The Dirty, Messy Business of Hanukkah

It’s Hanukkah. Whoop-de-frickin’-do.

Every December the Jewish girl in me wishes I could put aside my inherent reluctance to embrace Christmas so I could festoon my house with bright, twinkly lights. I’d like to go out and buy a big, beautiful tree, on which I’d hang fragile, shiny ornaments – aqua blue and gold this year to match the fabrics in my living room. I’d love to bake (oh, I love to bake) sugar cookies in the shape of snowmen, sleighs and Christmas trees, decorated with teeny tiny silver balls and carefully frosted in colors no one should eat.

But what I get is Hanukkah. Hanukkah, with it’s dreary, boring gift wrap and wimpy decorations. Have you been to Target and seen the Hanukkah section? Then you know what I mean. Hanukkah is the Chosen people’s second-rate answer to the festivity and gaiety, music and celebration of Christmas. 

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Target’s Hanukkah section. One aisle. That’s it.

What about all those Christmas carols? One is more beautiful than the next. The only thing we get is the irritating “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel” and this one very funny song by Adam Sandler.

No one drinks eggnog to celebrate Hanukkah.  There’s no mandate for hot chocolate with cocoa in front of a roaring fire for the festival of lights. We get crumbly, kosher chocolate gelt for a Hanukkah treat.

That 8 nights of gifts thing? It’s a royal pain in the ass for parents. I mean, who can think of 8 gifts for a 14 year old boy? 

True, the menorah lighting is pretty, and it’s nice to all gather around and say the blessing each evening. But there’s no such thing as Rudolph the Red Nosed Maccabee. There’s no Hanukkah bush for Charlie Brown to rescue each year. We don’t even have a Grinch to steal our holiday.

We Jews really get the short end of the candy cane in December.


We do get latkes. And let me tell you, when latkes are good, they are GREAT. Think of the most amazing hash browns you’ve ever eaten, times ten. Add a little applesauce, sour cream, or both – heaven. Latkes are what save Hanukkah. Latkes ARE Hanukkah. If ever you go to a Hanukkah party and there are no latkes, you should complain loudly. Or leave. I’m not kidding. 

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The only problem (hey, I’m Jewish – I have to kvetch) is that making latkes is a dirty, messy, smelly job. You see, you can’t just make a dozen latkes. No sir. You have to make enough to feed a small army. People will eat them.  There’s no point in going to all the trouble – and I promise, it is trouble – for a dozen or two. You need LOTS of latkes, because they’ll get eaten. All of them.

When I say dirty, messy and smelly, I’m serious. First, you have to slice up all of the washed and peeled potatoes – and onions, if you want to add them (which I do). Eventually your food processor will be covered in potato juice and, if you’re like me, your eyes will be welling up with tears non-stop from all those onions.  Then you have to squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as you can from the potato and onion mixture – the balance of potato and onion a delicate and difficult equation that takes years to master. Then, you have to mix the two with the right quantity of eggs, flour, salt and pepper. You can follow a recipe, but this is ultimately all about intuition.

Then you have to make the pancakes – some like ‘em big, some like ‘em small. And then comes the messiest, dirtiest, smelliest part  - you fry those babies until they’re golden brown, crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside.

Your house smells of fried potatoes for days…unless you do what I learned to do -

make matzo ball soup at the same time. 

So during Hanukkah, think of me and my millions of fellow Jewish cooks, covered in potato juice, as we lovingly fry up dozens and dozens of latkes. It’s a dirty, messy job, but it’s so worth it. 

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21 Responses to The Dirty, Messy Business of Hanukkah
  1. Haralee
    December 7, 2012 | 9:32 am

    I love the Latkes too! I remember as a kid with-out food processors that the grating included blood from fingers and knuckles with the potatoes.
    We are having a debate, what to make with the Latkes. You are making soup and Matzoh balls, good choice. I say why bother with anything else, everyone just wants to eat them alone. My sister is making a nice brisket and I have relented to having a green salad to go with
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  2. AnaMaria
    December 7, 2012 | 9:44 am

    Nothing is better than potato Latkes and Matzoh ball soup- any chance you can publish your recipe for the soup. My broth never have the right Jewish taste! What is the secret? Someone mentioned chicken wings? love you

    • Sharon Greenthal
      December 7, 2012 | 9:47 am

      Hi AnaMaria! Here is how I make my chicken broth: One whole chicken, plenty of water to cover, a bunch of carrots, onions and celery, lots and lots of salt and pepper, and the key ingredient – fresh dill. Let it simmer for 3+ hours. Add salt as needed.

