Posted by Rob Eshman
What am I?
Isn’t that the question any religion worth its holy water forces its believers to confront.
Food begs the question too. As Michael Pollan pointed out, we can eat anything, so we must decide what to eat. In that decision we are deciding not just what our relationship is to the planet, to animals, to our fellow humans.
But I would go farther, deciding what we eat is deciding in a deep way who we are. What do I believe, and how willing am I to act on those beliefs? Who else am I like? What kind of life do I want to lead?
These are the questions wrapped up in the religious search, but you can skip the prayer and rabbis and priests and gurus and just confront them on your plate. We don’t ask other, “What do you eat?” We ask, “What are you? Are you a vegetarian? Are you a pescatarian?” It’s not enough to describe what foods we will and will not eat, we strive to find a word for it. Locavore. Carnivore. Gastrosexual. Our desire to give our bundle of food preferences a single name reveals our inate sense that we are what we eat, and we are what we don’t eat.
So who am I?
Today I had lunch with Tori Avey, the insightful woman behind a new blog called Shiksa Goddess. We ate at Afshan, a kosher Persian restaurant in the fashion district. Afshan’s traditional menu is all Persian (except for an inexplicable listing for “Buffalo Wings.” Do they even have buffalo in Iran?) It’s a hole in the wall, low on decoration yet oddly high on charm, the kind of place that’s chock a block in New York’s garment district, where each enthic denizen has its own commissary. For nine bucks I got chicken koubideh (ground spiced grilled chicken), rice with sour cherries, grilled tomato, two kinds of salad.
Tori and I fell into talking about what we are… vegetarian, etc. In the end I came up with a word to descrivbe someone who won’t say no to tasting anything, our of a love for good food and adesire to connect with the people who eat it—but who doesn’t make a habit of eating things he finds morally or religiously objectionable.
“What would I call myself?” I asked. “I guess I’m a tryatarian. I’ll try anything once.”
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January 27, 2010 | 8:32 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Here’s an event worth attending—hopefully we’ll be able to get a reporter to cover it.
On Feb. 9, a group of leading food writers and activists will convene at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, CA to discuss the future of the Jewish deli in light of growing consciousness about the sources of our food.
The questions before them, according to a press release, are:
What does sustainability mean for the future of Deli cuisine and culture?
Local, organic VS. industrial systems, externalized costs of cheap food and . . . collective memory and food traditions?
Even “authentic” cuisine can obstruct progress towards more just, sustainable food. How does a business committed to being part of the solution persuade traditionalist customers of the importance of change?
For example, towering pastrami sandwiches once signified success, security and abundance, an immigrant’s celebration of the American Dream. But given the realities of meat production in America today – 99% is factory farmed – how can we continue to stand by this as an icon? What taste memories and flavors of The Deli have been provided by an industrial food system?
How can we look at our nostalgia critically? How might we evolve a shared cuisine together and how can we bring our people along with us - away from grieving the disappearing deli, into the conversation and into the future?
The panelists are Michael Pollan, Journalist, Author, modern day foodie Moses (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food), Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, Author: The Truth About Green Business, Willow Rosenthal, Founder, City Slicker Farms, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, Co-Owners, Saul’s Restaurant and Deli.
It will be moderated by LA’s own Evan Kleiman, Host of KCRW’s Good Food, whose restaurant Angeli Caffe used to make the best carciofi alla giudia in town (Attention Mark Peel: the ones you make at your new The Tar Pit don’t cut it… heavy and greasy, an Iowa state fair version of a Jewish Italian classic. You’re supposed to separate the leaves. Call Evan. Call Joan Nathan. Go back to La Taverna del Ghetto and learn at the feet of the masters).
If any readers plan on being there, please let me know.
Here’s the particulars:
Feb 9, 6:00 PM
Tickets $10 in advance, $15 at the door
Proceeds benefit The Center for Ecoliteracy
**Kitchen will be closed, regular menu not available from 4 pm on**
At Saul’s Restaurant and Deli
1475 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709
January 26, 2010 | 6:14 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Barbara Kingsolver thinks Jonathan Safan Foer is an idiot.
She doesn’t say it, at least not directly, but that’s the inevitable takeaway from first reading her bestseller, “Animal Vegetable Miracle,” then reading his, “Eating Animals.”
