Updated: Mar 1, 2020
(by Barbara Ballinger)
From as far back as I can remember, my mother, known as “Gammy” in our family, made potato latkes for our Hanukkah celebrations. Not the thick Frisbees in deli cases. Hers were hand-grated using unblemished Idaho baking potatoes, dropped by teaspoonfuls into sizzling hot oil, celebrating the legend of the Hanukkah miracle, when a small amount of oil to light the candles of the menorah lasted eight days.
Before she started, she would ask whether two, three, or four potatoes would suffice, always seeming surprised that our craving for them was insatiable. (“You ate all of them?”) She always asked my dad to sample one before they were served, golden brown and crispy around the edges, along with a dish of applesauce. “Joe, how are they? Is there enough salt?” she said, as if reading from a script. And he always gave his approval, proclaiming them “perfect.” He knew his lines well.
One big bite, and the pancake was gone. Each of us wanted another, and then another. My mother never seemed to fry enough to satisfy the family and friends who gathered in the kitchen after lighting the menorah. I don’t recall her ever eating any herself, but urging us to “have another” or “just one more.” It was the classic maternal selflessness of pancake preparation: Mom standing at the stove until everyone is served. I imagine it’s similar with the pancakes of every culture, whether Russian olady, Swedish raggmunk, or American buttermilk. Mom was always the last to eat, or took the smallest portion.
(clockwise from bottom right: Mom Estelle, daughter Lucy, me, and daughter Joanna)
The pancakes were so delicious that my mother began to make them for all family gatherings, like birthdays and school graduations. For my two daughters, the pancakes were so associated with important occasions that they were requested for their Bat Mitzvahs, their coming-of-age celebrations. The catering company was directed to prepare them as Gammy did—small, crisp, and devoured in one bite.
As my mother aged, her fingers were less nimble, but she didn’t want to give up hand-grating for a food processor. It wasn’t that she was against new appliances. She was very proud of her white KitchenAid standing mixer, which still has a place of prominence in her New York City apartment. But because she was a child of the Depression, as she still periodically reminds us, she felt money was to be spent on essentials; a food processor was a bit frivolous when her metal grater worked perfectly well.
When my younger daughter married, her husband decided to try and duplicate Gammy’s efforts. While his pancakes are very good, we all agree they aren’t as good as Gammy’s. Perhaps it’s because he sometimes uses a food processor. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t have my dad to be the salt tester.
I believe that this is probably how the story of our family's potato pancakes is supposed to remain: our own little Hanukkah miracle that nobody's can compare to my mom's. It will always be part of her legacy, as we tell her each year when the holiday approaches: "Yours are the best. And you never made enough." She still seems surprised at age 98, but her face lights up—brighter than all of the Hanukkah candles.
Barbara Ballinger is a writer in the Hudson River Valley of New York and co-author of Suddenly Single After 50.
4 large Idaho baking potatoes
1/4 - 1/3 onion, grated finely
salt and pepper to taste
4 t. vegetable oil, plus additional for frying
Grate potatoes into a strainer.
Grate onion into a separate bowl while letting potatoes drain.
Combine potatoes and onion, and mix in with eggs.
Add oil, salt and pepper. Coat a large frying pan with oil and place over medium-to-high heat.
Use a tablespoon to portion out each latke into the pan.
Watch carefully and flip when nicely browned and crisp.
Cook on the other side to crispness, too; don’t overcook.
Drain on paper towel. Serve while warm with applesauce.