the little secret in the latke dept.

by bam

in the beginning, i shed blood.
i was a young bride, then.
okay, so i was a bride. let’s leave it at that. we’ll just hop right over that modifier there. let’s say, simply, arithmetically, i was younger than i am now, ‘kay?
’kay.
so then, starting again: i was a younger bride then.
and, like many a babe at the pool, i dove into the deep end. yes, yes, i did. i admit to being a little starry-eyed about all my new jewish threads. from the 3,000 blessings a day, to the pure poetry of the prayer, to the roll-up-your-shirtsleeves-and-tell-God-in-plain-talk-just-what-you’re-thinkin’, i found it all, well, truly delicious.
to say nothing of all the novelty that hung from the end of my fork: the brisket, for starters, which to this day i see being lifted from a soft-sided suitcase that made the trip up from florida. boarded the plane in west palm beach, yes it did. got off at o’hare, still moist from the butcher. back in the day, obviously, before 3.5 ounces of mouthwash was the security limit. God only knows what sweet Grandma Syl coulda done to the pilots with six pounds of raw brisket there in her fists.
but that there is decidedly off-topic today, so i’ll just veer right back to where i was headed, which, ta-da, is the fact that today is the start of the eight-day veneration, holy adoration, and just plain lickin’ your lips of the sidekick to that ol’ plane-hoppin’ brisket.
it’s latke day, people. get up and get to your griddles.
but first, back to the story.
so, yes, i was taken in by my first bite of brisket. although really i think i was taken in by the 4-foot-something instructor who stood at the stove, cajoling that meat to do what she ordered, telling me stories as she stirred and she rubbed and she did it her way. whispering over her shoulder, every few minutes, she didn’t care what the other cooks did, she liked it best the opposite way.
i can’t say the same, can’t say i swooned, for the threesome that nearly pulls little Syl’s 6-foot-3 grandson to his knees, every time.
can’t say i was taken at all for the hebrew take on the trinity: the fishballs that swim in a jelly-filled jar that makes a rude noise if you try to extrude them; the herring that slithers in cream sauce; or, worst by a long-shot, the chopped livers of chicken that come in a lump the color of, hmmm, how to put it politely? oh, never mind.
ah, but the little cake of shredded potato, the one set to sizzle in gallons of oil, i saw an inroad there in the latke department for ol’ irish me.
potatoes, i know from.
apparently, graters i don’t. for that’s where the blood in the story comes in. but of course.
and if you are jewish you’re already laughing, aren’t you? you know already that no fool in his or her right-thinking mind would attempt to grate the stubborn potato, the potato whose skin will go up against yours, and, every time, dang it, the underground spud’ll come out the winner.
you, fool, will be yelping toward the bathroom, desperately searching for band-aids, with knuckles dripping in sacrifice to the almighty cake of shredded potato-and-skin. (oh, woops, that little secret i didn’t intend to spill. but now you know, so watch out for anyone trying to ply you with so-called scratch latkes. there might be some meat with that dairy.)
and that’s how it was back in the day, back as i stood at the counter, the bridal pink blush in my cheeks turning to red before draining to white, as i grated and grated, spilled blood, sprinkled flour, tried and i tried to make a hanukkah cake any bride from the shtetl would be proud of.
i even tried whispering hail marys, i tell you. any trick in my play book that might maybe lead me to the fine little cake of my interfaith dreams.
in the end, well, they were made of potatoes, and they did sizzle in oil. but other than that, you might not want to ask. i seem to remember a crunch on the edges, a crunch that might have been blackened–a nod to the cajun, or maybe just sorrow–and a middle of mostly uncooked potato.
only then, only after i’d endured the stinging rite of initiation, only after my O-positive had spiced up the batter, did someone pull me aside and tell me the one word i needed to know: manischewitz, sweetheart, manischewitz.
don’t say i never spared you a drop of the red stuff.
and now, as i glance at the box that, yup, i’ll pull out tonight, i notice this other little secret, as well: “quality since 1888,” it says right there in fine letters. hmmm. wonder why no one told me till, hmm, maybe the winter of at least ’92? and that would be 19-92, a whole 104 years after the box came to being.
ah well, that doesn’t matter now, does it?
what matters is this: come twilight, when the sky goes to murky and sun wraps up its rapid descent, i’ll spread out the newspapers all over the floor near the cookstove (a little trick i’m certain they used back in the old country), i’ll look over my shoulder to make certain no one is watching, then i’ll tiptoe into the pantry, haul down the little white boxes, and make like the bubbe i’m not.
there in the fry pan, my puddles of latke will sing, the song of the wesson a-sizzlin’. they’ll turn golden brown, maybe chestnut, the ones that i sizzle too long. we will douse them in sauce from a jar, and cream that’s gone sour on purpose.
i will offer them up with a nod to dear syl, who now sizzles on high, i am certain.
and i will know, yes i will, that an honorable deed i have done: i have now spread the truth for us goyim.
spare the knuckles, people. reach instead for ol’ manny schewitz.
here, then, the real bubbe’s guide to the latke:
1 box manischewitz potato pancake mix
2 large eggs
2-1/4 cups cold water
vegetable oil
large skillet
3 or 4 old newspaper sections
2 large band-aids, for effect (remember, i am the queen of the sugar-doused freezer-case pie)

spread papers all over unsplattered floor. beat eggs with fork. add water. open and dump ol’ manny’s mix. whisper words of thanksgiving for the blood you’ll not shed. carry on. batter will thicken while you dash off your prayer. in 3 to 4 minutes, stir.
drop tablespoons of batter into 1/8th inch hot oil. brown on both sides.
while waiting for cakes to turn golden, apply band-aids to ring finger and pointer. either hand will do. look ashen as you carry the platter off to the table, where jarred apple sauce (again, i found out the hard way, no one authentic goes for the real stuff, apples cored, chopped and stewed) and sour cream, sprinkled with paprika–don’t ask me why, i just like how it looks–awaits your slaved-over, bled-for hanukkah cakes.
here’s to the festival of lights, and latkes cooked up with no sacrifice. at least not in the blood-letting department.

people, tell me your hanukkah truths. are you manny’s disciple? do your latkes come from a box? or maybe the freezer? or, old-fashioned soul, do you spill blood for the sake of the sizzling spud? any other secrets i oughta know. just spill ‘em. we’ve got eight days of latkes just up ahead…

oh, and by the way, today really is the feast day of st. babs (there was some confusion a couple months back, and i jumped the gun by two months). well it was her feast day, you see. poor thing was de-frocked, as it were. she’s no longer a saint, but she’s ours and we’ll sizzle a latky just for the joy of it all. if the catholics won’t have her, the jews just might adopt her. like at least a few did to me.