Read them back to back and you’ll be ping-ponged between two strong moral voices who come to very different conclusions about one of the biggest dilemmas we omnivores face: should we eat meat?
They both have a wide and substantial area of agreement. Both lay out the case against the modern factory farm. In this they repeat or reiterate a lot of the facts marshaled by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, but, hey, keep screaming until people listen, I suppose.
But Safran Foer (or is it just Foer?—I’ll call him JSF) goes further than Kingsolver in exploring the basic question of not what kind of meat we should eat, but whether we should eat it at all. He thinks not. He drives home the point that eating any animal is no different than eating any other animal. Eating a chicken is like eating your family dog.
“What justification might I have for sparing dogs but eating other animals?” he asks—rhetorically. JSF lays out the case that any distinction is immoral. That cow pain is dog pain is salmon pain is human pain.
Kingsolver’s book revolves around the first year she and her family moved to Virginia and became devout locavores, eating only what they grew and raised and other foods from within a 200 mile radius. The idea was not just to explore all the food issues Pollan, et. al, have raised, but to learn by doing, to understand what a commitment to local, sustainable food really means, and if it’s a replicable, rational choice for an American family.
In the course of doing that, Kingsolver lambastes those who believe we’re doing farm animals a favor by NOT eating them. Here’s what she argues:
“I find myself fundamentally aligned with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Unaccountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—the beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie burgers—are lives plumb wasted….
…“We raise these creatures for a reason.” *What, to kill them? It seems that sensitivity and compassion to animals is lacking in this comment.
“To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte’s Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d’Urbervilles…
“Recently while I was cooking eggs, my kids sat at the kitchen table entertaining me with readings from a magazine profile of a famous, rather young vegan movie star….What a life’s work for that poor gal: traipsing about the farm in her strappy heels, weaving among the cow flops, bending gracefully to pick up eggs and stick them in an incubator where they would maddeningly hatch, and grow bent on laying more eggs. It’s dirty work, trying to save an endless chain of uneaten lives. Realisticially, my kids observed, she’d hire somebody.”
“My animals all had a good life, with death as its natural end. It’s not without thought and gratitude that I slaughter my own animals, it is a hard thing to do. It’s taken me time to be able to eat my own lambs that I had played with.”
I don’t know what starlet Kingsolver is referring to, but she sweeps up JSF in the argument as well.
“It’s just the high-mindedness that rankles,” she concludes. “When moral superiority combines with billowing ignorance, they fill up a hot air balloon that’s awfully hard not to poke. The farm-liberation fantasy simply reflects a modern cultural confusion about farm animals. They’re human property, not just legally but biologically. Over the millennia of our clever history, we created from wild progenitors whole new classes of beasts whose sole purpose was to feed us.”
This is the meat—okay, sorry—of Kingsolver’s argument, and it’s easy to find long passages of it quoted about the Net. Meat eaters find succor in it, vegans fuel for flames.
Am I sorry to see the good guys fighting? No—true belief breeds conflict. Even those who agree on the power of food to change our lives and our world can disagree on exactly how to put that power into practice.
Eating animals at all versus eating only ethically raised and slaughtered ones is probably a permanent and lasting schism among Foodaists. Is it two different camps of the same religion, or is it Christians and Jews, two wholly different points of view on a fundamental matter of faith? Probably the former. Some will agree to disagree, some will continue to slug it out, some will join forces for the larger good, and some will snipe behind the others’ backs— Goofballs! Murderers! In Foodaism, you aren’t what you eat, you are what you don’t eat.
As for me, my head says Kingsolver, but my heart says Foer. I look at my goat and think—dog. I look at my chicken and think—dinner. And if I am in Greece say, and I catch of whiff of goat roasted on a spit over oak logs and grape cuttings, brushed with rosemary branches, served in crisp-tinged slices with a glass of Kretikos? Then I’m with Kingsolver too. I admit it: my higher moral calling can be too easily derailed by a good cook and a glass of wine. Or by some good gribenes.
