You may not realize it if you're not Jewish, but Hanukkah is every warm-blooded American's dream: a stretch of eight days when you're expected to eat greasy food.
Before we focus on the noshing, a one-sentence history lesson: Hanukkah commemorates a military victory by Jews over their Syrian-Greek oppressors back in 165 B.C., along with the legend that a temple they were rededicating managed to stay lit for eight days on one day's worth of oil.
Oil. Lamp oil, cooking oil -- what's the difference? Somewhere along the way, someone decided that the miracle of the light in the temple meant Hanukkah should be a time for frying.
And it was good.
Enter the potato pancake -- or latke, as my family has always and exclusively called it. (You'll usually hear it pronounced LAHT-kah, although my family raised me to say LUT-kee -- apparently it's a New England thing.)
I know, some smart-ass will want to point out that latkes aren't even traditional Hanukkah cuisine in Israel, where they gorge on some kind of jelly doughnut each year when the holiday rolls around. That the potato pancake is as much Eastern European as it is Jewish. I don't care. I wouldn't care if the savory treats had been invented by Ore-Ida to lure Jewish consumers around the holidays. I want my latkes.
Specifically, I want my grandpa's latkes.
Born in Boston in 1912 to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Simon Kaplan never became a master chef, but he knew how to take the world's blandest vegetable and work a Hanukkah miracle.
Starting when I was old enough to eat solid food, I ate Grandpa's latkes every year -- ate as many as I could get my greedy little hands on. Somewhere along the way, I started helping out in the kitchen, savoring the sizzle I created when I pressed down a pancake with my spatula. Tssssssssss. The soundtrack to a growling stomach.
Grandpa was a man who believed in family traditions -- not so much the mechanical rites that go along with religious observance, but the little things that make life so enjoyable that they must be repeated. As for so many other things, we loved him for this, and after he died when I was 17 we made sure his latkes would outlive him.
My brother Andy -- the unofficial keeper of the recipe, mostly because I keep forgetting to write it down -- continued making Grandpa's recipe during the Hanukkah season. Some years I made