Here’s a secret I wish more people knew: latkes are the perfect holiday food.
For those of you not in the know, latkes are the food most commonly associated in this country with the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. Also known as potato pancakes, they are similar in some ways to hash brown potato patties — but tell that to a Jewish family whose grandmother has been making them for half a century, and they will scowl at you. Where hash brown patties are contained, with neat edges and a definable shape, latkes are chaos: vaguely round, perhaps oval, with shredded potatoes crisply sticking out from every edge and caramelized bits of onion stuck to the bottom, depending on the recipe.
The basic recipe for latkes includes varying proportions of shredded potatoes, onion, egg, matzo meal or flour, and salt. The resulting batter is dropped by spoonful into piping hot oil and fried. As a symbol of the miracle of one flask of oil lasting for eight nights in an ancient Jewish temple, the latkes are meaningful. As a food, they’re utterly delicious.
For me, though, another miracle of latkes is that their basic recipe is as versatile as the rituals of the holiday season. If you have family or friends visiting who follow any number of restrictive diets, simple tweaks to the latke recipe make it the perfect food for almost any need. Continue Reading…
I’ve spent some holiday dinners eating dry bread and salad.
In front of me on the table were platters piled high with other food, but because of a combination of my vegetarianism and allergies, only the bread and salad were real options for me. In those moments, I harbored no ill will toward my hosts; having hosted holidays before, I knew that it took a lot of work to accommodate the preferences and allergies of a complicated group of guests. It’s not a job for an inexperienced or inexact home chef. I knew all this as I sat and ate my undressed salad, nibbling on my plain bread, and I wasn’t bitter.
Still, I’ve tried never to do that to a guest in my own home unless I had no other choice. Over the years, I’ve had guests for Jewish holiday meals who ate no carbohydrates, no grains, no gluten, no dairy, no beans, no soy, no tomatoes, no nuts, no broccoli, no cinnamon — not to mention the years when my own child was on the six-food-elimination-diet or the chylothorax diet. I’ve managed, in most cases, to offer at least two tasty options to each person — even options that others at the table would enjoy, too. It takes planning, but it’s not impossible.
Sometimes, I just have to laugh at the way the universe answers the questions I haven’t even asked yet.
It’s half-way through the summer of 2017, and here I am, suddenly aware that I live with one foot in the summer of 2010. I spent that summer in a cloud of specialty flours: tapioca and arrowroot, garbanzo and white rice and coconut and and sorghum. I sprinkled xanthan gum like a gluten-free fairy into all the creative ideas I had for how to make food for my daughter, whose health challenges required that she cut out dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, meat, and gluten. During my deep-dive into specialty cooking for what I called the “joy-free” diet, I dreamed in recipes and grocery store trips. Along the way, I picked up several dozen grey hairs, but I also became an unwilling expert on food challenges.
Though my daughter’s health issues resolved without any need for her to continue with food restrictions, the knowledge I gained never went away. In some ways, it’s not unlike a spare tool in the garage; though we seldom need that particular odd-shaped wrench, the neighbors know we have it, and they can borrow it any time. Even though we may have bought that wrench to put together a hospice bed or to tighten bolts in a subfloor that collapsed beneath our feet — and seeing it brings back every memory of that awful time — we’re glad it’s going to use for someone else who needs it. That wrench — my reluctantly-gained knowledge — shouldn’t go to waste.
Because of this, my friends call me when they need to follow an unusual diet or avoid a common food. And because I want to make lemonade out of those gluten-free lemons, I always help. Always. Continue Reading…
For ten summers, with varying frequency, I’ve been taking my daughters to the Saturday Farmers’ Market. In more ways than I could have ever expected, it has saved our sanity.
We began going to the Farmers’ Market as a way to preserve the parenting energy my husband and I needed. He and I made a pact after our second child was born: each of us would ensure the other got to sleep “late” (read: 8 am) one day a week. He slept “late” on Saturdays and I claimed Sundays. On Sunday mornings, he packed our squealing, chattering daughters quickly into the car — sometimes in their pajamas — to go to Home Depot, which was sometimes the only place open on Sundays. There, he handed them paint sample cards to carry and let them touch all the doorknobs while he mused over the varying bolts and power tools that just might be required for his next renovation project in our old townhouse.
On Saturdays, I took the girls to the Farmers’ Market. It opened at 7:30 am, and some Sundays, we parked our car in the tall parking garage overlooking the Market and watched as the farmers set up their stands. Had we stayed home, I would have been aggressively shushing them, desperately trying to give their father the sleep he’d earned yesterday in the dawn at Home Depot. Out of the house, I somehow discovered the reserves to be patient.
Sitting around the sticky table of a local frozen custard shop are my daughters and husband, each of them with a mountain of gooey dessert: piles of custard under clouds of whipped cream and rivers of fudge. My younger daughter, aged 5, is grinning ear-to-ear. I’m snapping pictures like the mother of a baby trying solid food for the first time. At one point, I step outside to breathe the fresh air of a world restored.
For the ten months prior to today, my little girl has been on a path to discovery, she and her team of doctors searching for the food protein that’s causing the strange patches of white blood cells in her esophagus, the patches that were keeping her from swallowing well. For ten months, she’s been avoiding a list of common allergens — dairy, soy, egg, nuts, and wheat — and undergoing tests to see if the culprit could be found. Earlier today, we got the news that only one food was left to be added, since all the others had seemed to cause her no ill. Adding that last food — dairy — means that she can eat out at any restaurant she liked. It means that, for the first time in ten months, we can travel without worrying about her food.
We leave the frozen custard shop and embark immediately on a road trip. We feed her everything she’s been missing: restaurant pancakes with butter and syrup, cheese popcorn, candy bars, pizza, string cheese and yogurt. For the first time in nearly a year, I don’t carry a big insulated bag full of food for her. We rejoice, but under the rejoicing is the knowledge that this is just another food trial. It’s both a first meal and a last — this is the last food trial, and everyone expects it to be a failure.