Tchotchkes and Latkes

by Akim Reinhardt

DavenportsI still remember the first time I heard it. It was back in the late ‘90s, when I had cable. There was this openly gay guy, bald, a little overweight, a beard I think. He had some design show about sprucing up your house.

There weren't a lot of openly gay men on American TV back then. They were just breaking through into mainstream culture. There was the sitcom Will & Grace, and those five gay guys who taught straight men how to dress. Anyway, this guy, whose name I can't remember, was enough of a national sensation that Saturday Night Live spoofed him for a while.

I was sitting on my velour davenport watching cable TV. I flipped by his show. He was pointing out all the bric a brat cluttering a room and said: “I'm in tchotchke heaven.”

Except he didn't say it right. He said choch-kee. Kinda rhymed with Versace. I cringed.

I was living in Nebraska at the time. I didn't have any real desire to move back to my native New York City, but there were certainly things I missed about it. After all, it was still the 20th century, before Manhattan had transformed into a playground for tourists and millionaires, and Brooklyn into an equivalent for the six-figure crowd.

Back then I would watch Law and Order repeats and really enjoy the opening segment where some bit characters would stumble across a corpse. Those people playing those bit characters often seemed liked they'd been plucked right off the street. I cherished little New York moments like that. The mere sight of fellow Bronx native Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe would make me wistful for the old days when Orbach did drug store commercials on local TV.

So to hear this hammie cable hack say choch-kee was like a kick in the gut. Stop mispronouncing my word, I thought. Then he said it again. I changed the channel.

*

My mother was born and raised in the South Bronx. Her parents were Jewish refugees who escaped eastern Europe before the war. Her first language was Yiddish, and she mostly learned English from other kids on the playground. She used to read I.B. Singer in the original.

I don't speak Yiddish, and at this point my mother can only understand it, not really speak it. But I know some words and I know what they sound like. And tchotchke does not sound like Joanie Loves Chachi or bocce ball.

Tchotchke is a trochee. The stress is on the first syllable. The final, unstressed e is that elusive vowel sound which is scattered all over the English language but doesn't have a dedicated letter assigned to it. It's the oo in cook; the ou in would. It sounds something like this, minus the English accent.

Apologies to all my British Landsman, but I just don't feel comfortable with the Queen's Yiddish.

*

Queer Eye for the Straight GuyLike many other Yiddish words, tchotchke has been incorporated into American English, to the point that I probably shouldn't bother italicizing it. But it's been incorporated with this butchered, waspish mispronunciation.

It's a lost cause, I know. I'm not here to badger you about pronouncing it correctly. It's fine. Go to the antique shop and overpay for choch-kees. Whatever.

But if I hear one more motherfucker say lot-kee, I'm gonna pee on their leg.

Latke, a.k.a. eastern European Jewery's version of the humble potato pancake, should rhyme with tchotchke. But the right way, not the wrong way.

I first started hearing people mispronounce it as lot-kee around the same time I started hearing choch-kee. About 10 years ago I heard an actual Jew mispronounce it as lot-kee. I wanted to shoot myself.

“She's from Chicago,” I remembered. “I guess those aren't real Jews afterall.”

*

I don't give a shit about choch-kee, but I simply cannot abide lot-kee. Maybe it's because I don't have much in the way of tchotchkes. But I make latkes from scratch using my grandmother's recipe.

Actually, my grandmother had two recipes for laktes: her basic latke, which is what I reproduce, and a specialized version that none of us actually cared for but which she was very proud of.

Latkes are typically served during Chanukah, another Jewish word (this one Hebrew, not Yiddish) that goyem all mispronounce, but we give them a pass because we know they don't do well with those aspirated vowels, a.k.a. the throat-clearing sound associated with Semitic languages.

I don't make latkes during Chanukah. Or maybe I do. I don't know, because I never know when Chanukah is.

Judaism runs on an adjusted lunar calendar. By contrast, the Islamic calendar is not adjusted, which is why, for example, Ramadan can occur during various times of the year. The Jewish lunar calendar is adjusted with the occasional leap month. This sorta keeps things in check. The result is that Chanukah cycles through a kind of triennial rotation, landing from year to year somewhere between late November and late December. When it overlaps with Christmas, all the Jewish kids get to pretend they're real Americans too.

It might be Chanukah right now. I actually have no fuckin' idea. But I've got some potatoes and eggs and matzoh meal, and I'm fixin' to make me some latkes.

I can say things like “fixin to” because my other grandmother was from North Carolina and sure as shit wasn't Jewish.

