by Nadine Epstein
Hanukkah was really only about one thing when I was growing up. It wasn’t the presents—they were generally small and unexciting, as there were four children and my father’s frugality prevented my mother from going as all out as she would have liked. Yes, there was Hanukkah gelt, chocolate coins wrapped snugly in shiny gold foil that we peeled off and gobbled up without ceremony; and then there was the menorah, which was also a music box that we never grew tired of winding up in order to hear it crank out Hatikva—Israel’s national anthem. But that tinkling melody wasn’t nearly as inspiring to us as the sounds coming out of the kitchen that signaled the most joyous moments of our family Hanukkah celebration.
My father took little interest in Hanukkah festivities—except when it came to the latkes. Latkes were his department. And so on a Hanukkah morning that fell on a weekend, our usual seemingly endless list of household chores was postponed. Clad in paint-splattered work clothes, he pulled out a cheap pan from the cupboard and plunked it on the stovetop, then located the hand grater from amid the tangle of utensils in the kitchen drawer. Potatoes appeared on the swirly-patterned Formica counter, many sprouting eyes like antlers. He proceeded to pick off the eyes and shred the potatoes, skins still on, into a mound of slimy, white-gray slivers, while telling us repeatedly: The secret is corn oil—just in case we had forgotten since last year. We knew by heart that it didn’t matter which brand of corn oil: Mazola, or maybe Shop Rite brand. The determining factor was that the oil had to be on sale.
My dad was a child of the Depression, raised in rooms behind a grocery store in Brooklyn. Although he had long ago set aside his accent, there was still an indeterminable something left in his inflection from his first five years, when he spoke only Yiddish. Onions, he would opine, were a critical ingredient. And the egg. Of course, the egg. “Use just enough to hold the potato mixture together, but not enough to turn it yellow, or your latke will taste like a fried egg.”
On an average day, to my child’s eyes, my father was a one-dimensional, tight-lipped disciplinarian, prematurely gray, and never fun. I always loved how, for a few hours on latke days, that sternness fell away and I could see more of him, like rays of refracted light around a corner. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and he’d croon “Die grüne kuzine” or “Bei mir bist du schön” or some other Yiddish song, as he plopped, and I mean literally plopped, globs of potato batter into the grease. My dad was no gourmet chef or foodie; he was content to subsist on bland turbot and oatmeal. He only truly found food interesting when he recreated the dishes his mother had once prepared for his picky young self. These dishes were imprinted in his chromosomes, inherited, perhaps, from centuries of persecution, including the Russian pogrom in which his mother’s parents burned to death in their home. In any case, he fixed his childhood favorites expertly. His brisket was so soft your teeth sank upon touching it, and his redolent chickpeas were prepared pitch- perfect in a pressure cooker.
He had missed, however, any lessons that might have been taught about presentation—or he simply lacked the genetic material. Once he deemed a potato pancake the proper balance of crisp and juicy, he’d pluck it out of the pan with a spatula—or his fingers—walk it across the room to the dinette table and drop it onto a plate. As I remember, we were like baby birds in a nest competing for worms as we held up our plates and jostled for the next latke. We had voracious appetites: All latkes, even those so crisp as to be burned, were loaded with applesauce or sour cream and quickly consumed. And we were happy, and it wasn’t just because the latkes were delicious. When my father was happy, and that was rare, we were happy, too.
Even as children, we knew that our father’s latke ritual was not trivial. It was not just a way to entertain the children while his hardworking wife slept in or got her hair done. He was not a religious man, and he did not keep kosher—despite his idiosyncratic insistence upon our not mixing milk and meat at his beloved McDonald’s. My father was a scientist who worshipped math, not God. The act of making latkes was the embodiment of his stand as a Jew.
We knew this not because he said it, but because we weren’t the only beneficiaries of his super latke powers. Every year, on a designated day, would come “The Great Clanging” as my dad excavated his collection of rusted, cruddy frying pans and metal platters from hiding places on shelves high and low in the garage, pantry and kitchen. Like some Jewish Santa Claus, he lugged in sacks of potatoes and onions and julienned massive amounts of them, broke dozens of eggs and made gallons of his signature batter. He piled the mixture into aluminum pie plates he collected all year and covered them with plastic wrap. Then, he swaddled his corn oil bottles with bags so they wouldn’t leak, carefully packed everything into cardboard boxes, and carried it all to his AMC Red Rambler. His preparations complete, he sped off to the Hexagon, the top-secret laboratory where he worked as a theoretical physicist.
Like some Jewish Santa Claus, he lugged in sacks of potatoes and onions and julienned massive amounts of them, broke dozens of eggs and made gallons of his signature batter.
What happened next was invisible to us, and I didn’t really understand it at the time. I picked up snippets from conversation between my parents. Jews, including my father, weren’t popular at the laboratory, and his coworkers included anti-Semitic German scientists and an assortment of other difficult people. But I knew that when he got to the laboratory that day, he would post signs that he wrote in his pigeon-like left-handed scrawl: Latkes for All—and that he would turn his office lab into a latke lab. Lacking a stove, he arrayed his pans over Bunsen burners. As the first blobs of batter took shape, the smell of frying latkes wafted through the Hexagon, distracting busy men and women from their work.
And they came: a few Jews, but mostly Christians, among them mathematicians, chemists, technicians, secretaries and janitors. Soon long lines snaked through dim corridors. For hours my dad patiently fried hundreds of latkes, supplying applesauce, sour cream, plates, utensils and even beverages. As he plied his colleagues with pancakes, he entertained them with puns. They weren’t necessarily funny, but they were sharp and unique to his brain, which was wired like no one else’s. I am sure they were off-putting to some—I certainly found his puns cringeworthy for many decades—but I can’t help but think that something of his generosity of soul came out in this self-funded activity, which, by the way, wasn’t sanctioned or particularly liked by his bosses.
I was always a little proud of his latke operation, but I didn’t know why. Now I do. My father never exactly told me, but I filled in the blanks. He was making a statement. His laboratory was part of the United States Army Signal Corps. Julius Rosenberg had worked at the Signal Corps, and in the years following his arrest and execution, innocent Jewish scientists had been unfairly singled out by investigators, including those from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some had lost their security clearances, making it impossible for them to work, and many were harassed. My father himself had been interviewed by McCarthy’s henchmen. And those German scientists I had heard him talking about with my mother? They had worked for the Nazi regime but had been convinced to bring their know-how to the United States instead of sharing it with the Soviet Union. The boy from Brooklyn had felt threatened, and had come up with the only safe way he could think of to speak back to power—latkes.
Now my father is nearly 96. He lives in the same house we grew up in, although our mom is gone and he is mostly confined to a wheelchair. He doesn’t make latkes anymore; at Hanukkah, we make them for him, because they have been seared in our DNA. Years ago, I interviewed him about his recipe, just to be sure I could continue the precise tradition, with all its blobs and plops. That he was a scientist who had never read a cookbook in his life was evident in the language that he used. “Experiment with the temperature,” he advised. “Try medium and to put your blob of stuff in, take a pinchful with your thumb and the next three fingers and plop it into the pan. Start in the middle and then repeat plop around the perimeter. Remember,” he said, as if I might not recall, “the perimeter burns first because it has less mass.”
Illustration by Noah Phillips