Much like my first clueless dip into the sexual waters, that start-stop fiasco of thrills, spills and errant fingertips, my initial foray into making potato pancakes was shaping up to be sheer disaster.
“Don’t burn yourself,” my girlfriend cautioned, eyeballing my cast-iron pans with abject terror, as if the gurgling oil was a hissing serpent.
“At first, you’re going to mess up,” my friend Ben added, just the encouraging counsel I’ve come to expect from my pals. “Are you sure that’s how you make the latkes?” my girlfriend prodded, pronouncing it late keys. “Jesus,” I muttered, spooning some potato-onion pabulum into the crackling pan, “I didn’t even want to have a Hanukkah party.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a long, hard season of holiday merrymaking.The celebratory onslaught started with my strenuous, familyand-all Thanksgiving and stretched straight through to Santacon, the boom-box march of Unsilent Night, friends’ cheese-nibbling gatherings, liquor-soaked birthday revelries and dance fests where I performed my angular, jerky rendition of the robot. Simply put, I’m party pooped.
“But I want to throw a Hanukkah party,” my girlfriend said. “You’re not Jewish,” I replied, quite reasonably. “It’s the holidays. I want it to feel like the holidays,” she said. A week earlier, she bought a mini Christmas tree and decorated it with candy canes, Mardi Gras beads and, curiously, a rooster mask. “But…” “No. I want a party.”
In love and war, there are battles you can win. And there are many, many more you will lose. Sensing my Battle of the Little Bighorn odds, I decided to try a novel technique called compromise.
“Fine, fine, you can have a Hanukkah party.” She beamed, all rainbows and sunshine. “But you have to handle all the decorations.”
“Like I wouldn’t do that anyway,” she said, her brain spinning like a dreidel. “And you have to make potato pancakes.” Me? Potato pancakes? Oy vey. Few foods symbolize the festival of lights like latkes—that fried merger of potatoes and onions. As a child, my family wasn’t much into Hanukkah gift-giving.
Even then it felt contrived, a sop to the poor, suffering, Santa-less Jewish kids. Instead of video games or flashy gewgaws, I eagerly anticipated my mom’s latkes that, naturally, were far crisper and fluffier than other mothers’ latkes. Replicating them would be like assuming the mantle of mom or grandmother, a role that’d hold more appeal if I liked tucking appendages betwixt my legs and cross-dressing.
I emailed my mom for her recipe. I received succinct instructions on proportions of potatoes, onions, eggs, baking soda and matzo meal. “It’s my personal recipe,” she wrote, which was code for don’t fuck up my legacy.
The morning of the party, I performed my manly duties—moving chairs, rearranging tables and, sigh, scrubbing the toilet—then decamped to lesbian bar Cattyshack (249 Fourth Ave. betw. President & Carroll Sts., 718-230- 5740; B’klyn) to watch football while my girlfriend decorated. It’s been tough being a Cincinnati Bengals fan, with my team mired in another miserable campaign.At most bars, I’m mocked for my Bengals allegiance. But at Cattyshack, I can quietly root on my hangdog underdogs while nursing my virgin bloody Mary. In years past, I glugged beer during games. However, the crushing losses, combined with depressing alcohol, left me a sullen wreck. Remove booze, I found, and I could stomach the defeats, instead of kicking the bar with my Converse.
“Spicy virgin bloody?” asked the bartender, a gregarious gal sporting a deflated faux-hawk. “Sure thing,” I said, settling in for another afternoon of disappointment. “I had to escape the house—we’re having a Hanukkah party tonight.”
“Ouch.You need something stronger than a virgin bloody,” she said. She retrieved a Maker’s Mark bottle and poured me a hefty amber measure, then uncapped a hoppy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. “You need to be drunk before heading home.” By the game’s end, I was elated—as a Hanukkah gift, the Bengals won a rare game— and inebriated. “Starting early?” my girlfriend asked, when I wobbled into the kitchen.“I don’t know if it’s wise to use sharp knives.”
“Ish always wise,” I said, swiftly, clumsily removing potatoes’ skins. She sighed and left the kitchen, greeting the guests who arrived bearing tender brisket, smoky whitefish salad, sweet kugel, bialys, bagels and pickles, pickles, pickles. Candles were lit, prayers were mumbled and then I returned to the stove to prepare the potato pancakes.
“You’re everyone’s Jewish mother tonight,” my friend Randi said, as the latkes browned and took their irregular shape.