Hot oil takes me down Latke Lane

When I was growing up, my cat Boris (his given name was Cheerio, but my father later felt that no self-respecting cat should be named after a cereal) used to steal my mother’s latkes at Chanukah time.

He would jump up on the counter, grab a mouthful and flee. The only evidence left behind was a couple of greasy paw prints.

I fondly recalled this as I ate a latke with Peter Levitt, the co-owner of Saul’s restaurant in Berkeley, and his cat, so appropriately named Latke.

As I sat enjoying Levitt’s flawless potato pancakes, not quite chopped, not quite grated, perfectly seasoned and crispy on the outside, Latke put her paws up on the table, her nostrils twitching enthusiastically in the direction of my latke.

Levitt, who grew up in South Africa, remembers his mother serving her latkes with apricot sauce. He remembers the taste of the seasonal local apricots and the smell of latkes frying in oil, a scent that permeated his childhood home at Chanukah.

It seems once hot oil starts bubbling against potato pancakes we all have a memory or two emerging as fresh as yesterday. And I know this is not just me and Levitt acting wistful about the past.

Culinary maven Joan Nathan confirmed this in her seminal book “Jewish Cooking in America.” Latkes not only taste good, she wrote, but they evoke memories.

For Robby Morgenstein, owner of Miller’s East Coast West Deli in San Francisco, his past has become a legacy.

He told me that he sells more than 6,000 latkes a week during Chanukah because it is tradition, passed down from generation to generation. His grandmother, Rose, shared her latkes recipe with Morgenstein’s mother, who later gave it to him.

That prompted me to call my mother to inquire about what great family latkes secrets and traditions I would be passing down to my children.

“What can I tell you?” my mom lamented. “You grew up with a mother who put her potatoes into the Cuisinart.”

Is it a desecration to the memory of Eastern European women, who spent hours grating by hand endless potatoes, to use a Cuisinart to make potato latkes?

Gloria Kaufer Greene writes in “The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook” that some latke connoisseurs insist that a potato latke is only authentic if one’s knuckles are grated right along with the potatoes.

Nathan, on the other hand, says that the difference between machine and hand-grated potato latkes is marginal.

However, when I called up Saul’s for a latke powwow, I found out there were far more serious concerns at hand than a couple of bruised knuckles and the authenticity of shredding.

“I have to warn you, Peter is feeling fed up with latkes right now,” Karen Adelman, a Saul’s co-owner, told me over the phone, when I asked to speak to him.

It isn’t the latkes that bother him, Levitt explained later to me over my latke. He sells 1,000 latkes a week all year round. His problem, of late, has been with freezers.

You see, customers who buy latkes from Saul’s are taking them home, freezing them and then reheating them. This inevitably leads to soggy and greasy latkes, Levitt told me. A Saul’s latke only in name.

“They sometimes come back and say, ‘You know, we had your latkes … they were OK,'” Levitt said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Morgenstein, on the other hand, has modernized his take on latke preservation.

“Freezing is OK” said Morgenstein, whose kosher-style deli was bustling with people at 1:30 on a Monday afternoon when I visited. “It stops the oxidation. So we pop them in the freezer, take them out and fry them up.”

What to believe? One expert says yes, the other says no. Is this truly a potato-poTAHto disagreement?

Nathan writes that although people use shortcuts with dehydrated and frozen latkes, freshly made ones are coming back into fashion; they are becoming “chic.”

Morgenstein recommends using high-starch potatoes that will hold together. You don’t want a waxy potato, like a fingerling, he cautioned. Levitt spent some time lecturing me on how best to store potatoes: a dry place above all else.

With all these tips, biases and memories swarming in my head, I wanted to set out to make my own latkes.

Morgenstein instilled confidence in me.

“Tradition and rules aside, latkes don’t take a great deal of skill,” he said. “Have you ever had a bad latke?”

Certainly some have been better than others. But every latke I’ve ever eaten enlivens my palate, brings a rush of warmth into my heart, bonds me to the past and takes me home.

And if a latke can do that, it’s got to be perfect.

Mollie Schneider is the young adult community coordinator at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.