And So We Make Latkes

Last night, I insist on making Jewish latkes. I know how because years ago, my student drove to my home to teach me how to make this traditional food from her own family’s recipe.

It’s strange how much I wanted them. And what’s even stranger is that I woke up this morning, and I realized that it was exactly seven years ago, during this very week, that I first learned how to make latkes. Here’s the blog I wrote then, and I loved learning from it again.

Latkes, Menorahs, and the French Phrase that Might Change Your Life

I have a student who already has a career in bread and pastries. She’s a baker who works all through the night baking bread for local bakeries. She’ll rise at 2:30 AM, work all night, and report to my 10:00 AM class covered in flour. The smell of freshly baked bread precedes her and lingers when she departs.

Last night, my baker student stops by to make potato latkes (pancakes) for my family. She wants to share this special Hanukkah food tradition with us, and she even brings a Menorah to light at sundown. As a Jewish daughter, she said the blessing as the candles were lit in her family, so she also proclaims the Hebrew blessing as a treat for my Christian family as the flames flicker.

But first, we make latkes!  She’s like a precision sportsman grating white and sweet potatoes with speed. As my student cooks, I notice how organized and how peaceful she remains. She carries on 3 different conversations, washes the dishes (and the floor!), and flips the latkes. At no point is my kitchen disordered or dirty. No stress, no worry.

“This is amazing!” I remark.

She looks over at me (while putting more latkes in the pan), and says, “Mise en place.”

“Me za what?” I ask, laughing.

“It’s French for, ‘everything in its place’,” she teaches. Apparently, every great baker knows this rule.  Before you start cooking anything, you enact mise en place. You set everything up–all your ingredients, all your tools, all your supplies–for the entire project. There’s no scurrying about and no energy wasted. Everything is exactly as you need it–mise en place.

When the latkes finish, she turns them over onto a plate beside her, already lined with a paper towel–mise en place.

When sundown falls like a grandmother’s shawl around our home, she has her candles and matches ready to light her Menorah. Her Hebrew blessing is typed out in translation for us–mise en place.

I serve Italian for dinner; my husband prays over our meal; we enjoy Jewish latkes as the candles burn down.

But all night, mise en place resonates long after I should be sleeping. Can I do that with my life? Can I get everything ready–anticipating–so I offer spaces of peace and organization? Those well-planned days are my best days. No scurrying, no energy wasted.  I have everything I need right here before me. Living with flair means mise en place.

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