Sundown tonight marks the start of the eight-day holiday of Chanukah, and with it the annual observance of a special holiday tradition:
The Momma d’Elisson Memorial Chanukah Dinner.
The specifics of the tradition vary from year to year, but the essential elements of the MdEMCD are simple. You light candles. You eat potato latkes. And you eat Chinese take-out.
Our observance originated when, back in 1986, we and our friends Laura and Don (the Zoogs) paid a visit to my parents’ home in New York. We had recently moved to central Connecticut and the Zoogs were still based in Atlanta, but we all converged on Chez ’Rents d’Elisson to celebrate Chanukah. We all had been looking forward to eating a mouth-watering pile of crispy potato pancakes, one of the signature foods of the holiday. Laura Belle, in particular, had her Latke Jones on, all the more remarkable because she is Catholic.
Chanukah. Ya gotta love a holiday on which the eating of fried foods is practically mandatory. Potato pancakes predominate in the USA, but in Israel, the big Chanukah food is sufganiyot: fried jelly donuts. They probably should just call this holiday “Fat-assicah” and get it over with.
Anyhow, we arrived at my parents’ home only to find out that Mom, in a not-too-surprising flouting of holiday tradition, had no plans whatsoever to make potato latkes. No, what she wanted was Chinese take-out. Moo shu chicken may not have been traditional, but Mom was a believer in another popular Jewish tradition. What to make for dinner? Reservations!
All well and good, but Laura Belle was not to be denied. She had traveled 850 miles and, by Gawd, she was going to have potato latkes for Chanukah!
So She Who Must Be Obeyed whipped up a passel o’ latkes to go with that fine Chinese take-out, and a tradition was born. It probably would never have become an annual ritual, but as things turned out, this was my mother’s penultimate Chanukah on Planet Earth. She passed away in March of 1988, and when Chanukah rolled around later that year, we all thought back upon the time we had latkes and eggrolls, and, well, you know the rest. The MdEMCD is now an annual ritual, observed not only by us, but by friends in places as far-flung as Texas. This we do in memory of you, Mom.
[It’s probably worth mentioning that Chanukah, the holiday season frenzy notwithstanding, is a only a minor post-Biblical holiday. Unlike Christmas, which for Christians is one of the “Top Two” holidays in terms of religious import, Chanukah does not even crack the “Top Five” for us Jews. It’s especially ironic that Chanukah is played up so much in America, owing to the influence (and unfortunate commercialization) of the majority culture, because this is a holiday that commemorates a great victory over the forces of assimilationism. The world would be a very different place today had the Maccabee insurgency not succeeded in its struggle against the Seleucid rulers of Syria and Palestine.]
As with all great things, the World o’ Latkes is not without its controversy. The basic litmus test is whether the potatoes are puréed or grated. Let it be known far and wide, now and evermore, that puréed latkes are an invention of Satan and an expression of the evil inclination. Any potato-based latke worth eating must be made of coarsely grated potatoes, with a liberal dose of chopped onion, some eggs to bind the mixture together, and some matzoh meal to give it the right body. Latkes may, of course, be made of other vegetables: our Grandma Shirley’s spinach latkes were a childhood favorite, and her zucchini latkes were not too shabby. But SWMBO’s potato latkes take a back seat to no other holiday treat.
Now: applesauce or sour cream as accompaniment? Discuss amongst yourselves.
And, in conclusion, a philosophical question. Do Chinese people go out on Sunday nights to have Jewish food?