When I think of my father, I think of latkes.

The traditional Jewish potato pancakes, fried in a vat of heated oil to commemorate the Hanukkah miracle, have long been a staple in the Asimow household. During our annual holiday party, my dad, normally rabbinical only in appearance, would stand over his portable fryer as if it were the temple “bima,” molding, squeezing and shaping the golden medallions as he sermonized the Hanukkah story to anyone who would listen. By the time he was done, tales of Maccabees were met with plenty of calories, the promise of a crispy, artery-clogging latke ample reward for having to edify oneself about the old-world evils of King Antiochus the Fourth.

They were pretty much the only reason anyone showed up.

As I got older, my father — by now in full ownership of the ‘Latke Larry’ sobriquet — would make an annual trip to my school with the portable fryer in tow. Whispers of excitement circulated through the class as Hanukkah approached, every kid at Chicago’s Hawthorne Scholastic Academy fully aware of the treat they were about to receive — and I the unwitting beneficiary of their affection. At first, the administration hated it, knowing that the smell of burning oil, potatoes, and onions would emanate through the building for weeks. But my dad had a solution. After all the kids got their share, he’d set aside a final plate, fully loaded with a pile of latkes, sour cream, and applesauce. I’d walk through the entire school, offering every teacher, librarian, custodian and principal their olive (oil soaked) branch.

Most would ask for another.

Before I left for college, I asked my dad for the recipe, passed down from one hairy, short-legged Asimow generation to another hairy, short-legged Asimow generation. He said it was simple: potatoes, onions, an egg, a little bit of flour, a lot of salt, and pepper to taste. But the execution was not. We set aside time for a night in the kitchen, grating the potatoes until our arms burned; grating the onions until our eyes did as well. We salted, we peppered, we mixed, we drained, and then we drained some more. We played with the proportions until it smelled just right, and heated the oil until it was a medieval siege weapon, hot enough to sizzle anything from an invading barbarian horde to a soggy potato strand.

“They’re really more French fry than pancake,” he said. “The biggest mistake is too much flour.”

For four years, I didn’t have a chance to use the recipe. I lived in a dorm room, where the midnight oil was generally burned in much more nefarious ways. The relationship I once had with the latke, and my father, I thought had pretty much ended — a token of my childhood lost to the life I had just started to begin.

But then I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, and that life was one on a tiny Island where I knew virtually nobody, with no family, no year-round home, approximately four Jews, and a landlady who thought “lat-key” meant I needed a new way to get into the house. I decided to hold my own little Hanukkah party, with me — rabbinical only in my ability to sermonize — responsible for the cooking.

When the night finally came, I was a frantic mess, the quiet, confident stoicism of my father replaced with a 23-year-old who didn’t know what in Adonai’s name he was doing. I told the Hanukkah story all wrong. I forgot the prayer for lighting the candles. I bought frozen hash browns and forgot to defrost them, cried while grating the onions, scalded my hands when I realized I had to transfer the hot oil into a smaller pan, and left the cooking up to a 14-year-old gentile who had spent his summer mastering cheese-burger flipping at The Galley — all acts of un-kosher blasphemy that should have cursed me to eternal damnation. I guess it’s good Jews don’t believe in curses — or damnation, for that matter.

What they do believe in, however, is repentance, and one year later, I decided to try again. This time, I remembered to defrost the hash browns. I only cried a little grating the onions. I still had to switch the oil to a smaller pan, but I made sure to keep it dry during the transfer. I didn’t even bother with the Hanukkah story. And standing over the burning oil, watching the patties of potatoes and onions crisp while I fished out the stray, crunchy little extra bits with the perforated spatula, I felt, for a brief moment, like I knew what I was doing. I felt like my father. It was a feeling I never wanted to go away.

That night, I took the first three latkes out of the pan, and dried them on a double-folded paper towel Latke Larry-style, arranging them on a plate with a dollop of sour cream and a dollop of apple sauce. I took a bite. They tasted like home.


Noah Asimow is a reporter at the Vineyard Gazette.