My Husband Didn't Grow Up Celebrating Hanukkah But Makes the Best Latkes. Here's How the Tradition Started
Here's a secret I've never told anyone. It's about my grandmother, Lil Pachter. What you must know in order to appreciate it is that my Mema was a well-regarded baker among her set of friends, the Hadassah ladies and canasta players of suburban Jewish Atlanta. Her mandelbrot, the biscotti-like bar cookies studded with slivers of almonds, was particularly celebrated, and she was also good at making other staples of Jewish home cooking, like braised brisket and (of course) matzo ball soup.
The secret was that she didn't much care for making latkes. When Hanukkah rolled around every year, hers came from the Manischewitz box. I once overheard another Jewish food writer say, "No self-respecting bubbe would be caught dead making store-bought latke mix." This is an exaggeration, of course. And although I cherish the memory of my Mema and begrudge her nothing for the fact that she didn't enjoy toiling for hours over her ancient electric frying pan, I can say that (at least in the latke department) I grew up deprived.
This was a particular kind of deprivation that I would not know the full extent of for many years. I was content with latkes that came from a box because I didn't know what I was missing. If you've never eaten a fresh-ground hamburger hot off a backyard grill, you might think a McDonald's Quarter Pounder is a great burger. I was simply a person who knew why Jewish people like me ate potato pancakes at Hanukkah, even though I had not experienced a particularly tasty or authentic version. (Incidentally, here's the reason for the latkes: In the second century B.C., after the Syrians had overtaken Israel, brave Judah Maccabee led a successful revolt. Afterward, there wasn't enough oil for the menorah in the Temple of Jerusalem. Then a miracle happened—a tiny bit of oil provided light for eight days and nights. On Hanukkah, Jewish people commemorate this occurrence by frying foods in hot oil.)
After years without homemade latkes, relief came, as it often does, from an unlikely source. When I grew up, I fell in love and married a man who is not Jewish. My family worried about whether my grandmother would accept Andrew, but when she saw that he liked Jewish foods—even gefilte fish—he quickly won her over.
One night when we were newly married, I came home from work and found my guy cooking. "Surprise!" he said, as he stood in our studio apartment's tiny kitchen grating potatoes. We couldn't go back home to Atlanta that year, so he decided he'd make me from-scratch latkes. "Just like the kind your grandmother makes!" he said.
I did not have the heart to tell him the truth. In fact, he's learning it right now, just like you. That's because I watched him work so hard to do something extraordinary for me. It takes a lot of effort to translate a food tradition that is not your own; there are no memories from which to draw. Yet there he was, grating, frying, and eventually sweating and cursing as the aroma of frying potatoes and onions filled the air (and probably the whole block). He was figuring out what my Mema had long ago decided was too much trouble, and he has been doing the same thing every Hanukkah for 22 years. To this day, he makes the best latkes I've ever tasted.