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A Chanukah Short Story: The Latke Maker

There had been no traditional family recipe before him. No quasi-mystical list of ingredients that only the gastronomic high priests were permitted to recite incantations over. He had been a chef in the Korean War and had learned to improvise: making do with what was around, mixing some of this and some of that, and letting the food do the rest.

When a wife, and then eventually kids, came along, and with them the twice-a-year holiday dinners with barely tolerable, hideously boring relatives, he comforted himself as any epicurean might. If he could, he would have had military sentries posted outside the tiny kitchen in apartment 11H, with orders barring entry to any unauthorized personnel, meaning everyone.

His enclave was the smallest of rooms, so tiny that he was certain that the pseudo-nouveau-riche relatives coming in for 4 hours that day from Long Island thought it hardly merited the title kitchen. But then he didn’t really give a damn what they thought, if they even did think, and he loved every one of the 18 square feet that comprised his sanctum sanctorum. In part because he could just turn and reach to get whatever was called for next. But it was more than that; there was something comforting about the very shape and layout of the space. It seemed to him that the room’s fate as a repository for all good things had been set from its inception. The white Amanda refrigerator had been created to sit on the northeastern wall, just as the gas, four-burner stove was destined from construction to be on the southwestern wall. The meager counter space had been interspersed in just the right way, even if there was no other way possible.

The holiday meals that came out from the kitchen and into the adjacent, equally miniscule, dining room, the seemingly endless convoy of different courses shuffling in and then out, were a thing to behold, and he was rightly proud of that.

But one dish above all others mattered most. The latkes had to be just right. If they weren’t, he judged the meal an utter failure.

Long ago he mastered the recipe, and, unlike his army chef days, things were now canonized and set in stone. A bowl housed five large Idaho potatoes, meticulously selected to be perfectly bruiseless. The salt and pepper shaker sat next to a container with four medium-sized eggs. Another receptacle held the flour, and hovering over that rose a large bottle of Crisco oil for the frying: together they were the duo that that would determine that most important of latke qualities: crispiness.

He peeled the potatoes, then grated them, producing long, but razor thin slices. The eggs and flour were mixed, and the slices were gently added to that, and then topped off with a smidge of pepper and salt. As that all unfolded, the oil was heating up in a giant pan on the front-most, right-hand burner of the stove. When a droplet of water was tossed in, and it bounced along the surface, the oil was ready. Then, spoonful by spoonful, the mixture was lowered in, and somehow – and even he was not quite sure how- when it hit the oil it formed a perfect ovoid, three inches long, two inches wide, and half an inch thick.

Six latkes in the frying pan. Always six. Flipped every thirty seconds so that the tops and bottoms were equally browned. Once done, each was placed on a paper towel to soak up the excess grease, and another perfect ovoid was dropped in, until 50 or so had gone through the process. Then, and only then, were the wife and kids permitted in for the highly anticipated sacrosanct taste test.

Once they had given their approval, the latke maker was done, until the next gathering, when he would get out the bowls and ingredients and begin anew.

The latke maker is gone now, but his legacy lives on, scribbled on a crumpled up grease-stained piece of paper buried between the pages of a cookbook that the next generation breaks out for holiday meals. The kitchens are larger and fancier than his, but the latkes could care less about such things.

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