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The Trouble With Latkes

Growing up in Australia, I loved almost all traditional Ashkenazi dishes. But Hanukkah’s greasy potato pancakes have always left me cold.

Elissa Goldstein
December 03, 2015
Illustration: Tablet Magazine (with apologies to Ken Done)
Illustration: Tablet Magazine (with apologies to Ken Done)
Illustration: Tablet Magazine (with apologies to Ken Done)
Illustration: Tablet Magazine (with apologies to Ken Done)

I don’t like latkes.

I don’t hate them (rein in your outrage, Facebook), but I find them to be profoundly boring and overrated. They’re the Two and a Half Men of Jewish fare: wildly popular, yet middling and repetitive. Every Hanukkah, there’s that moment when a friend approaches me with a plate or steers me toward a stove-top and makes the offer. “Have a latke!” they say joyfully, as though they’re offering me $100, as though only a delusional fool would refuse such a plainly appealing morsel. I look at the host’s shining face, then the latkes, then the host, then the latkes, the Larry David-esque moment of indecision building: Am I going to take the potato puck and eat it, or am I going to be That Person Who Doesn’t Like Latkes?

But here’s the flip-side of my confession: I feel kind of sad about it, like I’m at this much-hyped party looking at my watch, wondering if it’s too early to leave. It’s reverse FOMO—instead of Fear of Missing Out, I experience Confusion About Not Wanting In.

The older I get, the more this aversion confuses me, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s inconsistent with my ethno-religious identity. One of my earliest memories is singing the bulbes song at Yiddish Sunday school when I was a little kid. (You know the one, “Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday potatoes,” and so on, until Shabbos, when we lucky, lucky Jews treat ourselves to a potato kugel.) I come from a family of kartoffel devotees. I remember watching my late Aunt Pearl at a Seder, many years ago, as she dipped a perfectly boiled quarter of potato into her salt-water bowl (she always removed them from the heat at exactly the right moment) and popped it into her mouth, reverently. Pearl was an exceptional cook with a diverse palate, but potatoes, she told me, she could eat at every meal. This moment set off a Rube Goldberg series of connections in my mind—shtetl! grandparents! war! scarcity! bulbes! hot chips! (that’s what Aussies call french fries) Shabbos potatoes in chicken schmaltz!—culminating in the realization that I, too, was a Jew who loved potatoes. Loved them. Ergo, I should love latkes.

Second, my latke aversion makes no sense: Potatoes, oil, flour (or matzo meal), and eggs are universally beloved ingredients. Mush them together and you’re breaking every dumb diet known to woman (get it, girl!). And yet, I remain unmoved. Something about the grating process denudes the potato of its soothing consistency. The frying knocks the subtlety out of the flavor. And there’s either too much salt, or not enough. Fresh from the pan they are tolerable, I suppose, but not delicious enough to tempt me.

A lot of this has to do with growing up Jewish in Australia, I think. Americans love to take digs at the way we do things back-to-front “Down Under,” like driving on the left side of the road and enforcing compulsory voting. (For the record, I’m in favor of both, and no Australian uses the phrase “Down Under” non-ironically.) But truthfully, there is one thing that’s pretty weird: Australian Jews (and people of other faiths) celebrate their holidays in the wrong seasons. Pesach is an autumn holiday. And Hanukkah is a summer holiday—it usually coincides with the end of the school year and occasionally falls in the middle of Jewish summer camp. (Two friends recall a particularly epic rendition of “Maoz Tzur” at Bnei Akiva one year in the 1990s.) It’s got a Labor Day vibe, with Fourth of July temperatures. And it is definitely too hot to cook latkes, unless you like standing over a hot stove in 90-100 degree temperatures, in which case, es gezinterheyt. (My mother, who grew up in the tiny Jewish community of Perth, Western Australia, tells me her mother made latkes in July, in the middle of winter.)

