Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Auntie X and Auntie Y


Every time I sit in on a discussion of my novel, I learn something new. Last night I attended the meeting of a local book group, and it was no exception. This was a group of perhaps ten women who have been meeting monthly for over ten years. I was invited because one member emailed me while she was reading the novel. She grew up in Detroit, in all the same neighborhoods and schools and synagogues that inhabit my book, and she was moved to contact me. One thing led to another, and there I was in another warm living room with people who have rich, interlocking relationships with each other, who love to read books, and who take the time and trouble to gather to discuss them. It's enough to give one hope for the world.
     The discussion ranged widely around social issues and urban issues and "white flight" and migration patterns in Chicago, New Haven, and other parts of the country. The book group members discussed Harry and Ruth and Curtis and Alvin, asked questions about my process and my background, and shared stories of their own. Then, one woman mentioned the Chanukah party that takes place in the chapter called "Family." In particular, what she focused on were the latkes--the "good" latkes and the "bad" latkes.
     In the picture above, you see what I think of as good latkes. One sign of a good latke is that the batter was grated by hand (not in a food processor or from a mix). How can I tell that this batter was hand grated? The well-defined potato shards. This is essential to a good, crisp latke. The latkes in the above photo are also golden, and you can thus be sure that they are very crisp. Now . . .
the soggy (bad) latke. You can see from the way these latkes drape over each other that they are not crisp. And you cannot not see the well-defined potato shards, so these latkes were likely derived from a mix or a food-processed batter. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I try very hard to be tolerant and empathic and understand differences/diversity. But on the point of good versus bad latkes, I am rigid.
     The issue that the woman in the book group raised is that when you are seated at a table with these two plates of latkes, which are you going to eat? Are you going to be polite and eat one of Auntie X's soggy latkes so that hers don't sit untouched? Will you forgo Auntie Y's golden crispy ones just to make Auntie X feel appreciated? Will you forgo Auntie Y's crispy ones and settle for Auntie X's soggy ones so that others can enjoy the superior product (the martyr approach)? How will it look if the crispy pile disappears in a minute, and the soggy pile remains all evening? Perhaps more important, how will Auntie X feel about Auntie Y (perhaps they are sisters) as a result of this latke affair, and vice versa? There is always the possibility, of course, that some will prefer the soggy latke, that they don't see them as "soggy" at all but pleasantly accessible.

6 comments:

rasirds@cox.net said...

It blew my mind looking at "my mother"s" dishtowel in the lower image. The red striped were for Milk and the blue for Meat ( I wouldn't attempt to spell those words in Yiddish) with matching Kosher soap. You really got to me. I hadn't thought about them for years.

Now it's time for some humor.

I'd eat ONE soggy latke first and MANY like those my mother made last, insulting neither X or Y (hopefully) and leaving with a good taste in my mouth.

susan messer said...

So weird. I didn't even notice the dishtowel until you mentioned it. I do remember that soap. My grandmother had it.

Okay, so you'd eat a soggy one. I guess if everyone did that, it might diminish the pile.

Margaret P. said...

We don't make latkes in my family, we make potato pancakes. We do this, occasionally, to please my father who is of German descent. It's not that the rest of us don't like potato pancakes, its just, well, you know...it's a lot of work and all that oil!

But my mother (who never saw a potato pancake before she met my father) likes to tell the story of her first attempt to make them. When she presented them to my father, he complained that she hadn't used a fine enough grate. My mom promptly dumped a pitcher of lemonade over his head and then burst into tears.

I'm thinking I'd eat one of each...

Susan Messer said...

Wow. That's some mother . . .

Marion said...

I haven’t ever been at a Chanukah celebration where they were made by more than one person, so I didnt have that experience. But your description and photos still resonated -- because husband Mark, who mostly does not cook, got the idea a few years ago to make latkes for our yearly celebration with two other couples and their kids, from scratch, and they sure do look like the ones you like, in the top photo. He’s been doing it every year since, joking about how some Jewish blood (his own, from grating) is mixed in with the potatoes.

Meanwhile, we also have a party each year with son Aaron, his wife Pam and their girls and Mark’s brother, mother, etc. This year, his mother being 90 years old, wasn’t up for having it at her house, so it was at ours. I made the latkes from a mix, and they usually still wind up pretty crispy -- BUT, I made the mistake of putting the completed ones in a casserole in a 200 degree oven to stay warm… not too bad, you say -- the mistake, I found, was in putting the cover on the casserole. So this, I found, had the effect of essentially steaming the latkes, and they did wind up being kind of soggy (but they still tasted pretty good).

Susan Messer said...

Oh, Marion. Thanks for this story. I love latke stories.