This is the time of year when I get that special feeling. It’s hard to describe. It’s not exactly joy–I’m not a joyful person, by nature. Merry? Nah, not me. I think the word I’m looking for is…oily. The oil is not just on my skin, but I’m breathing it in, bathing in it, and the smell will linger for weeks after the last Hanukkah candle is lit on the menorah. I’ve made latkes for the family twice so far, went to a latke party Saturday, and last night our closest friends had us over for latkes. And if that wasn’t enough, last Friday morning I stood in my daughter’s 4th grade classroom and made latkes for 50 kids.
And the funny thing is, thinking about dinner tonight, latkes sound pretty good. There are two more nights of Hanukkah: I’m sure there will be at least one more night of latkes. It’s hard to get enough of them. I’ve found the trick is to squeeze the potatoes and onions in a dishtowel to get the liquid out. Do it over a bowl, and then when you pour the liquid out, the potato starch remains at the bottom, which you can put back into the latke batter. (Note, I did not do that for the latkes above–when making them for the elementary school, it’s pretty much catch-as-catch-can.)
I talk about food a lot, don’t I? I like to eat–who doesn’t besides my food-phobic son, although in even his incredibly limited repertoire, he does eat latkes–but it’s more than that. Food is such an integral part of my writing, whether I’m nibbling on it while working out a difficult scene (gummy bears are a weakness) or writing about it to determine mood, time, and place. Food is a handy shortcut and the right food can speak for characters, whether it’s the chicken soup with kneidlach on a Friday night or the sumptuous Feast of Seven Fishes a family serves on Christmas Eve. The former, you can infer a Jewish family, and the latter, probably an American-Italian family. Of course, in the melding of cultures, it’s not always the case, but you can be fairly certain that a boiled potato represents something different from Pommes de Terres Soufflees.
Researching food is something I do often and as a result, I’m usually hungry, but that’s beside the point. Food represents tradition, history, culture, and so much more, and I’ve been studying it for my characters, which might seem odd to anyone who’s read the book, because there’s not a ton of food in there. But in my mind, I need to see what they eat and how they eat it. My father recently sent me one of those ubiquitous e-mail forwards entitled “Brisket Is Not the Same as Corned Beef” that went on to list all sorts of Jewish culinary delights: There was “chicken fricassee (stew) using the heart, gorgle (neck), pipick (gizzard-–a great delicacy, given to the favorite child), a fleegle (wing) or two, some ayelech (little premature eggs) and other various chicken innards, in a broth of schmaltz, water, paprika, etc. We also have knishes (filled dough) and the eternal question, ‘Will that be liver, beef or potatoes, or all three?'” Some of these foods seem to be gone for the time being, although everything returns in a hipster version at some point in Brooklyn, and right now schmaltz is having its turn back in the spotlight according to the New York Times.
My family was not a “foodie” family–to this day my parents don’t really get my husband and my love of going out for ridiculous meals–so a lot of food references go past me. But then someone will exclaim over a Boston bagel (as if! I refuse to touch any bagel made in this area) or claim that they’ve had the best kugel, and my Jewish food past comes rushing back. I remember my father going most weekends to the Bagel Emporium to pick up nova (never lox), bagels, and occasionally chub. The chub sat in the display as a full fish, and my sister took one look at it with its head on, and swore she wouldn’t eat it. My parents told her she was being silly and that the tuna fish she loved also started out that way. Needless to say, it was many years till my sister ate tuna fish again. My all-time favorite dessert when I was a kid, was Pumperniks’ rainbow cookies, which my grandfather would buy by the pound for me. In high school, hanging out at Wolfie’s was the thing to do, because you didn’t have to order much to sit at a table and eat the free pickles all night.
Food gives you insight into a time like nothing else. I’ve begged family members to describe the foods they remember from their childhood. I am extremely lucky that a cousin let me take a few letters that were written between my maternal great-grandparents at the beginning of the 20th century.
In one set, my great-grandfather–a Latvian in the Russian army–describes the food he was given while in the hospital recovering from a minor injury:
Here at the quarantine station they … they wrote me down for two days abed [a midday meal, like lunch, but often more substantial, usually hot], that means that every sick person they give different foods. They give me, that is, a second portion, one and a half pounds white bread and a pound of black bread. Beginning in the early morning they give 4 kroskis [little pieces] sugar, and while one is still sleeping they put down tea and the sugar on a small table near the berth. And the portion at 12 o’clock is also abed; they give cooked food, that is, a soup of noodles, and the portion [bread], and a hamburger. And towards evening, around 5 o’clock, is tea, and 8 is uzin [supper]. For supper they give 2 glasses of scalding milk. So you can sleep the whole day, with no one pointing at you, and if you want you can walk around. It is warm everywhere!
When writing, I struggle to get the food right, because it’s so easy to foist modern sensibilities on the past. Folks didn’t eat steak like we do, so having a slab of it on Shabbat in my novel would be jarring to anyone in the times, though many might serve it today. My father recalls that his grandmother frequently made goose, a food he detested because it was so fatty. The sheer fact that many of my ancestors kept kosher made their food choices very different from those around them. For fun, I often flip through old Jewish cookbooks, marveling at what was served. The Jewish International Cookbook has been a constant companion and some day, when I have more free time (ha!), I’d love to try to cook some of these recipes (maybe I can interest my dad in a stuffed goose neck!).
In the meantime, I hope to create food memories for my kids. Hamentaschen at Purim. The enough-cholesterol-to-kill-you kugel at Rosh Hashanah. Home-baked hallah every Friday. And, of course, latkes at Hanukkah.
Which reminds me: I’ve got some potatoes to go shred. Happy eating, whatever holiday you celebrate!