacred techniques of latke preparation, I quickly realized that there was one thing missing, the exact amount of the ingredients.

I stopped my aunt. "Wait a minute! How much grated potato? How much onion? How many eggs? How much...?"

The response I received was, "You know, how ever much it takes."


"What?" (raised eyebrows) "How am I supposed to know how much it takes?"

My aunt responded, a matter of factly, "You know.... How ever much it ever much matzah meal it takes to hold the potatoes together, how ever many eggs it takes for the right consistency...."

"Well, wait a minute. What's the right consistency?"

"This," and my aunt showed me. "Stick your hand in, feel it, and memorize it."

I followed her instructions, tentatively at first, and began to relax. I began to "feel" what she was talking about. It didn't happen overnight, but I eventually internalized this traditional shitah (approach) to cooking, making it my own. Now, as I try to relay recipes to others, I find myself in the same position my aunt was with me that fateful night when I finally received my Great-grandmother Lilian's z"l latke recipe.

Recently, I had to go back and measure the ingredients for my chicken soup recipe, otherwise known as "Ya'aqov's Soup." Now that I have become accutom to my great-grandmother's shitah, it was actually pretty difficult. So with the exception of the size of the pot, I just didn't bother. Rather, I tried to convey what my aunt conveyed to me.

Well, by now you may have noticed that I have not actually provided you with any recipe, with the exception of some hints to the most obvious of the ingredients. I can't, of course. It really IS a family secret.

I will let you in on some of the tips my mother finally gave me, some time after she found out about her sister's "betrayal of the family code of secrecy:"

1) Even in this day and age, electronic appliances are not allowed in any way, shape or form, in the latke preparation, otherwise the latkes are pasul (invalid).

2) The tastiness of the latkes are inversely correlated with the extent of the disaster in the kitchen. In other words - the messier the kitchen, the better tasting the latkes are.

3) Thou shalt not fret over bits of your skin getting into the mixture, while employing the ribeisen (Yid.: grater). It's bound to happen.

With these, I conclude, and encourage you to ask your mother, or grandmother, or other relative, female or male, about your families secret recipes and precious heirlooms.

My sister has vowed to fight with me over my parents' record collection (yes,...vinyl), and has no interest in my great-grandfather's potato peeler nor chopper.

I will charish these family heirlooms, along with my Great-grandmother Lilian's z"l latke recipe.

May her name be for a blessing.

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