The eight-day festival of Chanukah starts Tuesday evening. It’s customary to eat foods fried in oil, to commemorate the miracle of one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days at the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Jews over the Greek Syrians. A common Chanukah treat is latkes–fried pancakes. They can be made with almost anything edible, but the most common latkes are made with potato and onion.
And a quick note on spellings: There are a couple of common spellings of this holiday’s name as various groups have tried to render the Hebrew sounds in English letters. Elsewhere in ReadTheSpirit magazine you’ll find “Hanukkah” used. Same word; same holiday; and now you know that both are correct.
Here with a wonderful story about latkes is guest writer Sheri Terebelo Schiff, a leader in human relations and multicultural and interfaith relations in the Detroit area. She is active with the American Jewish Committee, WISDOM and Jewish Historical Society, and serves on the boards of many Jewish agencies and organizations. She was a co-convener of the Race Relations & Diversity Task Force, which under her leadership the group received the Closing the Gap Award from New Detroit.
My family loves my potato latkes.
Every Chanukah I’d have everyone over for dinner–my parents of blessed memory, my brother and his family, friends–and make about a hundred latkes with sour cream, applesauce, bagels and lox, veggies, fruit and donuts to remind us of sufganiyot, the Israeli delicacy of fried dough.
Everyone loved the latke feast–except me. I smelled of latkes and frying oil. The odor permeated my clothing, my skin, my hair and the whole house. It took days to get rid of that potato-and-oil smell. As much as I washed and scrubbed my body and hair, it took days to smell clean. The smell was in the carpeting, the upholstery, even in the dog’s coat. I just hated it.
One year I had an inspiration. I could make the latkes outside and instead of smelling up me and my house, I could smell up the neighborhood!
I had an electric frying pan and electric outlets outside. I had a winter down jacket that I hated and didn’t care if it smelled, and I could put all exposed parts of my body under a hat and gloves. My neighborhood was not very Jewish and I thought no one would know what I was up to.
On a snowy Sunday, my family gathered. Everything else was out on the table. My husband and children thought my plan was the result of a stroke. Everyone questioned my sanity. I thought, no more latke-smelling house.
I grated my potatoes, added the rest of the ingredients and moved outside. First problem: the cement front porch was not level. I tried putting the pan on an outside porch end table. I tried putting it directly on the cement. The oil was deep on one end and non-existent on the other end. I shored up the deep end with a dish towel and started heating the oil. Icicles dripped into the fry pan from the roof of the house and splattered. I burned the top of my hand. I discovered one cannot make potato latkes with gloves.
The frying started. The potato latke smell enveloped the night air. My neighborhood started to smell like frying oil and potatoes.
Joggers like my block, a through street that gets plowed early and frequently.
Two joggers came through and I heard one say they could smell the latkes frying. Another jogger came by after the first batch went inside to my family, and made a similar remark.
Feeding the neighborhood
I brought another batch of latkes in to my family, and when I returned, there were strangers on my porch. They wanted latkes! I’d never met them or seen these people before. They announced they lived three blocks from me, asked for a plate and some applesauce, and ate. They each took a latke in each gloved hand for the road. I spooned another batch into the electric fry pan, walked down my front walk to the street and was overwhelmed and overcome by the smell of oil and potatoes. My neighborhood smelled like latkes!
I made about 100 latkes that evening. I usually flash-freeze some for a later date, but I ended up giving a few dozen away. Since the smell was in the air, people I knew and people I didn’t know stopped in front of my house, attracted by the smell of latkes. My kids came outside and I chased them back in to put on their coats. My husband visited with a guy from down the block. There were no leftover potato latkes for us. When the last latke was fried, I unplugged the fry pan, emptied the leftover oil into a jar and deposited it into a garbage bag for the trash collection later in the week.
I took my oil-splattered down jacket and the kids’ jackets downstairs and threw them into the dryer with eight scented dryer sheets(one for each day of Chanukah). We lit Chanukah candles, gave the kids presents, cleaned up, visited and said our good nights. I was thrilled. My house did not smell like oil and latkes. However next morning our neighborhood still did. And it would for a couple days.
Every year since then I’ve made latkes on the front porch. By the third year, it became common knowledge and people started coming by. Some joggers, some friends, some neighbors, some strangers. One hundred latkes became two hundred. The kids grew up, my parents aged and passed away. I still make latkes and people still jog and drive by. And my neighborhood still smells like potato latkes for a couple of days every year.