A lot of us try to split the difference by sticking to fish (wild, sustainable, not farmed raised, etc etc). I know JSF thinks eating Alaskan cod is like chewing on a chihuahua, but as powerful a writer as he is, I just can’t follow him there. And even if he did, I’d be lured away by the smell that blooms from these packets when you cut them open, as I did last night at the dinner table:
Alaskan Cod en Papillote with Fennel Mustard Sauce
1 3/4 pounds cod, halibut or other great fish fillet
2 cups TOTAL finely diced tomato, carrot, celery, fennel, onion in equal proportions PLUS 1 T. minced fresh parsley and thyme
4 bay leaves
4 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
2 cups white wine
2 T butter
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 T. dijon mustard
3 T. minced fennel fronds
Preheat oven to 450. Cut four large parchment paper circles. Place one fish filet on each circle, top with bay leaf, 1/4 of the vegetable/herb mix, salt and pepper, 1 T. olive oil and a long drizzle of wine. Fold circle shut and crimp edges to seal.
Place on baking sheet and bake in hot oven about 15-20 minutes.
While fish is cooking, boil remaining wine with garlic until reduced top 1/2 cup. Remove from flame, remove garlic. Whisk in butter and mustard until emulsified. Stir in fronds and add salt and pepper.
To serve, put a pouch on each plate, slit open and spread paper apart, pour sauce over fish.
January 26, 2010 | 1:51 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Here’s my Jan. 24 column in The Jewish Journal, “The Joy of Skin” plus a great How To video made by none other than Adi Eshman…..
Whatever happened to gribenes?
I still make them every time I roast a chicken or make chicken soup; couldn’t be more simple.
Gribenes are the golden brown, curled up bits of chicken skin made by rendering the fat, or schmaltz. They are the Jewish equivalent of pork cracklings. The French and Chinese make them from duck. A good gribene is both dry and fatty, crispy and chewy. The word in Yiddish means “scrap.” It’s much better than it sounds.
I make them at home every time I roast a chicken or make chicken soup. I serve them tossed about in a small bowl with onions fried just as crisp in the same schmaltz. Sometimes I toss them in a green salad, the way the French do with theirs. And once in a while I set them on a plate beside thin shot glasses of frozen vodka. These I call Gribenes Shooters.
Outside my kitchen, I don’t come across gribenes.
I know in New York City, the Second Avenue Deli will put a little dish of them on your table when you sit down. Sammy’s Roumanian off Delancy Street does the same, along with a saucer of chicken fat to spread on your rye bread.
But gribenes in a restaurant or deli relegates them to nostalgia, which is a big mistake. Gribenes deserve a place in the home. They taste good. They make good use of excess skin and fat that you’d otherwise toss. And, most importantly, they make people happy.
For some, gribenes instantly recall grandparents. It was my mother’s mother, Bertha Vogel, who taught me to make them. She made and served them whenever she made Friday night dinner. She ate fried chicken skin every week and drank a glass of bourbon every evening. She died in her sleep at age 96.
But even people without a gribenes-eating Jewish grandparent get a kick out of them. They hint at newly hip animal parts like trotters, head cheese and jowls, yet are hardly exotic: people who eat chicken tend to like the crunchy skin the best, anyway. Gribenes just distill that pleasure to its bite-sized essence. I have yet to put out a plate to anything but smiles. Gribenes make people inevitably, assuredly happy. Is that why we’ve stopped eating them?
More likely, gribenes fell out of fashion because of health concerns. In the age of Lipitor and white meat, deliberately tossing back fried chicken skin may seem like the equivalent of a death wish. A friend of mine calls gribenes “chicken crack” — both addictive and dangerous.
My answer is: don’t eat too much. Save them for Shabbat, a special meal; they’re not movie popcorn (which, by the way, is no health picnic either).
Meanwhile, I choose to believe that something that brings people such momentary joy and pleasure cannot do much harm. Especially when chased by a shot of vodka.
Gribenes and Onions
There’s no point in going into proportions here. When you trim a chicken before roasting or stewing, save the excess skin and fat. Two roasting chickens will give you enough for a small dish of gribenes. Plan accordingly.
Chicken with fat attached
Onions, halved and sliced thin
Cut large pieces of skin into smaller pieces, around 1 or 2 inches.
Heat a skillet and add all the chicken skin and fat. Cook over low to moderate heat until the fat is rendered from the skin and the skin begins to turn golden brown.
Toward the end of the cooking, turn down the heat to avoid burning and watch carefully. When the bits of skin are the color of an autumn leaf, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel to drain.
