by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger | bio

My dearest college friend, Leslie, has come back into my life. She grew up in California, and returned there half-way through college, but not before we had done an original musical and review together, studied together, dated together and laughed and cried together.

Leslie raised four children and earned a Ph.D. in Romanticism. Her parents have passed away, her children have grown, and so Leslie returned to where she always wanted to be: upstate New York. Now in the same time zone again, we talk almost daily and we are writing a screenplay together. Once again, we share our ups and downs.

This week, Leslie came to stay with us, on her way back from visiting her children and her brand new granddaughter. Yesterday we cooked together — something, we noted as we chopped, that hadn’t even been on our radar back in 1964.

Back then, there was an institution at Vassar called “scrape.” Everyone was required to do some housekeeping chores, and scrape was the least popular. You had to eat dinner early (skirts were required) and present yourself in your dorm’s kitchen with a partner. The kitchen team was led by a seriously grouchy woman (younger than we are now) who wielded a wicked ladle — take more than your allotment and you got whacked.

Her staff of about eight, all clad in white, worked wonders on three fresh (if not always appealing) hot meals a day. When it was our turn to do scrape — after a particularly disgusting dinner — we showed up and Lady Ladle gestured to take our places at a conveyor belt.

Between us was a dinner-plate sized hole. Trays of used food swept along the conveyor belt, right to left. Our job: Grab the passing plates, scrape the mess into the hole, put the plates back on the tray and grab the next plates. I missed and dropped a little mashed potato on Leslie’s hand. She tossed the contents of a little white paper cup — wet cole slaw — on my face. I scraped potatoes on her head. The Ladle came dangerously close to our knuckles.

“What?” asked Leslie. “You wanted scraped plates. You got scraped plates.”

She started a lusty rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” The staff sang along, doling out food on the left, grabbing our scraped plates on the right. Steam hissed. We slipped in the mess we created. Ladle went apoplectic.

A crowd of dorm mates looked in. Pat, the dorm president, could barely make it through the cheering girls.

She planted her hands on her hips, turned purple and stammered: “You two! Quit it! You two! You can never scrape again!”

Leslie hung her head. “Aw.”

“Ya mean it?” That’s me, the New Yorker.

More hang-dog than was humanly possible, Leslie and I untied our aprons, sadly flipped the loop over our heads, handed the gross, wet, mustardy, ketchupy, stiff-brown-saucy messes to Pat and doubled over laughing.

Now, we would never have done this except that some months before, I was nervous before the opening night of our review. My grandfather had taught me to count by stacking pennies into penny rolls — it was relaxing, so I opened my teddy bear bank on my bed and soothed myself with a childish counting ritual.

Pat burst into the room to enforce some rule or other, saw what I was up to and said, “You Jew, you.”

No one had ever said that to me.

“Get out,” I said.

Some time later, Leslie returned from class. She could see something was wrong, and when I told her what happened she stormed through the dorm to Pat’s room.

“Never do that again,” she said, shouting at our dorm president. “You bring shame to all of us, to all the Catholics here!”

Leslie jammed Pat against the wall and stormed out. I followed, sheepishly.

We didn’t set out to “get” Pat by doing our version of scrape. We didn’t plan it at all. But we had a great time in that kitchen that evening.

Some years ago Leslie began to study to convert to Judaism — but that’s her story to tell.  Now she’s a Jew and knows a whole lot more about our religion and customs than I imagine I’ll ever know.

Here’s what I do know: I’ve never made a good potato pancake. My mother gave me her recipe, which was her mother’s recipe. Limp. Soggy. Surprisingly green.

I’ve tried a zillion recipes. And yesterday Leslie made us her latke recipe. I already know the recipe (and secrets) by heart, and I’m going to share it with you now. There’s still time to make them during this Passover holiday, even if you’re not Jewish.

And it’s never too late to have a great treat — spend time with a dear friend, a soul mate, in the kitchen.

3/4 cup matzoh meal
3/4 cup boxed mashed potatoes (see, here’s the transcultural secret)
1 heaping teaspoon salt
1 1/2 – 2 lbs defrosted frozen hashed brown potatoes (definitely transcultural) uncooked (or you could cook them a little if you think they need it)
1 – 2 packages frozen chopped onions or 3 large chopped onions – browned
2 eggs
1 cup water
Several cups of good olive oil

Heat olive oil in a really large skillet. You’ll have to replenish the oil as you go along — wait until you’ve finished a batch and always wait until the oil gets hot again

Mix dry ingredients

Fold the browned onions into dry ingredients

Add the uncooked hashed browns

Beat the eggs and water together and add to the above

If you think it needs more water, little by little add up to another cup – the onions and potatoes vary in their moisture, so don’t expect science

Put a mixing spoon-worth of the batter into your palm

Flatten a bit with the other palm, or the back of a spatula

Use the spatula to place the pancake in the hot oil (watch out – it splatters!)

Cook until really brown; turn over

Expect the first few pancakes to turn out badly (that happened to my mother and my grandmother, too)

As you finish the pancakes, put them on a cookie sheet

Yield: around 30, excluding the bad ones

* A half hour before you want to serve them, put the sheets in a hot oven. The temperature isn’t that important – there’s probably already stuff in the oven, so make do.

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