This New Land, These Old Hands

Anna Kutnik’s hands shook as she baked.

It was October 1st, 1932–a Saturday and Rosh Hashana. She did not often bake latkes, but it felt important to do so today, on the first of the High Holy Days. She was not Jewish, but her husband had been, and a couple of their children still kept their father’s faith. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that– John had turned out to be a drunk who left her to raise their children alone, without even a penny of help after their divorce had been finalized seven years earlier– but she supposed that this culture was her children’s. Making the occasional latke seemed a small price to pay for that.

She counted out her ingredients: six potatoes, two onions, three eggs, salt, pepper, and flour. There was nothing to top them with; she was spending a quarter on their breakfast today, which would take her thirty minutes of work to earn back. If every meal they ate was this expensive, then she would be spending more money on their food than on rent. Still, today was a holiday, so she forced herself to push those thoughts to the back of her mind as she began to peel the potatoes.

It was still early enough that all the children were asleep. Sometimes Anna was not sure what to do with her children, what to do with her daughters: Nadya was thirteen and not quite a woman, but Mary was seventeen, old enough that she should be helping with breakfast. Anna herself had been seventeen when she crossed an ocean alone to come to a strange new land, but Mary at seventeen would sleep half her mornings away if she had been allowed.

She heard stirring in the other room, and Nick came in as she was finishing peeling the first potato. Both her sons were grown men by now, but they still lived at home. They were extra mouths to feed, but the odd jobs they were able to find brought in money the household badly needed. “Do you need help, Mama?” Anna frowned. “No,” she said. “Russkiy (Russian), Nick.” Nick smiled. “Mama, this is America. I think you will learn English before they learn Russian.” “My English –” she began. “Is wonderful,” Nick finished. He kissed her on the cheek. “I will get some bread for breakfast, da (yes)? Some rolls maybe?” Anna was quiet for a moment, translating the sentence in her head. “Da,” she agreed, and before she could even open her mouth to remind him to find them cheap, he was gone.

The reminder would have made no difference. Nick and Henry would do things like this sometimes and come back too quickly, too happy with such awful bread. She never asked where it came from: it was better not to know, she had decided. If they were getting cheated, let it be a lesson. If it was stolen, knowing would create problems that she did not need. Mary knew that the bread was stolen (or at least Anna thought that Mary knew), but Nadya seemed not to. That much was good.

By now she was done peeling her potatoes and had moved on to peeling her onions. The potatoes were soaking in a bowl of water; it stopped them from turning brown and made them easier to mash. She let them soak as she peeled and diced her onions, as she cracked the eggs into a smaller bowl and then beat them. She set that bowl to the side and felt the potatoes. They were ready to be mashed.

She picked up the first potato and set it in yet another bowl. She hated using so many bowls–rastochitel’nyy (wasteful), her mother would have scolded her–but it was the best way to have the dish cooked quickly. She mashed the potato until it was as smooth as she could get it, then mashed the second potato, then the third potato. She added in the diced onions, the eggs, stirring them into the potato mix, and then the salt and pepper were stirred in. She added the first tablespoon of flour, stirring it in completely. This was how she added the flour–spoonful by spoonful, stirring it in completely each time. There was no one amount of flour to be added, it changed depending on how much moisture was in the potatoes and onions and eggs used. You just added flour until it was right.

She could tell the mix was almost ready when Nick’s arrival made her lose count of how many spoons of flour she had added. From the cloth sack that he and Henry took their lunches to work in, when they had work, he produced half a dozen slices of wheat bread. Anna watched as he set them on the table, and then walked out of the kitchen. She heard stirring. Henry, she thought, and then heard even more rustling. That must be Mary and Nadya. All the children must be up now.

Sure enough, all four of her children came trooping into the kitchen. “Good morning, Mama.” Nadya stood at Anna’s elbow. “Russkiy, deti (Russian, children)!” Her children shared a look: although they had grown up speaking Russian, they almost always spoke English now. “Sozhaleyu (Sorry), Mama.” Anna nodded at Nadya, and then, after a fraction of a second, included her other children in the nod, too. She would let Nadya’s apology stand for all of them. She was proud of her children’s English–English had been a struggle for her, and it was something she still only knew enough of to get by on–but it frustrated her to have them speak it to her while she had to struggle to understand.

She was frying the latkes now. The lard was already melted in her cast iron skillet, the potato and onion mix crisping quickly. Nadya had moved to lay out plates for the five of them, and Mary grabbed cups for their water. Nick distributed the bread and Henry grabbed rags to use as napkins. Anna gestured for her children, and they all came to her, each holding their plate. She gave them each a latke, nestled beside the bread. They all sat, Anna last.

She wanted to pray over their breakfast–to pray the Protestant prayers that her mother had taught her as a girl, the Catholic prayers that she believed in now–but this was a Jewish holiday, and a Jewish meal, and Anna did not know any Jewish prayers. John had been the one who knew them. Nick was sitting beside her, and he whispered, “Vposledstvii (afterwards), Mama.” He looked at his siblings and said, “Well, why are we waiting? Let’s eat! I will pray the Bikrat Hamazon for us afterwards.” Anna watched as her children ate, grateful that Nick knew the prayer, that he remembered that it was prayed not before but after the meals. Grateful that her children, for once, were smiling. Anna took a bite, and then she smiled, too.

A picture of latkes and a pot of sour cream on a black tray.
Traditional latkes. Picture credit to Giora Shimoni

Works Consulted
“1930 U. S. Federal Census.” Database. 2020.

Google Translate, Google,

“Handbook of Labor Statistics / U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 1936.” HathiTrust,

“The High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) or High Holy Days.” Judaism,

“Jewish Calendar 1932.” Hebcal Jewish Calendar,

Matthews, Edward A. “‘Family Lines.’” Received by Camryn F Walker, “Family Lines”, 29 Dec. 2018.

Palley, Kate. “What Is Birkat Hamazon, or Benching?” My Jewish Learning,

Pearson, Steve. “1930’s Food and Groceries Prices.” Food Groceries and Toiletries in the 1930’s Prices 50 Examples from The People History Site,

Shimoni, Giora. “How to Make Traditional Hanukkah Potato Latkes.” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce Eats, 13 Jan. 2019,

Walker, Camryn F, and Edward A Matthews. June 2019.