Add enough thinly sliced onion to cover bottom of pan but still stay submerged in the schmaltz. Fry over moderate heat until very crispy and brown. Drain separately on paper towels.
Just before serving, toss gribenes with onion in a small dish, sprinkle with salt, and serve.
How to Make Gribenes [VIDEO]
January 8, 2010 | 4:28 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last week in New York we ate at Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes on Houston Street in the Lower East Side. My friend Chuck first took me there in 1981. Chuck wasn’t Jewish, but he was vegan, and Yonah’s knishes and borscht fit perfectly into a diet that allowed him to enjoy about 1/100 of any restaurant menu. Chuck was an ethical vegan—he was a professional nonviolent activist, and he refused to use any animal products. He wouldn’t eat honey because it “enslaves” bees. We argued about this constantly. Bees make honey anyway, I’d say. “But not for us,” he’d say.
Chuck was a living reminder of how slippery the slope of food consciousness is. One minute you don’t want to eat a cow whose esophagus is pulled out while it’s alive. The next thing you know, every honeybee becomes Spartacus.
In 1981 the Lower East Side hadn’t been gentrified. We’d get to Yonah Schimmel’s by noon, because by 1 or 2 pm the run down store would be out of knishes and its homemade yogurt. We’d be sure to be out of the area by nightfall. It was full of graffitti, abandoned buildings, and criminals who didn’t share my nostalgia for the neighborhood where my Eshman and Peshkin forbears arrived from Eastern Europe and huddled in crowded tenements. Yonah Schimmel‘s was founded in 1910. Aaron Eshman arrived from Pinsk in 1901 and lived not three blocks from the place. There is no chance, none, that he never sat where I sat, and ate his knish, in joy and peace.
Today the Lower East Side is largely gentrified, and not at all Jewish. Yonah Schimmel’s has hung on, prospered in fact, as the walls full of newspaper stories and celebrity photos can attest. A Ukrainian born family owns and runs the place now. When we ate there a couple weeks ago the place was packed with tourists. The owner alternated between bringing out knishes to the tables and digging through boxes in the back for a size Large Yonah Schimmel T-shirt someone wanted to buy.
The knishes are still good: A baseball-sized hunk of mildly-peppery mashed potato filling surrounded by a thin pastry crust and baked. The kasha-filled knish is a lot of buckwheat groats, more than you’re likely to eat the entire rest of the year. That’s the one Chuck always ordered.
The best menu item is the yogurt. They make it with what they claim is the original culture, started in the Schimmel kitchen in the late 19th century. That means my great-grandfather and I are essentially sharing a yogurt every time I eat there. It’s good too: mild and fresh. And often sold out by noon.
Chuck died several years ago. He was 54 and he developed stomach cancer. Go figure. I go to Yonah Schimmel on every trip to New York. It’s chic now, but it’s the same. All the other vestiges of the Jewish Lower East Side have disappeared: there’s the Tenement Museum, the Blue Moon Hotel, a few shmatta stores from the old days, and Gus’s Pickles—but, face it, it’s over. So what? People led crowded, miserable lives there. They worked hard, got their kids educated, the kids moved out, and their kids never got to experience the joy of living in a tinderbox where 200 other people share the same fetid outhouse.
I don’t go back for the nostalgia. I go for the same reason most Jews give when asked why they attend synagogue once a year: because their parents did. Day to day life can take you far from yourself, from who you are, and you need to do something to bring you back, to anchor yourself to yourself. For some people that means sitting in the pew of their neighborhood church, the one where their mom and grandma knelt. For me it means going back to the place my ancestors ate. I sit and eat and feel myself getting centered, and full.
That’s why I go. To eat a good potato knish with mustard, and with my great-grandfather.
January 7, 2010 | 6:16 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
So I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I read four new books about back-the-land intellectuals: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, and Margaret Hathaway’s The Year of the Goat and Novella Carpenter’s Urban Farmer. And now I’m almost through Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.
Three things stand out.
First is that there’s a lot of books on the issues surrounding food. A lot. When I first starting exploring these issues, as a freshman in college faced for the first time with feeding myself. Back then there was exactly one book we all passed around: Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Lappe was the first to critique the amount of grain it took to create a pound of animal flesh. She was the first to question whether a diet based on meat was sustainable, healthy, moral.
