Growing up in Mattapan, we never thought about Hanukkah as a major holiday. Traditionally we always lit the Hanukkah candles with pride, knowing that the holiday represented a victory for a small band of Maccabees over a well-trained, fully armed Greco-Syrian fighting machine.
Of course we were victorious. We had God on our side, at least that’s what we learned in Hebrew School. To me, that was the first miracle of the Hanukkah story, although we didn’t seem to recognize it as a miracle. I don’t know why not; the odds were certainly against us. But who am I to buck tradition?
After the Jews cleansed the temple of all things that had defiled this sacred edifice, the other miracle, the one we really focus on, is that a small cruse of holy oil supposed to last for one day burned for eight days until a new supply showed up.
Then again, if we didn’t focus on that oil, we would have lost out on the food that makes Hanukkah so special. Jews always seem to connect holidays with what else but food? So when someone mentions Hanukkah, for most of us it means it’s time to make the latkes. And it doesn’t stop there; Jewish homes smell of not only latkes fried in oil and but also delicious cakes also made with oil and not butter.
Now there’s another food that’s becoming as popular here as in Israel. I have to admit, we never had sufganiyot, hearty doughnuts fried in oil and topped with jelly, growing up. In fact, most of us never even heard of them.
Although I’ve read about those confections in more recent publications, especially cookbooks, I finally ate my first sufganiyah when Chabad folks came to Danvers to light the candles on our first very large Hanukkah menorah on the grounds of the Peaboody Institute Library. It was very dramatic and all of us, Christians and Jews, were impressed with that menorah, with little light-up trinkets for the kids and prayers and songs – but most of all, for our first taste of that delicious confection from Israel. They were a hit.
Rather than go for the real thing, I know one mom tried to substitute Dunkin’ Donuts jelly donuts. She and her children immediately realized there’s no comparison.
Doing some research on sufganiyot I discovered that Polish Jews have been making these confections for centuries. Of course we didn’t know about these delicious (and very filling) treats. Most of the people I grew up with came from Russia.
I did discover, however, that we actually have to thank the Israelis for sharing this wonderful addition to the fun holiday.
Sufganiyot became specifically tied to Hanukkah in Israel in the 1920s when the Israeli Labor Federation declared them the official food of Hanukkah.
That was a very smart move. In doing so, a new industry began. Most of us know that latkes take time to make but certainly they’re doable at home. Making sufganiyot is a real patchke. In other words, latkes you make, sufganiyot you buy.
At one time, I recall young Jewish room mothers shlepping an electric frying pan, oil, potatoes and all other ingredients used to make the potato pancake treat at school. Then that activity stopped. It wasn’t politically correct to bring anything connected to religion into the school, not even a potato latke. Too bad; they all lost out.
I have to say that my mother made the best latkes. They were delicious. She first tore up a paper bag and laid it on the counter top with paper towels for the fried latkes to drain. We could hardly wait to grab a latke to sample even if we had to blow on each piece before scarfing it down.
My mom worked hard to make those latkes – they were fried to a golden brown while the insides were always white. She drained the liquid from the hand-grated potatoes before adding a small amount of flour, eggs and a bissel onion to the potato batter. Mom’s latkes were never blue; she made sure all the liquid was gone before frying.
My mother got a kick out of telling this cute family story. It was the first time her new sister-in-law made latkes for her husband. She was quite proud of them. Prepared to take the first bite, my uncle looked down at the latkes on his plate, somewhat confused.
“Why aren’t they blue like the kind my mother makes?” he asked his wife.
Wishing you all a Happy Hanukkah. May your latkes be golden brown on the outside and white on the inside and may your sufganiyot be the real thing.
Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.