In elementary school, December always meant being asked by my fellow classmates, “Are you Christmas or Hanukkah?” To me, the question was puzzling — partially because both options were holidays, not religions. Even more puzzling, though, was the idea of making a choice; I celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, as I’m half-Jewish, half-Catholic. My 8-year-old peers couldn’t handle this ambiguity, especially not with their limited conception of religion outside of the present-receiving realm.
“Wait, so you get double the presents?”
Today, my 20-year-old peers are also confused by my religious self-identification, but they pose more sophisticated questions, like, “How can you be both Catholic and Jewish?”
I have always identified equally with both Judaism and Christianity. My mother is an Italian, church-going, rosary-saying Roman Catholic who insisted on raising me in the church. I went to Sunday school, I attended church intermittently (by which I mean exclusively on Christmas and Easter), and I had a confirmation. In fact, many of my Sunday school teachers thought I was going to be the next big thing in Catholicism.
My father, however, is 100 percent New York Jew, of Polish descent. Or is it Belarusian? We don’t have good records of the Yagoda clan. We do know that I have coarse, curly hair like my father’s, as well as his sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes campy sense of humor. I’ve celebrated Hanukkah every year (and can recite the full blessing over the candles), I’ve attended more bat/bar Mitzvahs than I have fingers, and I have Rugrats’ Passover on my iPod. I also appreciate whitefish salad on a bagel more than most people.
Much has changed since my days of attending Sunday school and bat mitzvahs. I never make it to church anymore, and Jesus no longer holds my interest. I am rarely able to celebrate Hanukkah with my family, as it usually intersects with school.
Food is the only way I know to keep these traditions alive, these traditions that link me to generations and generations of Italian Catholics and Polish (Belarusian?) Jews. It’s the best I can do. On Christmas Eve, this means orchestrating our family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Catholic tradition. When I make my specialty, Linguine con le Vongole (pasta with clams), I feel like I’m continuing the legacy of my ancestors. For Hanukkah, I’ll make my sweet potato latkes, even if it means smelling like frying oil for weeks, as my father hums vaguely Jewish-sounding tunes.
I know that my linguine doesn’t atone for my poor church attendance rate. I know that my latkes don’t make up for the fact that I still don’t know what Yom Kippur is all about. But I do know that cooking helps. Here are my recipes for some kick-ass linguine and latkes.
Sweet Potato Latkes
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk (approximately)
Peanut oil for frying
Grate the sweet potatoes coarsely. In another bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper.
Add the eggs and just enough milk to the dry ingredients to make a stiff batter. Add the potatoes and mix. The batter should be moist but not runny. If it’s too stiff, add more milk.
Heat 1/4 inch of peanut oil in a frying pan until it just begins to smoke. Drop in the batter by tablespoons and flatten. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Fry over medium-high heat several minutes on each side until golden.
Drain on paper towels and serve with sour cream and applesauce.
Linguine con le Vongole
3 tablespoons sea salt
1 pound linguine
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
24 clams, scrubbed
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 cup dry white wine
1 (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes in juice, juice reserved and tomatoes coarsely chopped
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons parsley, coarsely chopped
In large pot over moderately high heat, bring 8 quarts of salted water to boil. Add linguine and cook to 1 minute short of al dente; pasta should still be pretty firm.
Meanwhile, in large sauté pan over moderately high heat, heat 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil until hot. Add garlic and sauté until just golden, roughly 30 seconds. Add clams and 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes. Sauté for 1 minute. Add wine, tomatoes and juice, and 1/2 cup parsley and simmer, uncovered, until the clams open, about 7 minutes.
Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water. Drain the linguine and add to pan. Simmer and toss until linguine is just tender, about 1 minute. If it seems dry, add some more reserved cooking water. Remove from heat. Add remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and extra-virgin olive oil and toss to coat. Serve immediately.