Lessons in Latkes

If you knew what I knew about making latkes, you'd be terrible

If you've been looking for latkes in all the wrong places, it's too bad you didn't visit my daughter's classroom about a week ago. That's when I was making some of the worst examples possible in the most unlikely venue imaginable.

Trust me, I didn't volunteer for the job. I'm hardly the cooking-with-kids type: Eggshells in cake batter and sloppy whisking technique can drive me to culinary violence. I've been known to throw pasta against the walls even before it was time to check if the cooking process had finished. And besides, I thought, I already split my salary between the kid's tuition and valet parking fees. Do I really have to pay my "hands-on mom" dues, too?

Clearly some of this dismay must have showed in my face when the teacher first asked me to come in and make the traditional potato patties with the children. At my transparent look of horror, Mrs. Wilson quickly followed up with, "But you don't have to." Slight pause. "We just thought you would be the most fun mom to do it."

Translation (sung to the Beatles tune): I am the Jewess.

A couple of pieces of circumstantial evidence make me subscribe to the theory that I might be something of a token Jewish mother. For one thing, Miami Country Day School, where my daughter attends "senior kindergarten," is owned by the Miami Shores Presbyterian Church -- one of eighteen registered churches in Miami Shores. For the sake of comparison, note that there are no synagogues within the village confines. I am fine with this. If I had a problem with her knowing more about baby Jesus than Judah Maccabbee, I would register her at the nearest yeshiva faster than a kid can rip the wrapping off a gift.

But really, as most people outside the school system know, I consider "fun mom" to be an oxymoron. In fact I only become "fun" after a glass or two of (preferably not kosher) wine.

At any rate, plenty of Jewish children attend the school. It's actually a very well-rounded population in terms of religion and race, a literal example of the Nickelodeon slogan, "Color is everything -- and nothing." I just think there are only maybe two kids who qualify for latke-making in my daughter's particular class, and the parent of one potential member of the club is the room mother, a thankless job that in my book earns her a get-out-of-obligation-free pass on everything else all year.

So I'm it, the other mom, the fun mom, "Zoe's mom," which is the term of address her teachers and I decided on to avoid the confusion inherent with having a different last name than the rest of my self-imposed family. It's also a good way for me to avoid the embarrassment of being the restaurant critic who convinced eighteen five-year-olds that latkes are among the most disgusting culinary items on earth, second only to spinach; all the other parents need to know is that "Zoe's mom" has limited career potential as a short-order cook.

Of course I didn't intend for my latkes to be so unlikable. I read recipes. I consulted colleagues like cookbook writer Carole Kotkin on the merits of matzoh meal and baking soda. I enlisted Zoe's surrogate aunt Stacy, who took the day off work to be my assistant (though I actually think she came along just to laugh at me). I even swallowed my gourmet pride and called on the holiday maven (my own Jewish mom) for helpful hints on cooking latkes for a crowd. Her answer came in the mail -- a gorgeous Calphalon frying pan.

In the end, though, I went with what seemed like the most practical advice, given to me by Zoe's teacher: Don't bother to grate the potatoes myself, just get the preshredded ones, located in the refrigerated aisle near the eggs.

Those prepped spuds also inspired the intro to my presentation: "Boys and girls," I said, holding up the plastic bags of would-be hash browns, "these are what's known as 'convenience foods.' Can anyone tell me what a convenience food is?"

The interesting thing about those packages of potatoes is that they hold a lot more than I would have thought, thus throwing off the ratios of flour and baking soda that I had premeasured before arriving at the school. The not-so-interesting thing is that they're missing the fresh, oozing starch that you get when you wash, peel, and grate potatoes from scratch, and that's necessary to forming good, crusty latkes.

Ditto really hot oil, the kind you don't want kids anywhere near. That's why Mrs. Wilson set me up in a little nook in a breezeway with a portable electric burner and a spatula, after allowing each child to either dump in an ingredient to shrieks of "eew, onions!" or have a turn mixing the batter to the tune of "cleanup on aisle five!" I figured it would take me about ten minutes to turn out enough golden-brown latkes so delicious that even my own daughter might deign to eat one; after all, didn't I explain about how they tasted like Tater Tots?

Instead, sizzle turned to fizzle on the very first batch. Rather than becoming puffy and crisp, they turned soggy and limp. It almost seemed like they had stopped frying before they even started, though the oil was bubbling when I spooned the first few in. In fact they had quit cooking, as Mrs. Wilson realized when she came to check on me. The burner had actually turned itself off. "Oh, that one is always shorting out," she said. "It's only good for a few minutes." She pulled out a double burner and plugged it in as a replacement.

The second batch of oil never heated up to proper scalding temperatures, though, making me reminisce about the only element I liked when I lived in New Jersey: gas stoves. What I wouldn't give this season for a pilot light.

Then again, even during Hanukkah, one can't blame or credit everything on the oil. It was time I faced up to my other problem -- the latke batter was unbalanced, too watery, and short on the all-important ingredient of salt. The end result, which took me about an hour to accomplish, was a tray of some of the nastiest latkes I have ever seen, let alone made; about as tired and played-out as Silly Putty that has seen one too many comic books.

Still, one little boy ate five of them. Brave soul, be mine. The only golden coins my own offspring downed that day were the perfectly formed chocolate gelt that I brought as a bribe -- I mean, for dessert. After all, token or not, it never hurts to end on a sure thing.

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