The holidays can be a challenging time for those who have lost loved ones, especially family members. The scents and the sounds of the season can evoke powerful memories, as they are doing for me. Last evening I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors, which was one of my mom’s favorite things to watch at this time of the year, maybe even of all year. Music was always an integral part of my upbringing — dad was as you might remember a classically trained musician and teacher. As I sat listening to the music being played, it made me simultaneously smile and tear up. Mom loved opera and as I listened to Justino Diaz’s tribute it reminded me of 2 stories. The first was how my parents would go to the opera with another couple, my god-parents. While the ladies loved going, the men, including my dad, the classically trained bassoonist, never told them they hated going. Mom and Aunt Eileen would get all dressed up, go to the Met and enjoy, while the other 2 fell asleep. Dad would always say he was concentrating on the music with his eyes closed. Dad never mentioned he disliked going, he like I, preferred symphonic over choral or vocal, but he went because he knew mom loved it. The second story was when dad was a music teacher. One day he was in the band room and heard a deep voice singing in the hallway. He went to see who it was a noticed a young, very tall student singing and knew immediately that this kid had something. He fought with the basketball coach over this kid and dad won — he wasn’t going to let him get away from the potential he saw in him as a singer. Dad nurtured him and eventually groomed him to get into his alma mater, so that he could pursue a career in music. And he did, this young kid, this amazing voice, went on to become a celebrated basso profundo opera singer, singing all over the world and today heading up his own opera company. When dad died, this student paid him the ultimate tribute and sang his audition song at dad’s funeral; I can still see and hear it in my mind today. Music is a powerful evacateur of emotion and remembrance. Sounds like smells or any of our senses, when touched the right way, can bring us back to a place in time, I love that.
As for the scents of the season, for me there is only one. And that is the smell of fried onions with potatoes and that can only mean latkes! As my mother wrote on her recipe index card, “Latkes are the closest thing to heaven.”
With my grandmother, latkes or a giant latke which she called a potato kugel, were always on the table, no matter what time of the year. Dad and I would take the long ride up the elevator to her apartment and immediately be hit with the smell of frying onions in oil. The hallway, as we got of the elevator, was filled with the cooking smells coming from her little kitchen. Walk into her apartment and you’d be surrounded by the smell and walk out and well, you’d still smell like a latke. Dad always said she had stock in Planter’s Peanut Oil, because all you’d need to do is “tap the pan and they’d fly out with all the oil in that pan!” With both grandma and mom gone I now carry on the tradition of the latke. In fact this year I was honored when I posted mom’s recipe on my favorite recipe site the BBCGoodFood.com and they chose it to be featured in their holiday issue! They even asked to feature a picture of mom, oh how she would have been excited!
Missing homemade latkes and people to enjoy them with, I decided to have a latke party, which morphed into more, but the center piece, focal food was the humble latke. Of course I couldn’t make just one type so I made 2, potato and the other zucchini (which dad loved). With about 10 people coming over, I decided to make more than I needed, which is of course a central Kowalsky theme. I became a frying machine and with the help of my friend Michelle, who came over early, and decided to video me as a human fryolator. I pumped out 10 potatoes worth of latkes and about half as many of the zucchini kind.
The house smelled great with the scent of fried onions wafting through the house like Jewish perfume.
In addition to mom’s/grandma’s latke recipe I decided to make mom’s eggplant dip recipe handed down to her from an Israeli friend and in her words, “never fails to please.” Lucky for me I have a friend who is a fish monger and she brought the most luscious smoked salmon so we feasted on that with the latkes. One more friend who came is a cheese monger and she brought some lovely local cheeses, and another brought some yummy caviar and creme fraiche. I made applesauce, a quiche, mushroom noodle kugel, and even made rugelach (4 different kinds, yes I’m nuts!). As for the drink, bubbles were the theme! Nothing goes better with fried food than bubbles. We had Prosecco by Savino and a lovely brut and rose from Bouvet Ladubay as well as a few others. I know I went overboard with food, but most of it was gone or taken home by my guests and a good time was had by all.
Food, wine, music are powerful reminders for me of life’s events. I love eating, smelling, seeing or hearing something and have it bring me back to a place in time. And I love making new memories in the same way. So to all, enjoy your time with family and friends. Eat, drink, hear and watch together and make new memories. It’s still a crazy time for us all, uncertainty abounds so whether you are in person or virtual celebrating the holidays, I wish you all a happy and healthy one!