We asked contest entrants to tell us about a family recipe that they loved. Naomi, being a recent convert to Judaism, didn’t have a long-time family recipe to share, but she told a story about latkes and being deployed in Iraq that you won’t want to miss.
I don’t have a family recipe that’s been passed down for generations–I’m a convert. What I do have is a story; let’s call it “Trans-National Latkes”:
“The latkes are (more or less) five baking potatoes grated in a food processor and squeezed out to release water, mix with two eggs, a little grated onion, salt, pepper, some flour (1/4 cup) and 1/2 tsp-1 tsp baking powder. Fry in hot canola oil with family and friends. Serve with sour cream and applesauce.” –Mama Ward.
While I was deployed to Tallil Airbase in Iraq for a year as the personnel officer for the 4th Brigade Combat team, the Jewish lay leader, Matt Ward, asked his mom for this recipe so that we could have latkes for Hanukkah in December 2009. Mama Ward sent the recipe over email post-haste. Since our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meals had been supported, we put in the meal requests as usual, attaching the latkes recipe. The first hurdle proved to be an Air Force contracting officer who denied our Hanukkah meal request outright, saying “The mess hall doesn’t support religious events.” My brigade chaplain, a Protestant minister, said, “The hell you won’t!”—especially since the mess hall cooked and served an elaborate dinner on Christmas day, complete with a live nativity scene (at least the camel was papier-mâché). With the chaplain’s help, we re-worded our meal request as “VIP Religious Conference” and it sailed through the Air Force contracting system.
I contacted our food service technician, a warrant officer with my brigade, and made sure she had copy of the latkes recipe. She worked with the cooks to do a taste test. I burst out laughing when the “test” latkes tasted great, but were shaped into little balls. “They’re flat, like little pancakes,” I said. Otherwise, the latkes tasted perfect.
The mess hall personnel, mostly Asian-Indians and Pakistanis, made the latkes to order for our community celebration and there was much gorging on latkes, sour cream and applesauce for the Jewish personnel at Tallil and those who had come in from the outlying FOBs (forward operating bases).
The next week, latkes appeared on the potato bar. Food made from scratch—with flavor—and not processed from a box was the closest thing to luxury in a mess hall that served thousands daily. The latkes proved so popular—with all the American military personnel, the civilian contractors, and even the Ugandan security forces—that they became a regularly rotating feature on the potato bar. When they appeared once a week or so, I had to get plenty of latkes my first time through the chow line since the mess hall would run out before I could come back for seconds. I have a slightly embarrassing tendency to moan when I eat really good food and the latkes….Well, let’s just say I relished eating them like no other food that was available in Iraq.
In a very foreign place where just showing a magen david (Jewish star) was considered proselytizing and warranted execution under Iraqi law, where it was safer to not outwardly identify as a Jew, the latkes were my little slice of Jewish “home.” This recipe is what I use now to make Hanukkah latkes for my daughter and me because these trans-national latkes are reminders of a Muslim country, with Hindu and Muslim cooks, surrounded by a largely Christian military population and a very small but active Jewish community, all bound up somehow in traditional Jewish food— they say “home” to me.
UPDATE: Naomi asked for the cookies to be sent to a former West Point student of hers who is now deplyed in Afghanistan. So nice!