Wednesday, December 12, 2007
To Latke, or not to Latke?
This week was Hannuka and though I’m not a particularly religious Jew, I do like a good latke. Brown and crispy around the edges, smothered with applesauce and dabbed with sour cream. I’m not a big stickler for tradition, my needs are few: A couple crispy latkes around the dinning room table, some candles in the menora, a few turns of the dredel and I’ve done my Hannuka thing. I know it’s not a major holiday, I know its hopelessly lackluster next to the blinding glare of Christmas, but I’ve always liked the holiday and I am doing what I can to pass along some Jewish heritage to my son, which isn’t always easy when you are married to a Catholic (albeit non-practicing) and living in a Catholic (also mostly non-practicing) country.
I’ve discovered that Jewish heritage is a relative concept. For one thing, the majority of Jews in France are Sephardic, which is interpreted here as meaning from the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where there have been substantial Jewish populations for many centuries. When the French finally left North Africa, most North African Jews left too, and many came to France. At first I was fascinated. Here was a entire community of Jews who actually knew how to cook! Who knew Jews ate couscous?! And here’s another amazing thought: here are thousands of Jews who never experienced the Holocaust and up until recently lived in relative harmony with their Arab neighbors. Ergo, Jews without a victim complex. What a concept!
But when Hannuka comes around, well…like I was saying, I get this yen for latkes. What can you say to a Jew who doesn’t even know what a latke is? Suddenly, I am no longer charmed by Sephardic melodies, I want to hear a Yiddish fiddle. I want to hear wry, sardonic jokes. I want to hear somebody, somewhere, say “oy gevalt” and mean it. I want to go to the Lower East Side and eat something heavy and leaden that my stomach will remember for days. But I’m in Paris. There is no Lower East Side. In fact, as near as I can make out, there is not a latke in sight—I’m not even sure the Ashkenaz make them here. So what’s a girl to do? Hit the Internet recipe sights, of course. There’s a great recipe for Maxine’s Latke’s on epicurious.com.
I am happy with my latkes. They are light and minimally greasy. I proudly serve them to my family. My husband is utterly unimpressed. My son was under the impression I was going to make the sweet doughnuts that the Sepharads make. He refuses to eat them. I get miffed. He won’t even taste one! The scene degenerates and at the end I find myself drying my son’s tears and telling him “it’s OK honey, you’re still a good Jew even if you don’t like latkes.” I feel like a Bad Mother. We all talk about something else. We move on. But I did stubbornly serve them to my in-laws the next night, who were polite but far from enthusiastic. It seems latkes just can’t quite hurdle ethnic boundaries. Oh well. I guess for cultural communion I’ll just have to wait for my next trip to New York.