By SHANNON WATKINS
(Note to those of you who by now are surely wondering, “Is she in some kind of contest with herself to see if she can make progressively worse puns in the headline every week?” The answer is yes, and I’m definitely winning.)
Your 20s are like a second round of adolescence, in that you’re mostly driven by hormones and confusion, except that you’re old enough to vote, drink, own a gun and get arrested.
I can’t say I lived the stereotypical wild single life associated with that age, although I was the kind of stupidly fearless that led me to think delivering pizza (one of my earlier jobs) at high speed in a blizzard constituted fun and adventure instead of accidents and higher insurance rates. The Lord must indeed look out for fools, though, because I sailed through it sans collision.
I rented a room in a decrepit house sectioned off into apartments, which set me, along with my two roommates, back $120 a month. I couldn’t have done better, given my dedication to spending money as soon as I made it. Well, to be fair, I still do, but then it was on books and music and whatever else I pleased; nowadays it’s on bills.
But owing to a workday that started at five in the evening and ended anywhere from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., slinging pizza and blaring music in my car while doing so, the concept of dinnertime became almost abstract. Which is why making latkes on a late June Friday at midnight seemed perfectly normal.
Why this of all meals stands out, I couldn’t say; though I can assure you that the apartment, without either heat or AC, was boiling hot to start with. I know I took it in my head out of nowhere that fried potato pancakes must happen, right then. Traditionally they are enjoyed by Jewish people celebrating Hanukkah near the end of the calendar year, not backsliding Methodists celebrating dinner at the end of spring, but I saw no reason that should stop me.
I got the ingredients from the Fairlawn Kroger—this was back when it was a 24-hour store—and set up camp in the kitchen. I think my roommates were away for the weekend; at least I don’t remember any complaints. And then I began the latkes, which are the most tedious things to make unless you have access to the right tools, which I didn’t.
First you peel and finely chop the onion, which is even worse on your tear ducts in sweltering heat. Then you peel and grate the potatoes, which takes forever, and they’re all brownish by the time you’re done; then you have to use about a thousand paper towels to squeeze the water out of them. Once you mix them up, you have to drop ladlefuls into bubbling oil and endure getting burnt by spattering grease, all for a product that is good to eat for about three minutes before it goes cold and heavy.
I recall that in a burst of generosity I ran a plateful to my downstairs neighbor, a perpetual grad student Lothario in his early 30s who kept even stranger hours. He answered the door with elaborate politeness masking impatience, before he took my offering and quickly closed the door. I didn’t register his disheveled state until I was back in my kitchen; I suppose I interrupted more than a thesis paper session. Well, everyone else but you having romantic success is also a hallmark of that age, or at least it was for me.
I can’t recall the provenance of the recipe I used back then; now it’s from feminist author and activist Susie Bright, who is as gentile as I am but who loves good food, too.
Latkes (Potato Pancakes)
2 ½ – 3 cups potatoes, grated in a food processor
1 onion about the size of a tennis ball, grated in a food processor
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons fine matzo meal crumb (check the kosher section at the grocery store)
2 tsp. sea salt
Black pepper to taste
Oil and butter in whatever combination you like, for frying
Once the potatoes and onions are grated, squeeze the water out; if you have an old-fashioned potato ricer, you can, as Bright suggests, put the raw vegetables in the hopper, a handful at a go, and squeeze the water out in a tenth of the time it’ll take you to do it with soggy paper towels. (This is such genius I’m annoyed I didn’t think of it first; and if you don’t have one knocking around in a drawer I’m sure you can find it online.)
Put enough oil and butter in a skillet (cast iron, if possible) to come about ¼ inch up the sides of the pan and heat until very hot. Stir potatoes and onions together well with the eggs, matzo, salt and pepper. Drop by large spoonfuls into the oil and flatten with the back of a spatula. When about halfway done—frying is mostly technique; you’ll have to use your judgment and eyeball it—flip it over and finish it.
It’s a good idea to have your oven set to around 200-250F with a paper-towel-lined cookie sheet sitting in it; you can open it up and deposit each fresh batch of latkes to drain and stay warm until they’re all done.
It’s traditional to eat them with sour cream and applesauce, though I can’t recall eating them with anything other than ketchup and gusto. You can certainly share them with whomever you please, although I wouldn’t bother that one youngish single neighbor. He probably has his mind on higher pursuits.