When dad took over the stove at Hannukah, my brother and I ate his potato pancakes in cycles—with applesauce, with sour cream, with sugar—while he cooked. They were always hot, sweetly redolent of onion and with a touch of salt—like a baked potato that had died and gone to heaven. We wanted to sample them with every traditional topping. My mother didn't interfere or criticize or even quietly watch, she just drifted off to the living room to read a mystery or work on the New York Times Sunday puzzle. Even though she was normally the cook in our Upper Manhattan apartment, when it came to Hanukkah and potato pancakes, my dad was the kitchen king.
Dad's pancakes were always perfect: crispy outside, juicy inside, not overcooked or underdone. The Original. Humming to himself, he could have been back home in his Ruthenian hamlet, back before WWII and the Holocaust. He didn't use any kind of written recipe or even measure the ingredients: it was all done by eye, by feel, and fried in a mammoth black cast iron pan, as if following some inner knowledge. It looked haphazard to me and was completely different from how my mother, who had learned to cook in Brussels after WWII in a community of Holocaust survivors, worked. She cracked eggs single-handedly and baked cakes and cookies with orderly insouciance: you could feel her moving from one step to the next with precision. Yet she could cook and carry on a conversation at the same time in more than one language without making any kind of mess.
As a kid, I thought she was just as glamorous as those Thirties and Forties female screen idols in vintage movies featured on New York’s local channels. Maybe it was the confident way she carried herself? She was a woman who defiantly knew her own worth and couldn't be fazed by criticism. But potato pancakes? "I can't make them like your father," she said, ceding him the small L-shaped kitchen with its view of another Depression-era apartment across the street. That always puzzled me. How was the woman who made flawless omelets and savory stews without even wrinkling her forehead unable to make a simple potato pancake? And how was my father, who grew up in a village in the Carpathian Mountains, such an expert?
When I was out on my own, years later and miles away, I tried cooking potato pancakes and failed every time. He couldn't explain over the phone how he did it so well, what his secret was. And he didn’t know why I failed over and over to replicate his tradition. My pancakes were a mess: either burned or runny, too thin or too fat, and always pedestrian in taste.
I was desperate. And even though I knew it was cheating, I tried substitutes like using frozen hash browns instead of laboriously grating potatoes. My new pancake attempts didn't even seem to come close: they were either too salty or bland. And frozen pancakes were no better: they seemed notional, not the thing itself.
I finally admitted defeat. I would never have potato pancakes like my dad's again. Why settle for ersatz?
Then a Whole Foods opened up in our neighborhood. It was only five minutes from our house, and I discovered that the store was filled with a panoply of specialty cheeses, seafood, and wines unavailable anywhere else nearby. Phenomenal breads like one called "Seeduction" that was crammed with poppy seeds and sunflower seeds and had a cake-like texture. It was hard to walk through the aisles and not have delicacies call out to me and get added to my cart. The stock did mirror other stores in some ways. They carried Bonne Maman jams, for example, but they had more of them than any other nearby, close to two dozen flavors.
And there was a big surprise the first December I went there: I found potato pancakes at the deli counter. They were thicker than my dad's and perfectly round, like fat crab cakes, but I bought a dozen anyway, hoping for a Hanukah miracle.
The instructions were to bake them, not fry. I was dubious but did as instructed. And the result was, well, amazing. They were mouth-watering, succulent, very crispy on the outside, and so good that I hesitated at first to add sour cream or anything else.
But then I began to wonder were these pancakes better than my dad’s? Was it heresy to like these pancakes better than my dad's? Were they actually better, or was I just relieved to have something satisfying and tasty to be close enough to dad’s? Had I just been seduced by the convenience of not having to cook?
Maybe his pancakes were never that great to begin with. Maybe it was just the ceremony of the thing, his reigning in the kitchen where he was only a visitor most of the year. And the momentary ghostly sense that he cared about me and my brother.
Then again, maybe that wasn’t it at all.
Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery, has taught creative writing at Michigan State University, and during the pandemic published over 40 flash and memoir essays in The Smart Set, Memoirist, Literary Traveler, among other journals. He edits, coaches, and mentors writers at writewithoutborders.com.