*

I don't want to hear you say lot-kee. But I can't just make demands on you. I should make it worth your while not to sound like Leave it to Beaver. So in an effort to encourage you to pronounce latke correctly, I'm going to teach you how to make one correctly, via my grandmother's recipe.

Warning: Her approach was laborious, but I think it pays off.

*

Start with a couple of good sized russet potatoes. You can also go with white ones, or any othger type that is good for frying. Then get a decent sized onion. I like to use a white onion, but yellow or Spanish onions are also good, depending on if you want a hotter or sweeter flavor.

That's your basic ratio: 2 potatoes to 1 onion. This formula will garner you about a dozen latkes, give or take.

You're also going to need matzoh meal, flour, egg, salt, pepper, garlic, and cooking oil.

On the equipment side, you need a frying pan, and what I consider to be the key: a box grater.

Most people take the easy route and run the potatoes and onions through a food processor. If they bother with a box grater, then they often use the side with the big round holes. But that's not how my grandmother did it, that's nIB Singer_quoteot how I do it, and I think this makes all the difference.

After washing the potatoes (I don't peel them; love me some potato jacket micronutrients), I grate them by hand through the smallest holes on the box grater.

Yes, this is work. Yes, it will take a bit longer. And yes, it is worth it. Or at least I think so.

The potatoes will turn into a beautiful, pulpy mash. Drain off the excess water. Then grate the onion the same way, and drain off a little of that water too.

“But can't I accomplish the exact same thing using a food processor?” you ask. I dunno. Maybe. But even if it's possible, you'll be missing the secret ingredients: your tears from the grated onion, your sweat from actually working for your dinner, and your blood from the knuckle you scrape on the grater.

Either grate or mince the a few cloves of garlic. How many depends on how much you like garlic.

Add a whole egg.

Now start adding the matzoh meal. In most cities you can find matzoh meal at the supermarket in the Jew section. It's kinda like an old timey Jewish gettho, but for food. If you live in an area where they don't have a Jew section, then try to find some kind of approximate. Matzoh meal is coarser than flour but finer than bread crumbs. So really this is about texture.

How much matzoh meal should you add? Christ, don't bust my chops here. Just add enough so that your pulpy mash starts firming up into a consistency like loose oatmeal as you mix this concoction together. Then add a tablespoon or two of flour. Salt and pepper to taste.

Put a liberal amount of cooking oil in your frying pan. When I say “liberal” I mean at least a half-inch deep. What kind of oil? Something that fries well, and has a high smoke point. Peanut, corn, and grape seed are all good. Vegetable's okay. If you've got an oil thermometer, get the oil up to the high 300s. Remember kids, a high temperature is the key to frying successfully. If your oil's not hot enough, shit gets greasy.

Using a soup spoon, or even a serving spoon if you've got, ladle the mash into the hot oil. Do I have to tell you not to burn yourself with splattered oil?

Make each dropping the size of a reasonable latke, not some cartoonishly large latke you'd find at an overpriced Jewish deli in Manhattan that caters to tourists. A latke should be about four of five inches from end to end at the long point of an oval.

When you drop a lakte into the oil, it should not be flat. This is important. We're skillet frying, not deep frying. Each dropping should have a center peak, so that the middle of the oval shape you create is actually slightly above the oil. Place enough ovals in the oil to fill the pan.

After about half a minute, the edges will brown. When the submerged parts of the lakte have changed color and the entire bottom is firm, flip them, one by one. Before flipping a lakte, don't be afraid to pat down the uncooked center if it's too lumpy in the middle.

After another thirty seconds or so, take them out to drain and then pat them down with a paper towel. Allow your oil to get hot again, adding more if needed. Repeat the process until you've used up your mixture.

*

BoxgraterFresh latkes are pretty good. I like them with apple sauce. Sour cream is nice too. But I think my grandmother's taste even better leftover. I still pack them the way she did when sending them home with us.

Rip off a piece of aluminum foil about eight inches wide. Layer the leftover latkes down the center of the foil, overlapping them like cards in a game of solitaire. Then close the flaps and ends, and stick the packets into the fridge. When you want to eat them, take a packet out and throw it in the oven or toaster oven to heat up. Or you can eat them cold. Either way, leftover latkes will be nice and spongy. I'm dirty that way.

*

This is just some good ole folk cooking, so feel free to modify the recipe anyway you like. Make it healthier and/or tastier as you see fit. But please, don't taint it with a grating mispronunciation. These are my grandmother's Latkes, not her goddamn lot-kees. If that's too much for you, just go with what my Carolina grandmother would say: potato pancake.

Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com

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