Saturday, May 16, 2009

Potato Pancakes

Food can define who we are. Many of my memories of my grandmothers, especially Oma, my mother’s mother, are related to food. My dad’s Midwest mother, transplanted to Southern California, cooked big old-fashioned family farm meals. Our time together was limited and I don’t remember much, however, I do have memories of sweet corn boiling on the stove. I am not sure if it was harvested from Grandpa’s garden. Oma’s cooking was European and dinner was an affair.

Oma and Opa lived in a small bungalow, maybe 1000 square feet, but she ran the kitchen like it was part of a manor. In a very small kitchen, with a horseshoe layout, sat a kitchen table. The table took up a lot of floor space. With no one seated at the table, you had to walk sideways to go around the kitchen. Opening lower cupboards and drawers was a challenge. Opa would sit with his back to the opening to the dining room, Oma would sit opposite with her back to the sink, and those that were seated on the side had to inhale to slide in-between the chair and the table. In the dining room area was a beautiful wood dining room table. Breakfast and lunch were typically served at the kitchen table. The dining room table was for a more formal dinner. And most evening meals were formal. The table was set with dishes, silverware and napkins at each place, Opa’s dining room chair had arms like a throne with Oma always sitting at the opposite end.

Prague postcard from Opa and Oma's pictures.

I now know that before my grandparents relocated to the United States, Oma managed a household that had two cooks. This makes some of her choices clearer. I am sure that she was traumatized because of the loss of everything her family had and could not let go of a lifestyle that she once had. I remember disagreements over breakfast. When I would visit, I would tumble out of bed first thing in the morning and stagger to the table. Mortified, Oma would insist that I dress and brush my teeth. I would argue that my teeth would get dirty eating breakfast, so I could brush after. However, I would not tumble out of bed and go to breakfast “as is” while staying at bed and breakfast inns I can imagine that living in a household with staff could be very comparable. Knowing some history could have steered us away from disagreements and misunderstandings.

There were no disagreements over Oma’s cooking, especially her desserts. I still remember the huge old Kitchen Aid mixer sitting on the counter. I remember watching liquid cream being drizzled in slowly and magically changing to whipped cream. My mother says that Oma didn’t learn to cook until she came to the United States. I find that hard to believe, she probably didn’t have a need to cook in Europe. A novice couldn’t make delicate, large white cakes no thicker than half an inch, smear it with whipped cream, and roll it up like a jelly roll with nary a crack.

Mother says that Opa was the baker and was known for oblaten, a crisp, subtly flavored dessert wafer. She says that Opa’s press to make oblaten was shipped under her uncle’s name, a Dutchman not bound in the late 1930’s to the confiscation of his assets by Germany. However, on its arrival in the United States, Opa sold it for much less than its worth. I will never understand why I never saw him bake or why he abandoned this business opportunity. Mother said that a company in Vermont still uses the press to this day.

My mother’s culinary skills were minimal. Perhaps this was part of her rebellion against her mother. She was content with TV dinners thrown in the oven and with letting us sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV. Mom could, however, make potato pancakes, one of the few things that gave away her heritage.

My younger sister shared a book she found at the library, “At Oma’s Table.” This cookbook, by top New York restaurateur Doris Schechter, is not only a cookbook, but a history book of a family’s flight from Vienna in World War II. Many of the recipes have a familiar ring to me. I am the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side, the first in the family born in the United States. My children and grandchildren have never understood the pleasure I get eating potato pancakes. For my youngest sister, who lives with and is the caregiver of our mother, I hauled over the ingredients to make Doris’ pancakes. I later shared it with my daughter and grandson. He enjoyed it, she didn’t want to try. Mother says that she only used potatoes in hers, but she certainly seemed to enjoy Doris’.

  • 2 lbs. peeled russet potatoes
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 peeled medium carrots
  • 2 peeled and trimmed zucchini
  • 5 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 extra large beaten egg
  • 1 cup flour
  • coarse kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste
  • vegetable oil, flavorless
  • sour cream (applesauce can also be a topping)
  • grate vegetables on the large holes of a box grater
  • combine vegetables with garlic, flour, and egg and stir
  • add salt and pepper to taste
  • place oil in a frying pan
  • while oil is heating, shape enough batter to fill the palm of the hand, press the batter to make silver dollar size pancakes
  • place pancakes in the frying pan for 2-3 minutes on each side
  • remove pancakes with a slotted spoon and place on a towel lined baking sheet to drain
  • serve as soon as possible with sour cream on each pancake

1 comment:

  1. I make potatoe pancakes but I use mashed potatoes, garlic, onion and the egg/flour mixture. Serve with pork chops or bratworst saurkraut and applesauce on the side.