I have come to realize that one of the most important Hanukkah traditions in my multi-generational interfaith family is, box latkes. Yes, the latkes made from the mix in the little box from Manischewitz. For me, checking the date on a box lost in the back of the cupboard, tearing open the packets, breathing in the cloud of onion powder that rises up when you dump the packets in the bowl, feeling the little potato starch granules thicken as you stir, these are all Proustian moments.
How did this come to be our way? Here we must pause to imagine my Episcopalian mother, raising four Jewish kids in the 1960s. This was before food processors. Her Jewish mother-in-law lived many states away. So there was really no one around to insist that my mother do things the hard way, with grated knuckles bleeding into the potatoes.
My mother was a great cook. But, often left on her own with four kids and a dog while my father traveled the world on business, she was eager to try the highly-processed products of that era. We ate Manwich Sloppy Joes, and Hamburger Helper, and utterly egregious Libbyland TV dinners with purple “pirate powder” to stir into your milk.
And then, there’s the matter of the matzoh ball analogy. I imagine my mother thinking, “Everyone makes matzoh balls from those little boxes, and that’s considered kosher, so why can’t I make latkes that way too?” A novice mistake, but she stuck with it, even when Cuisinart came on the scene. Because, to be honest, my brothers and sister and I clamored for those box latkes!
My mother died last year. Now, thinking about the love that inspired her to even attempt to make latkes for a family of six makes me ache for her. Who would begrudge my mother this shortcut, when she was putting her own religion aside and devoting herself to raising four, count them four, Jewish children. I give her credit for making latkes at all, because the truth is, even when you use the mix, the endless frying in small batches is a pain in the tuchus. A single hungry child can eat every single latke you make as soon as they come out of the pan, until the batter is gone.
The first time I attempted to wean myself off making box latkes, the heap of grated potatoes turned alarming colors, because it took me so long to grate them that they oxidized. Those rainbow latkes were exceedingly ugly–my family was afraid to eat them. I also discovered that making sure the potato strings are no longer raw, without burning the latke to a crisp, is an art that takes practice.
I think a few years went by before I dared to get back on the grater to try again. But eventually, I got the hang of it. These days, I usually grate potatoes for latkes at least once during Hanukkah. I have even mastered hip contemporary variations, such as Sweet Potato Ginger Latkes. Everyone in my family–Jews and Christians and Buddhists and those who claim both religions or none–loves a latke made from scratch with the lacy golden brown edges.
But the truth is, in my family, we also stand by those fluffy box latkes, and crave this taste of home. Last year at Hanukkah, just after my mother died, with winter closing in around my raw grief and the brightness of the holidays refracted through the pain of loss, I’m not sure I made latkes at all. But this year, I stocked up on those little boxes. I will tear the packets, stir the mix, and eat the latkes, in her memory.
Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.