As a kid, I found Hanukkah pleasant but quick: We’d light the candles, sing a few songs, eat some Hanukkah gelt, then drift off to read or watch TV or enjoy the warm weather. (And we are not laissez-faire about other Jewish holidays; in my family, yontef is a big deal.) I’m not nostalgic about cozy parties and family traditions and gifts, the way many of my American friends are. It was always a golden, slow-moving time of year—the air heady with the last of spring’s wattle blooms; exams over (or almost over); beach weather officially on. Other families got more into Hanukkah, for sure—I can’t speak for every Australian Jew because they would totally take me to task in the Facebook group if I did that. But we never ate latkes. Sometimes we went to Chanukah in the Park, Melbourne’s big communal party, which has a fairground vibe and takes place on the drought-parched grounds of Caulfield Park every year. If I ate anything there, it was an ice cream or maybe a jam-filled pontchke. Perhaps that’s why, for the longest time, I operated under the misapprehension that latkes were in fact something that I loved (at least in theory), just as I love pretty much every other traditional Ashkenazi dish.

In my early 20s I made latkes for the first time for my then-boyfriend, a Shabbat-observant vegetarian (and a gifted cook). Here was my chance to prove my Jewish girlfriend bona fides, I thought, as I hauled Mum’s frypan and food processor onto the kitchen counter. A traditional Jewish dish that is laborious and doesn’t need to be modified to exclude meat! What a gesture of love! I set about prepping the potatoes, combining the ingredients, warming the oil. Honestly, I was fed up before the frying began (finicky, repetitive food prep is not my jam), but when I actually started to cook the damn things, I realized that it was one big con. The oil went everywhere, the frying took for-ev-er and the smell permeated the house and my hair and my clothes like a dybbuk. You know that smell. It is cloying and heavy and in its final stages kind of rank, like body odor mixed with guilt, and it sticks around for days. Add the intensifier of summer, and you get why Nana Miriam wisely made her latkes in July.

Look, I don’t complain. I’m not a martyr. I served those babies up with love and homemade apple compote and kosher Australian sour cream, which I had to drive to three supermarkets to find (make sure the jar has a processing date of February 29 on a leap year and a barcode ending with E9KZ, and you’re sorted!). My ex-boyfriend and family were appreciative, even impressed. But as I sat at the table and bit into a latke, I thought, Is that all there is? A bit of shredded, graying warm potato slick with oil? It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t good. The flavor was unremarkable, and it didn’t evoke an emotional response. It was—literally and metaphorically—pareve.

The incongruity of Hanukkah in summer didn’t really occur to me until I moved to New York five years ago, when I experienced a full Jewish holiday cycle in the northern hemisphere for the first time. Harvest-related holidays finally made sense. I started to find the vaguely pagan undertones of Hanukkah candle-lighting vaguely pleasant, what with the freezing temperatures and the sun setting at the ungodly hour of 4 p.m. I still observe many American Jewish rituals at a distance, anthropologist-style—I’ll always feel a bit stiff and British swaying to havdalah around a campfire—but in recent years I’ve started to really warm to the American Hanukkah Experience. I love ugly sweaters, tiny New York apartments crammed with partygoers, hot alcoholic beverages, and the many, many ridiculous spellings of Channukkah. (I’m partial to the YIVO “khanike,” myself.) I can’t believe I’m admitting this on the internet, but I love yeshiva students singing a cappella Hanukkah covers, and the slightly inane-sounding greeting of “Happy Hanukkah!”—which is everywhere in New York in December. I even love the fact that the advertising industry has managed to convince manufacturers, department stores, and consumers that Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday of major emotional and spiritual import, as opposed to a celebration of religious zealotry. It’s a real triumph of religious freedom and capitalism. In another word: America!

I hoped the North American winters and festive atmosphere would arouse an atavistic appreciation for latkes. And I’ve tried! Believe me, I’ve tried. Since 2010. With applesauce and sour cream, with sweet potato and zucchini, with various ratios of potato to egg to matzo meal. Store-bought, homemade, made with friends, consumed at shul parties, served a la carte at New York City’s finest neo-Catskillian, hipster Jewy eateries. And I’ve finished my plate every single time, because I was not raised to waste good food. But still—I don’t like latkes. I think I’ve finally made my peace with that. It keeps me on the outside looking in, just a step away from the campfire havdalah, wondering if I’m weird or normal, an insider or an outsider, or a little bit of both. It feels like a fitting place for a Jew to be, so I’ll just hang out here for the rest of my life.

Elissa Goldstein is Tablet’s director of audience development. She also produces Unorthodox. Follow her on Twitter here.