The Human Genre Project

Potato Pancakes

Mutations in the GBA gene cause Gaucher’s disease in which a fatty substance accumulates in the body. One type of this disease is far more prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews than in the general population.

Whenever I visited, she was always sitting in the same chair, a small dog nestling in her large lap. She would show me her collection of photos, softened at the edges by age. Dark-suited men stood guard over women in lace, who clutched babies smothered in yet more lace.

‘Our family,’ she would say. But nobody really knew how we were related. I called her ‘auntie’, but that can mean so many different things. My grandmother said that she appeared just after the war. She could be seen at family events, admiring other people’s grandchildren. My grandmother couldn’t remember where she came from.

After my grandmother’s death, my mother visited her, taking me along too, and when I was older I was sent to see her by myself. She always wore stiff quilted dressing gowns, but when we kissed, her cheeks felt soft and plump. When I was a child she would hug me, her bosom enveloping me.

She was known for her cooking; she made the best chicken soup, matzo balls, chopped liver and boiled beef that any of us had ever tasted. She used to try and teach me how to make potato pancakes. You peel and grate potatoes, drain off any water, and stir in salt, egg and flour. Then you drop spoonfuls into hot oil and fry until golden.

But they wouldn’t work for me. They would break up in the frying pan, or stay raw inside. Or they would burn and crumble on the plate. She insisted on us making them every time I visited, even though I did not want to eat potato pancakes that often.

No food was wasted in her house, she insisted on clean plates. So, no matter how unappetising the pancakes were, we ate them with dollops of sour cream and applesauce.

‘It’s the wrong type of potato,’ she would say, spearing another broken piece of pancake with her fork. ‘That’s why the recipe doesn’t work in this country.’

When she was in hospital for the last time, I took her some pancakes. I was proud of their smooth surfaces, not pockmarked by bits of greasy potato. As she slowly chewed them, I mopped the saliva from her chin.

‘There’s something missing,’ she mumbled, ‘What did you put in them?’

‘I replaced the potatoes with ricotta cheese,’ I told her, ‘It makes them light.’

‘Light!’ She was scornful. ‘You don’t want light!’

Pippa Goldschmidt