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When Family Lore is Fueled by Latkes
Hanukkah celebrates resiliency—something we’ve all been tapping into this year. It also means latkes. Love ’em, hate ’em, agree or disagree about what goes on ’em, the ritual and aroma and taste of these potato pancakes are part of what makes Hanukkah what it is. Emily Hope Dobkin, the founder of Betterish, shares a whole latke love.
Am I a bad Jew if I confess I don’t actually love latkes?
Here’s what I do love in regards to latkes: the sound of the oil sizzling in the pan, the scrappy shreds of potatoes that litter the kitchen sink in the process, the strong opinions on how to top latkes (generally: applesauce vs. sour cream). And strangely, I appreciate the smell of those fried potato pancakes clinging to my clothes the day after a big Latkefest.
Mainly because it transports me to tradition, ritual, and family connection. And that’s incredibly comforting, especially during a year when discomfort, distance, and disconnect have loomed indefinitely.
I used to think the Jewish holidays were about the food with the bonus of some great stories. But I’ve recently reflected that it’s really that food is a vehicle that brings us to gather together, and that the stories that unfold bond us to our family roots and the generations that came before us.
Passover 2020 was my family’s Zoom premiere. By that I mean it was the first time my extended family gathered in a virtual setting. It was chaotic, cozy, and took my 89-year-old Mommom Ray twenty-three minutes to get on with audio and video, but she got on, and has been my-super-tech-savvy Grandmother on Zoom ever since.
As I was prepping the matzah ball soup pre-Passover Zoom, the scent of the carrots and dill softening in the chicken broth instantly flooded my memory of Mommom Ray’s kitchen on 8907 Montgomery Avenue in Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. This was the place where my family would come together for nearly every Jewish holiday and Shabbat circa 1980s–early 2000s. It’s where the large round dining room table gradually extended into the living room, with the rectangular kitchen table being added on for each holiday, officially becoming the “Kids’ Table.” From 1980–1992, the collection of cousins at the kids' table grew with more chairs and high chairs, all amounting to a rather squished dining situation. We’d make fun of each other, annoy each other, fight over challah bread and Aunt Jane’s cookies, but we loved it all the same. I’d tune into the murmurs of the “Grown-Ups” reminiscing about holiday meals that came before us. The conversations that used to end with letters read aloud in Yiddish from our family in Soviet Russia, weekend sleepovers my Dad and his cousins spent pillow-fighting in an old dusty attic on the family farm, and the countless scars that still adorn my Uncle’s knees and elbows from climbing trees and encountering the resident wasps.
These became my personal glimpses into my family’s past, and often I learned through these recollections the stories of what shaped my family’s foundation here in America. And often all of which were fueled by latkes, apple sauces and/or sour cream.
As we’ve all grown up and gotten older, we’ve all spread out across the country. The Kids’ Table has actually disappeared, and the table settings have become fewer and fewer throughout the years. Though it doesn’t sound ideal, it’s a major silver lining of family Zoom gatherings: we’ve truly been able to all gather in the same “room” for the first time in several years.
As summer 2020 was winding down and it was clear we’d be spending the Jewish High Holy days apart, my cousin and I thought of a way to feel something better: betterish togetherish, as I like to call it. We decided if we can’t physically be together, might as well get our kitchens smelling like we are, right?
Compiling a family cookbook seemed daunting, so we’ve gone the bite-sized route: creating mini recipe zines.
My cousin (who is based in Philadelphia, where the majority of my family is located) started gathering the recipes, and then I compiled them into the mini zine format: cutting, pasting, constructing and making copies tended to with much craft and care, followed by mailing them all out.
Volume I was for the High Holy days.
Volume II was for Thanksgiving (yes, I know not technically a Jewish holiday, but if there’s food involved, my family gathers).
I’m currently wrapping up Volume III: Hanukkah. Hanukkah will include Mommom Ray’s 1890 Chicken, Aunt Jane’s Latkes, Cousin Em’s Easy Apple Sauce, Aunt Ceil’s Sweet & Sour Meatballs, and Aunt Jane’s Star Sugar Cookies (Aunt Jane is a pastry chef—we’re lucky for endless top notch sweetness).
What’s been great about the mini recipe zine format:
· They are clearly categorized by holiday and less overwhelming than a cookbook with only 5-6 recipes per volume.
· They are super easy to mail: one regular-sized envelope, one stamp.
· They are pocket-sized. Have a lot of books on your shelves? I keep mine pinned by a magnet on my fridge.
Hanukkah celebrates the oil that lasted eight days and ultimately commemorates resiliency—something many of us have been tapping into this year. It further offers the opportunity to remind us that just as a small quantity of oil fueled a miracle of light for eight nights, we too can find ways to shine in this dark period.
These recipe zines have become our little light in the darkness. How will you bring a little light into the darkness this holiday season?
Interested in making your own recipe zine? Sign up for a virtual zine workshop with Emily in 2021 here or let Emily make a bundle of personalized zines for you & yours here.
More from The Colorado Magazine
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