Her book was published in 1971, sponsored by Friends of the Earth, and for years it was the touchstone for every college coop discussion on combining proteins. I blame Lappe for all those times I came down to dinner at the co-op kitchen and some gaunt sophomore had cooked up pot # 265 of half-cooked adzuki beans, mushy brown rice and salt-less acorn squash. Yum. No wonder most people, given the choice between a bad dinner and killing the planet, would rather kill the planet. Hunger is all about now, not 100 years from now.
Vegetarian food began a long slog toward edibility, with many dicey footholds along the way. Diet for a Small Planet begat The Vegetarian Epicure, which begat The Moosewood Cookbook, which begat The Greens Cookbook, which begat Chez Panisse Vegetables. The evolution mirrored that in the non-vegetarian cookbook world. From fancy concoctions of faux sophistication to more authentic, stripped down flavors carried by the ingredients themselves. (You can trace the same arc in the magazine world, from early Gourmet magazine to early Saveur).
As the cooking became more refined, the scope and power of Lappe’s basic argument got, so to speak, fleshed out. First rate journalists and writers like Pollan and Schlosser, and first rate writers and thinkers like Kingsolver and Foer, took on different aspects (with a lot of overlap). Their theories were made flesh by people like Hathaway, Kessler and Carpenter, who tried to live according to what I call Foodaism— the idea that food—how we get it, how we eat it— plays a central role not just in our physical well-being, but in our spiritual, economic, environmental and social well-being as well.
Second, I noticed a lot of the strongest voices in Foodaism movement are Jewish. Pollan. Sclosser. Foer. (I’ll throw in the goat people too: Hathaway—yes, a Jew—and Kessler. But that’s a whole other post, the strange attraction between the modern Jew and the ancient goat).
Third—and this is the point of this post—the fact that if you read all these books with an open mind and an open heart, you have to conclude: There Is Nothing to Eat.
The dilemma is the opposite of the one Pollan raised. The thrust of his book was this: If as an omnivore we can eat everything, how do we decide what we should eat? But if you take what he and Foer and others are saying to heart, you have to wonder what’s left for an ethical omnivore to eat. Meat—out. Non organic veggies in the market: out. Organic veggies at Whole Foods shipped using a billion gallons of fossil fuel: out. Fish, eggs and dairy—per Foer—out.
That leaves the vegetables, beans and grains from your local farmer’s market, and anything you can grow yourself, or filch from a neighbor’s tree.
I’m not exaggerating either: the logical conclusion of all the Foodaists thrown together, stirred up and turned out is this: eat like an enlightened peasant.
The good news: you can drink like one too. So far these folks have kept their incisive minds off booze,
More often than not—despite an inner hunger that wants to give in to the entire menu at Balthazar, wine list included—I find myself eating just like they tell me. Once your eyes are open, it hurts a little to will them shut.
My problem is I never want to go back to Cuisine Lappe, the brown rice and vegetables that stank up many a kitchen coop, depressing me and my appetite at once.
Fortunately, I have a loophole on the Foer dictum against eating eggs (he forces us to take into account the cruelty with which even “free range” chickens are raised).
My chickens are the picture of contentment. I rescued them from Johns Feed Store just before their necks were to be inserted in a spinning razor blade. They owe me, and they pay me in two or three delicious eggs each day.
A few nights ago I came up with an ideal way to cook them: poached in olive oil. I served them with some fried potatoes and rapini in garlic. Great winter dish: oily and hot and fatty and salty. And Foodaism-approved.
[RECIPE] Olive Oil-Poached Eggs with Fried Potatoes and Rapini
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Blanch rapini until bright green an tender. Drain. Toss with olive oil, salt, chili flakes and sliced sautéed garlic. Set aside.
Cut a pound of potatoes into ¼ inch cubes. Heat ½ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Add potatoes and fry until broawn. Turn and toss until brown on all sides. Remove and drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Pour about three inches of olive oil into a small saucepan. Heat to about 145 degrees. Using four eggs total, Crack each egg into a small dish then slide gently into the oil. Stand back in case egg splatters. Poach 1-2 minutes, until white is opaque. Remove with slotted spoon, repeat with all the eggs.
Divide potatoes and rapini on four plates, top each with egg, spinkle with more salt and pepper.
