I grew up in a kosher home in Southern California. My grandmother was an immigrant from Odessa who had come to New York in 1914 to what Jews of her generation called the Goldeneh Medineh, “The Golden Land.” She lived almost the entirety of her American life in an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, except for the winters she would spend with us. She would arrive a few days before Thanksgiving and return to Manhattan at the end of March when the spring thaw began in New York.
She was an extraordinary cook, and we lived for her annual sojourn with us as a temporary salvation from my mother’s cooking. My mother didn’t know what “spices” were. She believed in simple, wholesome foods. Nothing adulterating the pure flavors of the food, she said. Salt was bad, pepper even worse. A meatloaf consisted of ground beef placed directly from its paper wrapping into a glass casserole-dish. She would bake it until it was an unappetizing gray color, and before she would serve it to us, she would pour some ketchup over it. At least once a week, we would have spaghetti and meatball. Please note the singular. That is not a mistake. She would follow the same pattern. Once again take the ground beef out its butcher paper and then shape the meat into something which looked like a small cantaloupe. She would bake that until she believed it was done. She served us spaghetti and meatball by placing the meatball on top of the pasta and covering it with tomato sauce which had been brought to a boil in a sauce pan.
Thank God for my Russian grandmother. Without her I might have passed much of my early years without knowing that food had taste. As soon as she would arrive, she took control of the kitchen and our meals. She would tell me, “Your mother’s food, feh!” “Feh” is one of those wonderful Yiddish expletives which defies translation. It has so many rich meanings. It is something that is worthless, not good, strange or crazy. My mother’s cooking was feh! Practice it yourself when your own mother calls to ask about your final exams. The proper answer might be “Feh!” How was that film? “Feh!” Try it. How was the party? “Feh!” How was your date? He or she was “a big feh!” There is also a gesture which must go with the use of “feh.” Hold your hand to the right or left side of your chest, and as you pronounce the word with some degree of indignation or disgust, move your hand outward, away from you, as if you were brushing something like a fly or bee away from you.
I learned to make apple pie from my Russian grandmother. The secret there is the crust, of course. “Touch it as little as possible!” she told me. Let it sit in your refrigerator overnight. Pour it from the bowl directly onto a well-floured breadboard. Use a wooden rolling pin to roll it out. With your fingertips lift the crust into a baking dish and shape it into the sides with something other than your hands.
But my favorite was my Russian grandmother’s latkes which became the staple of every dinner with the beginning of Hanukkah well into January. Some pronounce it as “lat-keh” and others attempt to make it plural “lat-keys.” It is often translated as potato pancake. There is about as much relationship between a latke and a pancake as between Hanukkah and Christmas. I realize that you can go into many delis in Los Angeles and you will find on the menu “latkes, pancake-style.” What is that? It’s impossible. Latkes are not pancakes and Judah Maccabee and his brothers didn’t eat pancakes. The Maccabees were heimisch cats and heimisch cats eat latkes, not pancakes!
So let my contribution be to this holiday issue of the Nexus the recipe for my Russian grandmother’s latkes. Begin with three large potatoes. You can leave the skin on the potatoes after you have scrubbed them very well. If the skins are thick or blemished, peel them. Grate the potatoes using the medium holes of a hand-held grater. Whatever you do, don’t use a food processor. With a food processor you are moving toward those pancakes. Beat two eggs and pour them over the grated potatoes; add three tablespoons of milk, two tablespoons of white flour, salt and pepper to taste. Then blend the mixture with your hands. It’s OK to use your hands here. Drain off as much of the liquid in the mixture as you can. Using a large skillet, heat no more than a half-inch of cooking oil until it is very hot. Drop the batter using a large spoon into heated oil, about the size of a small pancake (Oy! Those pancakes again), flatten them slightly and turn them once when they are golden brown. They should be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. When they are fully cooked, take them out and drain them on paper towels. They should be served hot with sour cream to dip, and if you have a sweet tooth like me, slather them with applesauce or jam.
Hanukkah sameach! Happy Hanukkah!
Richard D. Hecht is a professor of religious studies and from time to time shares his grandmother’s recipes as part of his lectures. Religion and food belong together.