The first thing I ever stole was a piece of Bazooka Bubble Gum. I lifted the small, red, white and blue rectangle out of the glass canister on the counter, wrapped my fist around it and shoved it in my pocket. My heart pounded against my chest with fear and excitement as I glanced around the store making sure no one had seen me. It was a rush. Taking it. Not getting caught. Pulling something off. Putting something over.
The person I put it over on was Grandpa Sam and it was his store, adjacent to the white Victorian house he and Grandma Sarah lived in in Greenwich, in which the robbery took place. Grandpa Sam was not our real Grandfather. That was Grandpa J.J. my father’s father, who died tragically and too young, shortly before my parents were married. I don’t remember much about Grandpa Sam except that he was laconic, not particularly huggy, and was often the reason that followed many of the no’s in our lives as in "No, you may not have a Christmas tree. It would offend Grandpa Sam."
I walked back to Grandma’s house, the purloined booty lodged securely in my jacket pocket, flush with the thrill of success. She was in the kitchen, wearing her forever apron, rolling out a round of pastry dough. She gathered it into a ball, picked it up and smacked it down hard on the kitchen table. “Liar!” she yelled and I froze in my tracks. How did she know? And then I realized she was yelling at Vice President Nixon on Face The Nation. Face The Nation was Grandma’s favorite show next to wrestling, the real wrestling not the scripted fare of today. “Says who, you son of a bitch, “ she barked again at the TV and then she saw me. “Where were you?” she asked. I hesitated. Maybe it was the way she was slamming that ball down on the table, the ball that that could easily have been me, but when I looked up into her face, I just couldn’t lie. Within seconds, I’d confessed.
Grandma Sarah had a highly developed moral compass. There was not a lot of gray between her black and white view of the world. She didn’t ask me why I did it. She simply told me to turn around, go back to the store, apologize to Grandpa Sam and give him back his Bazooka. And to make sure I did it, she came with me. I was frightened, my whole body trembling as we walked across the grass in cold silence. And when I said I was sorry, embarrassed and full of shame, my voice cracked and I started to cry. They say the rate of recidivism in robbers is incredibly high but I never stole anything ever again.
When we got back to the house, Grandma didn’t say another word about it. Instead, she asked me to grate the potatoes for the latkes. This was done on a box grater which, when you got down to the last nub of the potato, could make your fingers bleed. But still, it was an honor. Later, while we jockeyed for position in front of the stove as Grandma fried up the Latkes to crisp perfection (“Don’t stand so close! It spatters!”), I could tell my sister and my cousins that I had helped. I sat down at the table and grated potatoes till my arm ached. In a little while, the house would be full of family, of the smell of cinnamon and rugalach baking in the oven, of hot frying oil, and of forgiveness.
NOTE: About the scrap of paper written in my mother’s inimitable scrawl entitled “7 People:” I found it under ‘P’ in the alphabetized recipe box I had given her one Chanukah in a failed attempt to organize her. I was baffled. What the hell is “7 people,” I wondered, and why is it under the letter ‘P?’ After comparing it to my cousin Jan’s, I realized it was my mother’s shorthanded version of Grandma Sarah’s recipe which of course would be filed under ‘P.’ For Potato Pancakes. Oh, and it serves 7 people. Natch.
Joy Reback’s 7 People or
Grandma Sarah’s Secret Latkes
5 medium sized potatoes
5 eggs, separated
1 onion, peeled
1 – 1½ cups cake flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable Oil for frying
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Set aside. Grate onion on a box grater into a bowl. Set aside. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Lightly beat egg yolks. As quickly as you can, peel potatoes and grate them on the ‘shredding’ side of the box grater into bowl with onion.
Picking up handfuls, squeeze out all the liquid from the potato mixture. Return to bowl. Mix in egg yolks. Stir in the dry ingredients. Fold in the egg whites.
In a skillet, heat oil till very hot. Drop batter by spoonfuls into hot oil. Fry on each side till golden brown and cooked through. Drain on brown paper bags.
Serve with bowls of homemade applesauce and sour cream.
Our Chunky Homemade Applesauce
4 pounds apples – Granny Smith, Macintosh or Yellow Delicious
1 – 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or more, to taste
2 cinnamon sticks
¼ – ½ cup water
Sugar or honey to taste
Peel and core the apples. Cut them into quarters. Put them in a heavy saucepan with the cinnamon sticks. Add ¼ cup water (you only want enough liquid to create the steam to soften the apples) and lemon juice. Bring to the boil then cover, reducing heat to low. Simmer, stirring occasionally so the apples don’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 20 – 30 minutes. Remove from heat, discard cinnamon sticks. Stir with a wooden spoon, leaving some chunks of apple in the sauce. Add sugar or honey to taste. Transfer to bowl. Refrigerate or serve warm.
Katherine Reback was a screenwriter, speechwriter, essayist and frequent contributor to One for the Table. She lived in Beverly Hills, Calif., with her husband, the artist Sonny King, and their cat, Harry. Ms. Reback lost a short battle with cancer on May 27, 2010. We're making her latkes this Hanukkah.