Here’s the pics:
December 22, 2009 | 6:09 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In Philly I step into Di Bruni’s, on Chestnut. Everyone but me has evidently heard of this place, a Zabars-on-the Schuykill stuffed with hundreds of cheeses, a banquet of prepared foods, a bakery, seafood and meat counters—all the best. Founded in 1939 by some Italian immigrants, it thrives today as a gourmet food emporium, and a multi-location food and catering business, and it’s online. And it’s crowded, with the ethnic neighborhood feel drained away, replaced by grandeur and competence and corporate efficiency. Nothing wrong with it, but I was feeling a little processed making my way through.
Then I found my cheese guy. He asked if I needed help, and I said just looking, and he said, “Our deal here is you learn a lot more by tasting.”
He started with some perfunctory cuts. Then I asked if he had Haystack. That was all it took. Every religion has secret societies. You could argue religion is a secret society: a community set apart, outside normal, bound together by common beliefs, rites, passions. Think of the Opus Dei, the group within Catholicism that Dan Brown made famous in The Da Vinci Code. (How he could write three books set in Italy and France and include no recipes I can’t figure out).
Well, me and cheese counter guy were clearly in the Society of the Works of the Goat, Opus Capri. The next 15 minutes he walked me through tastes of every local goat cheese, leading up to the holy of holies, a set of fice fresh cylinders from a place Shellbark Farms. His face lit up.
“This is a guy who lives in the exhurbs, surrounded by McMansions, and he just raises his goats there, in a goat house. Forty five minutes from here.”
We’ve spent two days in Philly. 45 minutes of driving only gets you two blocks. Impressive.
“What kind of goats?” I asked.
Now we were going deep. We were bonded. We loved cheese, and goat cheese, and local fresh goat cheese from floppy eared goats.
He handed me a taste of Shellbark’s latest creation, a harder cheese, the creator’s attempt at a provolone-style he grew up with in downtown Philly.
“It tastes like an experiment,” I said. “A first try.”
He like what I said, and I saw him carve out a slice for himself, behind the counter.
They say music is the international language, but they’re wrong. Wherever you go, whatever language you speak, it’s food.
December 11, 2009 | 3:21 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
A few years back I wrote a story about cooking latkes for my wife’s then-congregation. In the spirit of the holiday, here it is:
LATKES WITHOUT END, AMEN
It’s 1991, and I am in the basement kitchen of Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. I don’t know what it looks like now, but back then, many years ago, the place had an Army hospital feel about it: beige cupboards that didn’t sit quite flush on their hinges; floor-level shelves stuffed with mismatched sheet pans, clouded plastic bowls and skillets the size of UFOs; dull counters scratched and scrubbed and scoured by generations of helpful women; and a giant industrial stove—I want to say a Wolf—six or eight sensationally powerful commercial grade burners girded by iron and stainless steel, its pilot lights burning like eternal flames.
My wife, Naomi Levy, was the synagogue’s rabbi at the time. She ruled the upstairs sanctuary and classroom. But I was most comfortable down below, by that inferno of a stove.
Out of college, I had supported a writing habit by cooking and catering. Nothing edible was strange to me. So I prided myself on being able to command any kitchen, from that of the A-list half-Jewish actress in whose Palisades home I’d catered a Christmas dinner of ham and brisket, to Mishkon, where I liked to slip out of services early and help Jesus set up for Kiddush. (At Mishkon, the janitor was a Mexican immigrant named Jesus, the security guard was an Arab immigrant named, no kidding, Mohammed.)
If some congregants were perturbed by a female rabbi who couldn’t cook an egg and a male rebbetzin who hung out in the kitchen, they didn’t let on. They took a sow’s ear and turned it into a kosher meal. Soon I was teaching Passover cooking classes for the synagogue’s adult-ed department, and very soon after Naomi and I started dating, someone asked me to take charge of cooking the latkes for the annual Chanukah party.
Most synagogues have Chanukah parties, and all Chanukah parties have latkes. Not dozens, but hundreds, or thousands. Somehow I suspected that if Rabbi Levy and I were to become an item, I would find myself volunteering or volunteered for such duties. After all, at a homey 200-family shul like Mishkon, everyone has to pitch in, and it wasn’t as if I could teach Mishna. I was no Torah expert, but I did know latkes.
What did I know, and how did I know it?