  3. Andi Brown
    December 7, 2012 | 9:47 am

    My mother is a terrible cook. She’s kinda famous for her bad desserts. But the one thing she does really well is latkes. I always look forward to our extended family Chanukah party for the latkes – as well as the time with cousins, sisters, and grandparents. Oh, come to think of it, her Passover brisket isn’t too shabby.
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    • Sharon Greenthal
      December 7, 2012 | 9:53 am

      Brisket is a hard dish to master…cooked to long and it’s like eating leather! Happy Hanukkah to you.

  4. Debi Drecksler
    December 7, 2012 | 9:50 am

    You made me hungry! p.s. Happy Chanukah!

  5. Helene Bludman
    December 7, 2012 | 10:07 am

    You are so right about the quantity of latkes, Sharon. No matter how many you make it’s never enough.

  6. sue
    December 7, 2012 | 11:26 am

    I never had a latkes before, but if I ever see one I will now want to devour one. I really enjoyed the Fallon Christmas video!! Happy Hanukkah to you and your family.
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  7. Claudia
    December 7, 2012 | 1:20 pm

    Merry Hanukkah Sharon! Blessings to you and your family this season!
    Love the Latkes!

  8. Carpool Goddess
    December 7, 2012 | 9:51 pm

    There’s nothing better than Latkes! Your photo is making me drool. Happy Hanukkah to you and your family :)

  9. Aviva (Old Mom, Young Child)
    December 8, 2012 | 7:20 am

    Latkes are most definitely one the best things about Chanukah. Yum!! And it’s so true that it’s a production and a mess — and I laughed out loud when you mentioned the house smelling like them for days afterward! But I think you give the short shrift to Chanukah songs. There are others besides the dreidel song (which, I agree, is second rate): There’s “Chanukah, Chanukah, what a pretty light…” (do you know this one?), and “S’vivon, sov, sov, sov….” (Do these ring a bell at all? :) )

    We do celebrate both holidays, so it’s easy for me to talk, but my little guy does love Chanukah (and, at six, enjoys getting 8 nights’ worth of presents)….

    Anyway, Happy Chanukah! Hag Sameach!

    • Sharon Greenthal
      December 8, 2012 | 7:43 am

      I probably have heard those songs somewhere along the line!

      We also celebrate both holidays, Christmas is with my husband’s family, so I get a bit of the twinkly fun…just not in my house.

      • Aviva (Old Mom, Young Child)
        December 8, 2012 | 7:57 am

        My husband was raised Catholic (but is an ex-Catholic now, though not officially Jewish) and his family is in California. So I felt (being the bad Jew that I am) that on years we couldn’t make it out to California for Xmas it was unfair to our son to cancel it. So we have a little Xmas tree, Santa pays us a visit, and I find I’ve entered into a foreign land. Because even though we grow up around it, if you didn’t celebrate Xmas in your home as a child, the Santa charade is especially difficult to pull off. (At least I find it so…)
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  10. mindy
    December 8, 2012 | 10:01 am

    Great piece! Never had that Christmas envy thing going, though. (Although I do Christmas brunch for Bob.) And I am obsessive when I make latkes–cover all the countertops w/butcher paper–make a s*#tload of them (early)which I then flash freeze, so by the time the guests arrive days later, the odor will hopefully have dissipated. Hot oven, frozen latkes…and there you have it. Happy Hanukkah to you guys!
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  11. grownandflown
    December 10, 2012 | 2:12 pm

    I love your equation of Hanukah = latkes and also so pleased that you included Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon videos for one and all. Thanks!
    grownandflown recently posted..At Midlife, Why I Would Never Want to be 30 AgainMy Profile

  12. Leslie Anneliese
    December 11, 2012 | 11:51 am

    Speaking of Hanukkah songs, I saw this tweet from iTunes … I don’t know if it is the making of a hit, perhoas it appeals to our younger folks. What do you think?

    “There are so many Christmas songs out there. I wanted to give the Jewish kids a new song to be proud of.” @matisyahu

    PS – I know it’s not kosher, but I celebrate everything with vigor! However, I have not made latkes… thanks to your post, I am now craving them!

  13. Grown and Flown
    December 11, 2012 | 1:28 pm

    Major Christmas envy growing up…that magical feeling of rushing into the family room, a pile of gifts under the tree, sounded pretty good to me. But jewish cooking, impossible to beat.
    Grown and Flown recently posted..At Midlife, Why I Would Never Want to be 30 AgainMy Profile

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