You can always tell the cook at a Hanukkah party. Because he or she will be the one whose oniony fragrance can make your tear ducts swell, whose knuckles are scraped raw from the box grater and whose eyes have the glazed look of one who has spent the last two hours hunched over pans of bubbling oil, jiggling spheres of loose batter that threaten at any moment to explode into disfiguring sprays of hot grease.
You are eating hot latkes — potato pancakes — with sour cream and warm, buttery applesauce; drinking red wine; and perhaps watching small children cheat at dreidel games. If you are at certain houses, there will be warm sufganiyot, Hanukkah jelly doughnuts, straight from the fryer, although substituting product straight from the closest Winchell’s is not unknown. Perhaps there will be brisket later — we Jews are programmed to make brisket on all festive occasions — although it is not guaranteed. You are happy. We, the cooks, are probably in the kitchen, grumbling through the 13th batch of latkes, but in our way, we are happy too. We don’t want you to starve.
Several prominent cooks, a few of whom our family is happy to count among our friends, claim that latkes can be prepared in advance and popped into the oven to re-crisp when the guests arrive. Other cooks swear that potatoes grated in a food processor have texture just as good, even better, than potatoes laboriously shredded with a box grater or a mandoline. I have heard that you can freeze latkes, that you can cook latkes without oil and that a vitamin C tablet crushed into the batter keeps the potatoes from browning. You will find none of this in our kitchen. Hanukkah, even more than Thanksgiving, is a cook’s holiday, an evening of physical battle.
So, in the losing war against the potatoes’ inevitable oxidation, the latke cook works with blistering speed, risking minor injury, hand-grating because the texture is better and patting wax paper onto the surface of the grated potatoes to prevent them from reacting to the air.
Wrap the grated potatoes in a tea towel, then wring them over a bowl, wait a minute, then wring them hard again. Pour off the foamy liquid and save the potato starch that has collected at the bottom of the bowl — the goo will help to bind your batter in a minute. Grate one onion for every one or two potatoes. Stir in salt, a bit of matzo meal or flour, the starch and as much pepper as you can tolerate. Squeeze again in the tea towel if you like — it’s good for the triceps. Stir in a beaten egg or two. You are ready to fry.
A little bit of oil is fine, but a lot is better. Hanukkah is the holiday of oil, celebrating the minor miracle of a lamp burning a week or so longer than it was supposed to, the miracle of a Maccabean Ron Popeil. My friend Evan Kleiman suggests we note this once-in-30,000-years confluence of Thanksgiving and the first night of Hanukkah — Thanksgivukkah — with a feast of turkey and potato stuffing, perhaps formed into pancakes and sizzled crisp. (This is surely heresy, on the order of latkes fried in rendered carnitas fat, although I suspect those might be as delicious as they are forbidden.)
I will not be cooking sweet-potato latkes, or latkes with refried beans and caviar, or Paula Wolfert’s Gascon potato pancakes stuffed with leeks. I will not sneak cranberries into the applesauce or replace sufganiyot with pumpkin pie. If there is meat, it will be brisket, as the great rabbis intended.
And I will stagger into the dining room, knuckles bloodied, and hand you another platter of latkes. You will eat them until you plotz. This is the bargain we have made.