First of all, anybody who has ever considered a career in food has given serious thought to the potato. When I applied to be a sous chef at a San Francisco restaurant several years earlier, the chef asked me to make an omelet. Then he asked me how I would make a tomato sauce. Then he asked me to peel and cut potatoes. I set out a bowl of cold water, found a good peeler, and proceeded to make short work of it. Every kitchen job I ever had involved pounds and pounds of potatoes, and I grew to understand and respect them so much—this homely, earth-bound lump, transformed into something light and soft or crisp and delectable—that I have never been able to bring myself to calling them “spuds.” I hate that word.
Latkes are a simple form of potato preparation, as potato dishes go. But simplicity in cooking, as the food writer Richard Olney wrote, is a complex thing. I have had rubbery latkes, starchy latkes, undercooked latkes and latkes so greasy that two of them could run a diesel engine for a week.
I learned the basics from my mother, and Joan Nathan. My mother makes superb latkes, but evidently this is not unusual. When I told people I was writing this essay, they all had the same response: that their mother made the perfect latke.
The varieties of latke experience varied among these people’s mothers. The ingredients hardly change: potatoes, eggs, salt, pepper and a binder, either flour or potato starch or matzah meal. But some people mash the potatoes, some grate them finely, some coarsely. Some use onion. Some use more eggs, some less.
Some fry their latkes in a lot of oil, turning them into little rafts on a roiling sea of grease. Others sauté them in nonstick skillets with a tablespoon of canola. The skinless breast meat/egg white crowd, acolytes of la cuisine Lipitor, go one step further, waving a can of PAM over a cookie sheet and baking their pancakes in a hot oven. If your mother does that, and you think she makes the best latkes in Jewish history, good for you, and good for your arteries.
Most of us consider the recipe we were raised on as the best, be it for brisket, fesenjan, kubaneh or latkes. Your search for the perfect latke, then, was over before it began, unless you are like me and have a restless hunger, a belief that with a slight change, a different oil, a coarser grate, maybe a hotter flame, the ideal can be made even better.
Anyway, your mother’s going to die one day. So unless she has taken you to her side and shown you her technique—and latkes are 90 percent technique—you will have to discover the perfect latke for yourself.
This is a bigger problem than the high priests of Jewish continuity care to admit. While they wring their hands over whether the next generation will know Torah and Jewish history and carry Israel close to its heart, who is worried whether young Jews will learn how to skim the fat off a chicken soup or shape a perfect Moroccan cigar? When you lose the recipes, you lose a connection to your past: a past that shaped your very soul. The recipes of our foremothers are, if not our operating system, then some critical software. They provide a sense memory of tradition, a source of potent symbolism, a connection to the past and a link to the future. If you want your grandchildren to remember you fondly, learn a good cookie recipe.
Most Jewish women I know can’t cook like their grandmothers. The men can’t cook like their grandmothers, either. In some cases their own mothers can cook, but didn’t pass the skills along. That’s not to say these people don’t let their marble countertops and DCS ranges lay fallow. Their menus read like the sides of a shampoo bottle: Grill chicken breasts. Broil salmon. Rinse. Repeat. They can empty a bag of mesclun into a bowl, and given time, a pricey measuring beaker and a recipe, they may make a vinaigrette to dress it. If Emeril makes a Yorkshire pudding, they may soil their Sur la Table-ware doing one of those, too. But do they know gribenes? Can they make kreplach? If grandma was Persian, how’s the crust on their chelou? And if the answers are, no, no and soft, what about their children? I suppose there are warm and wonderful Jewish homes that have never known a pot of homemade chicken soup simmering on the stove, but they’d be even warmer and more wonderful with it.
I’m not an out-and-out alarmist about these things. Even a dish like latkes is not an immutable part of Jewish culture. As with so many traditional Jewish foods, its origins can be found in a blend of cultures. Bagels, challah, falafel, hummus, lox—we can say we popularized them, but we cannot with a straight face say we invented them.
Chanukah tradition dictates that foods be cooked in oil, to symbolize the one-day supply of oil that burned for a miraculous eight days in the rededicated Temple. Italian Jews cooked fried chicken on Chanukah and Iraqi Jews zalabia, or fried dough.
