I like to joke that if God intended me to cook, why did he invent restaurants, caterers or Uber Eats? To say I’m “domestically challenged” in the kitchen doesn’t do justice to just how domestically challenged I am. I pretty much have the same cooking skills as a rock. But one of my 2020 New Year’s resolutions is to learn to cook at least a handful of traditional Jewish meals – possibly even host a Jewish holiday or Friday night dinner. Even so, I didn’t want 2019 to end without me cooking something. Cue my 74-year-old mother, who probably almost fainted when I asked if she could teach me, her middle-aged daughter, how to cook latkes.
Can you call yourself a Jewish mother if you have no idea how to make chicken soup? As my generation of women is starting to host Jewish holidays and celebrations, taking over from our mothers, I have to be honest with you: I think cooking Jewish dishes for numerous relatives and friends, who come over to your house to celebrate, whether it’s a dinner or afternoon drop in, makes you look and act insane. Go ahead, just try starting a conversation with a woman who’s spent days shopping and cooking (and then running back to the grocery store for some herb she forgot.)
You might expect a response something like. “I can’t talk! I have 22 people coming over and I still have so much more to cook and I only have 72 hours, 17 minutes and 57 seconds!” I don’t think I’ve ever truly met a Jewish host who, when the day of the gathering arrives, doesn’t look like they could sleep for a week (even if they profess, “It was no big deal. I truly enjoyed cooking 14 dishes. I find it relaxing.”)
I went to my mom’s condo because she already had all the ingredients and appliances. Besides, who was I to complain? Better her house stink of onions than mine. She pulled out an old recipe, from the second edition of the Naomi Cookbook, which came out 15 years before I was born.
The recipe was called, “Easy Potato Pancakes.”
Yes, the recipe was only seven sentences, requiring only seven ingredients, but I stumbled on the very first line. “Cut potatoes in chunks and onion in half,” it read. As I grabbed a potato to chop, my mother reminded me, “You have to peel them first,” to which I responded, “why are they assuming that I know this?”
I got tripped up about what it meant that the potatoes needed to be “pared.” My dad, who was hanging around, chimed in to ask how I could be a writer and not know what “pared” meant.
“Father,” I sighed, “I know how to ‘pare’ my phone to the Bluetooth (“Hey Alexa! Make latkes!”).
My mother, meanwhile, must have thought we were in a potato paring competition. She managed to peel an entire potato in one long peel. It took me almost 10 minutes to “pare” my first potato. “Your nails get ruined when you cook,” my mother said. Couldn’t she have mentioned that before I got a manicure yesterday?
Speaking of peeling, I peeled the onions next. Then I placed the cut up potatoes and onion in the food processor with two eggs. I knew to break the eggs first, so, yay me?
I hate food processors. Mostly because I’m terrified of the blade, but also I hate the din and feel the need to ask 27 times, “Are you sure this is locked correctly?” To which my mom responded, “No, it’s not,” and then proceed to lock that damn thing properly. I should have brought my noise-cancelling headphones for the next 20-30 seconds. At the end of it, was my blend smooth? It was not. My mom told me just to take out the few potato chunks, which I did. After adding salt and pepper and flour and baking soda, and blending again, it was time to actually make latkes.
I managed to drop the mixture into the oil, making eight perfectly round looking latkes. I even managed to flip them over without incident. Trust me, I stared at that pan as if I was babysitting a newborn. As I was transferring my perfectly brown latkes (if I do say so myself) onto a plate, one slipped and landed on the floor.
“No,” I told my mother. “The five second rule does not apply to latkes.”
My mom told me she’d clean up. Even if I had tried to wash anything, she would have just washed it again.
Both parents said my latkes were amazing, but they are genetically required to say so. I needed someone objective. I suggested a visit to my mom’s friend who lives across the street.
“Aren’t you going to put on a coat on? It’s cold and you’ll get sick,” my mother said. But like a kid who doesn’t want their Halloween costume ruined by wearing a coat over it, I wanted to show off my apron. It did feel as if I were in costume.
My mom’s friend loved my latkes, and her husband said they were delicious. That’s right, “delicious.” Which seemed to be the consensus with everyone in my family, when I brought them home, including my 16-year-old daughter, my son, my nanny and my nanny’s son, who polished them all off within minutes.
Now I get it. It’s nice to get compliments while cooking for people you love. I was proud of myself. Is that why people really like to cook?
So bring on 2020, the year I’ll be making chicken soup, roast beef, challah, and maybe gefilte fish. Even though, to be blunt, I’d still much rather be your guest than your cook.