Peace’s Featured Story
I used to like to imagine that even the world’s best chefs had a secret dish that defied them. I knew I was fooling myself, but it made me feel better about the dish that had eluded me despite several years during which I’d become a much better home cook. My steaks were perfectly rosy, I could cure my own lox and roll my own sushi, but I just couldn’t succeed at… Oh, I can’t say it! What’s worse, this was an ancestral dish. (I was born in the former USSR, in what is now Belarus.) My ancestors shook their heads in their graves every time I went to the stove to make it. Especially my grandmother, who was epically good at it. There was even a recipe for it in my memoir-told-through-recipes, “Savage Feast”! Okay, okay. Deep breath. I was terrible at draniki (as they were called in Belarus). Deruny (as they were called in Ukraine). Oladi (as they were called in Russia.) Zeppeliny, as they were called by my grandmother. Time for me to say it in English: Potato latkes.
I need a reason to call my mom.
They never cooked all the way through! If I did manage to cook them all the way through, that’s because I’d cooked them so long they’d carbonized into dust. I couldn’t figure it out on my own. So I called my mother. I like finding reasons to call my mother.
She comes from a different country and culture, she has lived her life according to different principles, and I don’t have occasion to ask her advice often. But she makes a mean plate of potato latkes. As good as my grandmother’s, though she’d brush away the comparison. I did better than call her. I drove all the way to Delaware, where she lives, from my home in New Jersey to see how she did it.
My first mistake, she showed me, was to use too little oil. When I look up recipes for jams, I always cut the sugar nearly in half, and the result is lovely. When I make sourdough-discard biscuits, I always use way less butter than the recipes want, and they come out perfectly creamy. But it turns out you can’t mess around with latkes and oil. Then: I was wringing out the potato mash using my hands. Not good enough. You had to put it in a cheesecloth and squeeze for dear life. And then at some point, after the latkes have crisped on both sides, you have to pour a little water into the pan, cover it with a lid, and let the latkes steam for a while, so they, you know, cook all the way through. I could tell that, to her, nothing could be simpler, but my mother is such a gracious person that she did her best to hide this. What she couldn’t hide was that it was very meaningful to her that I wanted her guidance on something.
The only upside to my lame latkes was that you never wanted to eat too many. It’s hard not to put away a dozen or more of my mother’s. They taste like family — like home, whatever that means. Very few things do. You just have to know how to make them. Now I do.
I need to lose my mojo with another ancestral dish. I need a reason to call my mom.
– By Boris Fishman
Boris Fishman (www.BorisFishman.com) is the author of the novels “A Replacement Life” and “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” and the memoir-in-recipes “Savage Feast,” all published by HarperCollins. He also teaches writing workshops at www.TearsAndGlory.co.
These stories need to be told. The world needs to hear news and stories about healing and building peace — now as much as ever.