My earliest potato pancake memory features an imposing metal 4-sided box grater boasting the name Bromco. The four sides offered specific options, made possible by the mere manual rotation of the grater. On one side, directly below the brand name, a trio of lethal horizontal openings begged for anything needing slicing, hungrily waiting for an unsuspecting knuckle to cross its path. Minuscule holes on one side were perfect for zesting fragrant lemons and oranges or grating a wedge of hard cheese into a pyramid of fluff. Tear-provoking onions and finely shredded carrots fared better with holes about ⅛” wide, while offering just the right amount of danger to an exposed fingertip. The ¼” holes were ideal for coarsely shredding cheeses and vegetables while providing plenty of opportunities for calamitous injury.
Although the Bromco box grater shared cabinet space with the Chop-O-Matic, the two kitchen tools were totally independent with little crossover. Having experienced repeated run-ins with the box grater, I felt slightly safer using the Chop-O-Matic, its blades safely ensconced within plastic. According to Jessie however, the Chop-O-Matic had no place in potato pancake-ing. The exposed grating holes on the Bromco seemed to elude Jessie’s fingers as she grated onions and potatoes without sustaining injury. My brush with the box grater almost always ended with the need for a cotton ball doused with the popular antiseptic ST-37 and a band-aid. My mentor was sympathetic, but quick to point out that I needed to devote all of my attention to the task at hand and not WABC’s 4:30 movie scrolling across the tv screen.
Potato pancakes seemed to require mountains of potatoes and more onions than I was capable of grating. There was also a curious need for a bowl of cold water to prevent the potatoes from discoloring. I never understood the alchemy of this step, the potatoes taking a quick cold swim followed by a thorough kitchen towel squeeze. I was much better suited to plugging in the West-Bend electric frying pan and combing through the kitchen cabinet for the blue box of Streit’s matzoh meal. I always wondered how Jessie knew how many potatoes and how many onions, and what about the eggs and the matzoh meal? Nothing was written down that I could see and the addition of matzoh meal was more of a generous shake from the Streit’s blue box than an actual measurement. “Not too much,” Jessie would say, “just enough to hold it together.” The potato mixture was then dropped into the West-bend’s sizzling oil bath, eventually bobbing to the surface, the edges of the pancakes deeply golden, a few onion stragglers teetering on burnt. A veil of oil drifted beyond the swinging kitchen door, hovering over the dining room table. Long after the dinner plates had been cleared, and the Hanukkah lights nothing more than puddles of wax, the air was still thick with a tangle of frying oil, sweet onions, and candles.
Many years later, the proud recipient of a new, but small food processor, I watched in horror as shreds of freshly grated potatoes turned from starchy white to unappetizing gray. The flashback to an oversized Pyrex bowl filled with cold water and a clean kitchen towel was as sharp a reminder as any four-sided Bromco box grater.
The West-Bend electric frying pan has long extinguished its flame, but I still keep a box grater on hand in the event my food processor goes on strike or is recalled by Cuisinart. It is unclear when I made the crossover from white to sweet in my potato pancakes. I can see Jessie shaking her head, wondering who invited sweet potatoes to elbow their way into a traditional Hanukkah side dish. She would be happy to know however, that even though I measure out the matzoh meal from the blue box, I always add just the slightest little shake to hold it all together.