What do potato pancakes have to do with Hanukkah? Well, it’s not entirely unreasonable to ask what Hanukkah has to do with anything. It’s long been common to think that Jewish families in the 1950s played up a minor holiday to compete with high-sparkle Christmas. The Festival of Lights event of ancient Judea had never been big on gifts, or splashes of blue lights on pine trees, or, care of my ex-husband Marty, the invention of Hanukkah Joe to fill in for Santa.
All the same, potato pancakes are a strong fixture of any farming cuisine. And it seems the “noble spud” (as it was named in a church hymn during the famous Irish Famine) is the only ingredient absolutely essential in the dish: Just grate it, form flapjack shapes, and fling into a hot saucepan. A little salt and pepper couldn’t hurt.
I learned this firsthand when I worked on a kibbutz, Kiryat Schmona, in the northern Galilee region of Israel, in the spring of 1971. I’d started steering a hydraulic cherry-picker, sending my kid-hearted self 30 feet up in the air to gather apples. Later I got reassigned to the kitchen, in those days run by an elite team of Eastern Europeans who only knew from boiled meat and cabbage. I was there one day when a snarky Brooklyn guy saw them grating potatoes for latkes. “Grate a little onion in there,” he told them. Later our staff received a standing ovation from the hundreds of diners accustomed to a very bland potato pancake.
Since that time in a kibbutz kitchen, I’ve learned there are no hard and fast rules for any ethnic cuisine, especially not for Hanukkah latkes. It was with this devil-may-care attitude that I took up the challenge to bring my own latkes to a Hanukkah party at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven in December of 1993, with the best entry to be judged by top chef Raymond Schilcher (the Oyster Bar and Grill, among others).
The Nadler family of three — me, daddy Marty, 11-year-old son Charlie in the sixth grade at the Oak Bluffs School — arrived with a platter of “sweet potato pancakes” from the original Moosewood Cookbook of Ithaca, N.Y. (Ten-Speed Press), a dish that had won me many kudos over the years I’d served them, steaming hot from our East Chop kitchen. They weren’t at all kosher in the traditional sense of the term: They weren’t white potatoes, nor were they blessed by Orthodox rabbis, as we are treated to by boxes of pancake mixes available on every supermarket shelf. But our Hebrew Center on M.V. is decidedly open-minded.
So I brought the questionable Moosewood pancakes. I watched Mr. Schilcher sample the dozen or so platters of latkes, his face expressionless, at least when it turned to the fold of diners. He made a couple of trips to my orange-y latkes, then “oozing charm from every pore,” to quote from “My Fair Lady,” he sidled over for a chat with Rabbi Josh Plaut.
At last the announcement was made: The sweet potato dish had won the grand prize. And what was the grand prize? Who remembers? In the sweet glow of victory, it’s only the winning itself that matters.
Sweet Potato Pancakes
4 cups (packed) coarsely grated sweet potatoes or yams
½ cup grated onion
3 to 4 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
black pepper to taste
4 beaten eggs
⅓ cup flour
¼ cup minced parsley
oil for frying
toppings: sour cream or yogurt or applesauce
Combine all ingredients and mix well.
Heat oil in a skillet until it’s very hot. Use a non-slotted spoon to form thin pancakes, patting the batter down. Fry on both sides until brown, adding small amounts of additional oil, if needed. Serve hot with toppings.