Our Hanukkah at the Cottage Means Frozen Toes, But My Mother’s Latkes Make It All Worth It

Hanukkah involves bagels, a different take on the Secret Santa gift exchange and, of course, my mother's latkes.

Homemade latke: traditional potato pancakePhoto: Shutterstock

Latkes on the Lake

My mom suits up for latke duty in her patterned plastic apron, a tea towel slung over her left shoulder for good measure. I whirl a boatload of russet potatoes with some onions in the food processor and then stir in eggs and flour, salt and pepper. With the potato pancake batter ready, she takes the helm of her oversized electric frying pan, where she will then remain for the next hour or so, for a Hanukkah tradition as predictable as the lighting of the menorah.

It was soon after hearing my stirring solo of “Jesus Christ Our Saviour” in the kindergarten Christmas pageant that my mom took it upon herself to peel 50 pounds of potatoes and lug her frying pan to Toronto’s Lillian Public School. Each Hanukkah thereafter (until my three brothers and I had graduated), she went from class to class, cooking up fresh, hot latkes while retelling the tale of the Miracle of Light. It’s a ritual that she continues at our cottage on Lake Simcoe, Ont., now with her grown children and six grandchildren underfoot.

It’s December 2017, and while the whole family usually gathers for the holidays, this year some can’t make it. We’ve invited other treasured family and friends for the brunch in two days, to fill the cottage with the amount of people and noise that we’ve grown accustomed to. We’ll do our family’s take on a Secret Santa gift exchange, the Secret Mordecai, setting aside presents for the others until they return.

My parents, Fred and Marsha, come to the cottage most weekends, so the place is always warm and welcoming when we arrive: the front stairs shovelled, the woodstove popping away. I showed up this afternoon—hauling enough groceries to feed a bunch of hungry Jews—along with my brother Andrew and his wife, Deborah, and my wee nieces Lily and Ivy. The girls fell asleep during the drive but perked up as soon as we pulled into the driveway. Four-year-old Ivy, spotting her little red shovel, immediately set to work.

The next morning, as the sun starts to light up the lake, ice-fishing huts begin to appear on the horizon. The lake has frozen solid enough that the trucks are hauling out the colourful small wooden structures, dozens of them, about a kilometre from shore. It’s like a seasonal shantytown, and one I always look forward to exploring. But before we take a closer look, Andrew starts piling up wood and paper at the firepit by the lake. The wind is whipping up, helping to fuel the flames. “Now that’s how you start a fire,” he says smugly. The hope is that this campfire will offer up hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows upon our return.

Deborah goes to fetch the snowshoes while rosy-cheeked Ivy swings on the cottage’s play structure with a frozen smile—frozen from joy and the minus-25 C temperature. With the fire now roaring and the realization that we’d all probably die if we set out for a long walk on the lake, we decide to roast marshmallows. Ivy wants to toast hers on the giant icicle we’ve snapped off the neighbour’s eavestrough, but once I explain her flawed chemistry, she concedes, and I help her with one of the long wire skewers instead.

On the day of our Hanukkah brunch party my mom is definitely the queen of the kitchen. But in the last few years, I’ve been the de facto assistant chef, so it’s my job to make a game plan.

I put my dad in charge of washing the sugar cure off the salmon gravlax I had prepped back in the city, then patting it dry. It’s also his task to thinly slice the lox on the bias. He may have been an endocrinologist for 50 years, but with decades of experience carving my mom’s briskets, at our table Dr. Fred Rosen is considered a surgeon.

I amp up a softened half-brick of cream cheese by stirring in some minced red pepper and grated carrots, plus a chopped green onion and a few chopped olives, while Andrew slices bagels. I roast cauliflower, stir together a quick tahini sauce, and then whack the little jewels out of a pomegranate. I get Deborah to dice the tomatoes, cucumbers and onion for the Israeli salad. Meanwhile, the girls spread dreidels and chocoloate gelt down the long table, tape up decorations at their eye level and paint welcome signs.

I preheat the oven and grease my Bubi Fran’s old enamel pan. More than a decade after her passing, my grandmother’s bakeware is still helping out in the kitchen, her apple cake replaced by my cinnamon buns for today, by demand.

My Auntie Irit and cousin Avi arrive—Irit is from Israel and never got used to Canadian winters. “Holy sheet, it’s cold out,” she says in her Israeli accent. “Pardon my French.” Then our cottage neighbours, Judy and Henry, come over, toting a gorgeous “Cranapple Dazzle” galette.

When my mom is finally finished frying latkes, it’s brunch time! The laughter is loud and the stories are strong as we sit crammed in together. We catch up with Henry and Judy—he’s telling old dating stories, she’s filling us in on the art classes she’s teaching. Between bites of cauliflower, we talk about the animal tracks we’d seen on the lake (were they from the neighbours’ giant dog or a bear? But, wait, aren’t the bears sleeping? And are there even bears in these parts?).

After dessert, we move on to the lighting of the menorah, its colourful beeswax candles already in place. We watch the flames dance, and we sing the songs and the Hanukkah prayers. Then we shift over to the crackling wood stove, moving from one warming light to the next, so that the children can open their gifts in front of the fire.

With the meal and the celebrations done, we’re craving some fresh air. Most of us head out for a walk on the lake while my mom and Auntie Irit stay behind to clean up (but really, I suspect, to stay warm). Henry is wearing the full-length women’s fur coat he arrived in. “Is it?” he asks incredulously. “But it fits!” The rest of us are dressed head-to-toe in moon boots, snow pants, parkas, ski mitts and scarves. But despite the ribbing he gets, Henry is the only one dressed warmly enough to make it all the way to one of the ice-fishing huts on this frigid afternoon.

Next, check out these holiday food traditions from around the world.

© 2018, Amy Rosen. From “Double the Latkes, Double the Fun!”, Cottage Life (Winter 2018).

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada