My father used to tease my mother that the real reason he married her was because of her mother’s doughnuts.
We all knew the story—my mother was spending her summer back home in her family’s farmhouse just outside Middletown, NY, and my father ventured out of Borough Park to drive the dark and unfamiliar upstate roads to visit her. He arrived at my grandparents tired and hungry, but when my mother greeted him at the door his spirits lifted, not at the sight of her, but by the sweet smell of frying dough. Everywhere in the house, tables, chairs, and counters were covered with homemade doughnuts. My father described them as soft, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth, sweet doughnuts. He ate and ate and ate, thinking he was marrying into a family of doughnut making merry.
Unbeknownst to my father, my grandmother only cooked doughnuts on a whim. Even as a young girl, my mother never knew when she may come off the school bus, heavy book bag on her shoulders, and walk into a house filled with freshly fried doughnuts. There was no explanation for the doughnut itch, my grandmother’s sudden and unannounced desire to spend a whole day filling her house with doughy round treats. I grew up on the story, but not on the doughnuts. My grandmother lived in Pennsylvania when I was a girl and we in Los Angeles, and though we saw her often, she never so much as boiled water when visiting.
When I was 13, I was told I would have to give up my bedroom for my grandmother. She was aging quickly, and my parents decided it was time for her to come live with us. I had just claimed this bedroom as my own, breaking apart from my sister and daring down the stairs to the lonely guest room off the kitchen, the same one no one ever wanted to be in after dark. I spent all my allowance and babysitting money turning it into a space of my own, complete with those tacky plastic glow-in-the-dark stars that I painstakingly fastened to the ceiling. I had just tasted my first introduction to independence and was furious at having to give it up so quickly. I was self-centered and unforgiving, holding a grudge towards my grandmother for having to give up my own space.
She only lived with us a few years before she passed away, and during this time I slowly let go of my animosity, fostering a closer relationship to her. And then one day, shortly before she passed, I came home from a long day of school. I swung open the door, the day like any other until a sweet smell rushed at me. It was unmistakable, as if I had been prepped by my father all my childhood for this very scent—the smell of freshly fried dough. I looked over and there was our long dining room table filled with what I instinctively knew were my grandmother’s infamous homemade doughnuts.
I ran into the kitchen, where the table and counters were covered, just as my father had so often described and there, beside her aid, was my grandmother, all five feet of her, her tiny frame lost behind the mounds of doughnuts, standing over a pot of sizzling oil, dropping in balls of dough. “Grandma, you made doughnuts!” I exclaimed.
My grandmother shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Just felt like making them.” There she was, on her last doughnut whim, and I able to spend the rest of the afternoon beside her, eating her doughnuts and taking in the scent.
A few years ago, my husband and I moved ourselves and our two girls from our hometown in Los Angeles to Chicago. We left a city full of family and friends to start over in a community where we knew no one. That first year, it was the holidays that were the hardest to get through, Hanukkah in particular. My own parents had made a tradition of hosting a large Hanukkah party each year, complete with sufganiyot, a generous meal that always featured my mother’s crispy latkes, and a lively and competitive game of Hanukah bingo. This is where our kids would get their presents from grandparents, play with cousins, and as a family we would join together in lights and of course good food.
It was the fifth night of Hanukkah and my parents were hosting their annual party. Our home in Chicago felt lonely and empty. I spoke to my mother as she prepared for the party in the background, telling her how homesick I was. She reminded me that once, she and my father picked up and started alone in a new city, and that they were also terribly homesick, but that the two of them worked towards building their own family traditions that soon became the foundation of my childhood memories. She encouraged me to build memories of my own with my daughters.
Instantly, I was inspired. Yes, we would start our own Hanukkah traditions, beginning with making my grandmother’s famous doughnuts. Very few of us had dared the recipe, constantly reminded on how time consuming the whole process was, but I felt this was exactly what I wanted to do. The perfect way to get my girls involved in the kitchen and connect them both to our family history and our Jewish one as well, combining a mutual tradition of fried food.
I started making the dough early in the day so it would be ready by candle lighting to fry up with my girls. Surely, my grandmother must have doubled or tripled her recipe because I only covered one table in doughnuts, but my home was heavy with the scent of my grandmother. The girls hung on my feet all the while as we waited for each batch of doughnuts to cook through before they would get to drop them in a bag of sugar, shaking it furiously with their little hands, coating the warm dough in a thick and even sprinkle of sweet coating.
Once all the work was done and every bit of dough was fried, we sat down to eat them, the lights of our menorahs flickering in the background, our fingers sticky with sugar and bits of raspberry jam, as I told them both about why their zeidy decided to marry their nana.
We just finished our third Hanukkah out on our own in Chicago. I am no longer as homesick during the holiday, seeing how my family has begun a growing number of our own traditions. But of them all, one of my most favorite is making my grandmother’s doughnuts each year, remembering the one and only time I ever tasted the originals, feeling connected to my young parents’ new beginning together, and honoring a matriarch’s whim through the festival of lights.