I was making my lists for our family holiday gathering a few days ago, and as I went over the menu—old-fashioned brisket and potato latkes—it occurred to me (a writer of cookbooks) that the two women whose cooking most influenced my Chanukah repertoire probably never consulted a cookbook in their lives.
In my grandmothers’ day, cooking from cookbooks, or even written recipes, was hardly a universal practice. Girls learned to cook by helping in the kitchen and by the time they had kitchens of their own, they had mastered the art. Of course, there were books to consult if a cook was so inclined; recipe collections had been around for at least a millennium and a half. But cookbooks didn’t figure in my grandmothers’ world. How could they? There was no money, at least not in their early years, and anyway, neither one could read much English; one could barely read at all. My grandmothers kept their recipes in their heads. Their hands and eyes were their only measuring tools.
Fannie, my mother’s mother, and Sarah, my father’s mother, had both sailed from Eastern Europe in the first years of the 20th century. They did not know each other until my parents met and married, but their young lives followed oddly similar trajectories. Both were barely into their teens when they crossed the Atlantic in steerage class, two among millions of immigrants who landed at Ellis Island hoping to better their lives. Years later, Fannie recalled being seasick for most of her journey. Sarah remembered how she and her younger sister, traveling alone, were detained at Ellis Island, waiting, terrified, for an older brother who was already settled in America to come and get them. Fannie could read Yiddish; she had had some schooling in her hometown of Lemburg, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sarah, born in a shtetl in Poland, lost her mother when she was three, and never had any schooling. Both were sent to live with their older sisters in America, Fannie to Brooklyn, and Sarah to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Both elder sisters quickly pronounced them too old for school and conscripted them to help with the housework. But both of my grandmothers rebelled. Fannie enrolled in night school and learned to read a bit of English; she found work as a seamstress in a Lower East Side factory. Sarah, deeply offended by her sister’s refusal to let her go to school, jumped at a neighbor’s offer of domestic work and became a wage earner.In time, both married and had children, but the American streets that they traveled were hardly paved with gold.
At the height of the Depression, Fannie’s husband died, leaving her with six children, the youngest of whom—my mother—was just six months old. With no pension in those pre-Social Security days, she survived on public assistance, plus the after-school wages of the elder children and her own genius for household management. Around the same time, Sarah’s husband suffered a heart attack. Medical wisdom at the time held that heart patients needed rest. So my grandfather retired from the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, where they lived by then, and Sarah became the breadwinner. Rising at dawn each day, she left her cold-water flat spotlessly clean and readied her two children for school before going off to her factory job.
As years passed, my grandmothers’ lives became easier. By the time I was on the scene, both took pleasure in setting bountiful tables for family. They were both gifted cooks and more important, loving grandmothers. That was what I knew of them. That, and the magical holiday gatherings, full of aunts, uncles and cousins all having a lively, noisy time—and eating latkes.
I look up from my Chanukah list-making, at my kitchen bookshelves overflowing with cookbooks. In the next room, more shelves are stocked with all sorts of books. How much of my life has been spent reading and writing—cookbooks and other books, for work and for pleasure. How much I owe to the two ladies whose courage and strength laid the foundation for the many extraordinary opportunities I’ve had. I close my eyes and I see Fannie reading her Yiddish newspaper intently, chuckling at the advice column one minute and the next poring over the lists of Holocaust survivors, always hoping to find the name of a missing loved one. I see Sarah, determined in her eighties to make up for her lack of schooling, working with a young volunteer, struggling to learn how to write her name. Now, a lifetime later, their lives seem to me to be nothing less than heroic.
I never got Sarah’s recipe for latkes. I know that she added baking powder to the basic potato batter; the leavening made her latkes rise just a bit, and rendered them dense, chewy and delicious. Fannie’s latkes were different: light, crisp and luscious. I have her recipe; my mother transcribed it and made it her own. Now it’s my recipe, and my sister’s. And it occurs to me, as I continue making my lists, that as many cookbooks as I may own or acquire, I’ll never need one for potato latkes.
Bubby Fannie’s Potato Latkes
2 large potatoes
1 medium onion
Salt, if desired, to taste
Oil for frying
Sour cream, for serving
Applesauce, for serving
Grate the potato and onion into a mixing bowl. (Fannie insisted on a hand grater, maintaining that a blender will not give the proper consistency. But she did not have a food processor. I do, and I use mine for this recipe. You can use the shredding blade.)
Add the egg and beat with a fork. Add the matzoh meal and salt, if you’re using it. The batter should be thick, not watery, so you should add as much as is needed, judging by the texture of the batter as you go along. Mix all of the ingredients together. (That would be about 1½ tablespoons matzoh meal and about ½ teaspoon salt.)
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Spoon the batter in heaping tablespoons into the pan and fry. (Don’t crowd the pan too much; work in batches as necessary.) When the edges start to brown, turn with a spatula and fry on the other side. When the latkes are golden brown, remove from the oil with the spatula and place on paper towels to drain the excess oil. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve hot with sour cream and applesauce.
This post originally appeared on BookTrib.com.