Potato pancakes, being cheap and easy and delicious, fit into the concept, and became a staple of Ashkenizic tradition. As for the latke, Yiddish for “potato pancake,” it is common in Eastern European and Germanic cuisine, a Christmas staple served with goose at Ukrainian tables where Jews no doubt adapted the tradition to their own needs. Potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe from their native Peru until the 1500s, so for more than a millennia we managed to keep the holiday alive without them. According to cookbook writer Joan Nathan, before latkes, fried buckwheat cakes were the European Chanukah staple. Yum.
These days, Chanukah flirts with the temptation of capitalist excess that has turned Christmas into a retail orgy. But as long as it features the latke it will retain an obdurate hominess. Designer latkes—made with yams or zucchini or taro or hand-pulled Korean noodles—are invariably a disappointment. Put your great-aunt in a miniskirt and call her a supermodel, it changes nothing. Gussy the holiday up with presents, fuse it with Christmas and Kwanzaa, give it its own feature film and TV special, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re not talking Handel’s Messiah and gingerbread houses. We’re talking three-note songs and fried potatoes. Christmas perfumes the house, Chanukah clings to the drapes: live with it.
Which brings me back to Mishkon Tephilo, circa 1991. We are a crew of men dedicated to providing enough latkes to the synagogue’s annual party. A couple of hours before the congregants arrive, we gather around the dirty tubers. We set up buckets of cool water and start peeling, plopping the potatoes into their bath. I’ve bought eggs by the flatload from Smart & Final, and crack them into a bathtub-sized stainless steel bowl, beat them with salt and pepper, then grate the potatoes, give them a squeeze, and toss them into the eggs. Finally I throw in some grated onion and matzah meal or flour—I don’t remember which and it doesn’t matter. I make latkes like Tommy plays pinball, by feel, and you should, too.
If the batter doesn’t remind you of the sand and seawater you turned into drip castles as a child, it’s not right.
We press every skillet in that overused, under-refurbished kitchen into service, and fill each one with a quarter inch of peanut oil. Then we fire them up.
Rule No. 1 of latke preparation is you can never make enough latkes. If they are good, they will disappear. Everybody has room for one more. Make as many as you can and when they run out they run out (But plan on three per person).
Rule No. 2 is kids are not allowed. Hot oil and children don’t mix. Hot oil and most adults isn’t even a great match, but what can you do?
Rule No. 3 is you may get burned. It happens, and most times it’s not serious.
Rule No. 4 is water is the enemy. Joan Nathan told me to always press as much moisture as possible out of the shredded potatoes. Let the water settle, collect the starch at the bottom and ladle it back into the potato mixture.
Furthermore, while frying latkes, or anything for that matter, if a drop of water lands in the boiling oil, stand way back. It will hiss violently then explode like a bottle rocket, and someone will get hurt.
Rule No. 5 is enjoy yourself. Latkes are among the more forgiving of Jewish foods. Even bad ones are usually edible, especially when heaped with the traditional toppings of applesauce or sour cream.
That’s what I did cooking those latkes in the synagogue basement—I enjoyed myself. I remember the next few hours of my life as a happy moment in time. I insisted that hot latkes just out of the oil were better than frozen and reheated latkes or latkes kept warm in the oven, and they are. So we worked furiously to turn out latkes as people began arriving, and we worked even harder to keep up with demand as the temple basement filled with hungry children, seniors and parents. I didn’t hear a word as my wife led the congregation in blessing the candles or singing “Rock of Ages.” She was in her element, I in mine.
As fast as we loaded the platters with pancakes they disappeared. Sweat soaked our shirts and slicked our faces. If we slacked off for a moment, we faced an impatient mob. We used every last potato, every last bit of batter. There are famous photos of the men who stoke the wood-fired bread ovens of Paris stripped to their waists, torsos glistening as they wrestled with fire to create their perfect loaves, and I think if someone had been there with a camera we were a kind of Ashkenazic variation on the ovens of Poilane. But we kept our shirts on.
Then it was over. Many people said the latkes were perfect. Many more said they were good, but not as good as the ones their mother made. The latkes were as they should be—crispy around the edges, a bit soft in the center, not greasy, 99 percent potato, 1 percent egg. But the experience of making them in the basement of my wife’s synagogue, that was perfect.
And to cap it off, someone—I suspect Danny Brookman—brought the cold beers that appeared in the fridge once we were finished.
Talk about the miracle of Chanukah.