Geoff and Mitchell Schwartz are the NFL's most improbable pair of offensive linemen. They started their football careers late, not playing a down of organized football until they joined their low-key high school program. Despite all that, they wound up at top-tier college programs and became the first Jewish brothers in the league since 1923. In Eat My Schwartz, Geoff and Mitch talk about the things that have made them the extraordinary people that they are: Their close-knit and supportive family, their Jewish faith and traditions, their love of the game and drive for excellence and, last but not least, the food they love to eat, whether at home or on the road.
It's Friday evening, December 19, 2003, the first night of Hanukah. At our house in West L.A. -- the place my brother Mitch and I have called home our entire lives -- that means a few things. For one, our uncle Fred and his family will be there and so will our friends the Weinsteins. Every year we go to the Weinsteins' house for a Passover seder and every year they come here to celebrate Hanukah, the Jewish holiday known as the Festival of Lights.
It also means Mitch and I are in the kitchen, doing what we've always done every year at this time since we were old enough to help: making our grandmother's recipe for potato latkes. Latkes are potato pancakes, a traditional dish for the holiday. And for us, two rather large high school kids who love to cook and eat, making them is a major operation. First we do the grunt work: peeling fifteen pounds of potatoes and soaking 'em in big pots of water so they don't brown. Then we get the other ingredients ready: the bag of onions, salt, eggs, and olive oil.
No doubt plenty of cooks toss their latke spuds in a blender. But we are operating on old-school methods. We get the box grater out and we shred all those potatoes by hand, trying our best not to cut our fingertips off in the process. And that's harder than it sounds, because we've got gargantuan hands. I'm a 6-6 senior. My "little" brother, Mitch, a freshman, is about 6-4. And when we grate each potato down to that final tiny morsel, we have to slow down and carefully press that last bit of potato through the shredder or risk a bloodbath.
When we're done with the prep work, which also involves squeezing out the excess water from the grated potatoes and shredding all the onions, too -- a big chunk of onion can overpower our Jewish flapjacks -- we mix everything together, fire up a couple of frying pans, heat the oven to 200 degrees to keep the early batches warm, and go into mass production.
When the Weinsteins show up -- Joel, who works with our mother at an L.A. law firm, Deborah, and their twin sons Perry and Adam, who are little kids I've known since they were babies -- I start to think about all the meals we've shared together and I wonder about next year. I'm going away to college and I've been weighing scholarship offers from some major football programs, the kind of teams that play Bowl games at the end of December. Who knows if I'll be back here for Hanukah, or any of the other holidays we share together? I'm not a super-sentimental guy, but I am passionate about gathering around the table, bonding and breaking bread with family and friends to eat great food. It's the most basic communal human ritual there is.
Our dad, Lee, puts out the hors d'oeuvres and gets everyone drinks. In the kitchen, the sizzling continues as Mitch and I take turns manning four frying pans full of latkes, calibrating each one for that optimal fried golden-brown look that says they are done. It's funny: some people look at cooking as work or a chore, and some people might think of football as play, but for us, it's sort of the opposite. Mitch and I are not the most artistic guys on the planet -- we don't paint or draw or play music -- but cooking has become a creative outlet for both of us, something we enjoy exploring and experiment- ing with. We love the improvisational element of cooking, and the social element, too. Food, which is so important to us as athletes -- it fuels our work -- provides the forum for us to create meals that look good and taste fantastic. As fun as football is, as much as we love "playing," it definitely can be hard work.
By the time we join the others, my uncle Fred, aunt Brenda, and their twins, my super-cute three-year-old cousins Amanda and Heather, have arrived. Our conversations are wide ranging. L.A. is recovering from a big media circus around the indictment of Michael Jackson on charges that just make everyone shake their heads in disbelief and horror.
My uncle asks if we heard about Ben Roethlisberger, a junior at Miami of Ohio, ending his college career with a superb game against Louisville. "He threw four touchdowns in the first half and had a thirty-five to seven lead in the second quarter. Now he says he's going pro."
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) February 5, 2016
Joel and Deborah ask about the college recruitment process. Which colleges am I interested in? Which have I visited? What do I want to study? I have this idea that I'm interested in eventually being a lawyer, like my mom and Joel. So I'm thinking about studying history, which seems like a relevant field of study for a lawyer since there's a lot of reading and analyzing facts. I mention the names of a few schools that have offered me scholarships.
Joel asks my parents what they think.
"It's Geoffrey's decision," my dad says. "He's worked his tail off on the field and in school. And he's the one who is going to have to do the work."
My mom laughs. "I didn't believe Lee when he told me scholarships were a possibility. But it's happened. And now Lee and Geoff say it will happen for Mitchell, too."
"Geoff and Mitch have the size and athleticism," my dad says. "But I'm most proud of their work ethic and perseverance. They both had a big learning curve."
It's true. My brother's size and physique make him even more suited to the offensive line than I am. He's come on some of the college tours and we joke that we can practically see the recruiters making mental notes to send Mitch letters as soon as possible.
Adam and Perry ask when we are going to start the candle ceremony. For eight nights in a row, we light a candle called the "shamash" and then use that candle to ignite one candle for each night of the holiday. So on the first night we have two candles burning and on the eighth night we have nine. We do this to celebrate and give thanks for a miracle from the time around 174 b.c. when the Maccabees, Jewish warriors who faced seemingly insurmountable odds, defeated the massive forces of Antiochus, the murderous leader of Syria, and then retook the Temple in Jerusalem. There, they found a small jar containing only enough olive oil to light a menorah for a single day. But instead of going out, the oil burned for eight more days until new supplies arrived. It was a miracle, and a sign that God was looking out for the Jews.
As we light the candles we say a few prayers in Hebrew. Many families sing songs, like "Rock of Ages," but we Schwartzes don't have the greatest voices, so we opt to protect our guests' eardrums.
We head to the dinner table. My mom lights the Sabbath candles and we chant the blessing over the bread. And then it is time to eat.
Mitch and I carry out the stacks of pancakes; the table is outfitted with bowls of sour cream, applesauce, and sugar -- the condiments that we love to slather on each latke. Like the perfect hamburger, everyone has his or her own vision of what constitutes the perfect latke. Some believe fried onions and sour cream are the perfect combination. Others indulge in seemingly bizarre pairings of sour cream and applesauce. In that vein, Mitch is a proponent of sour cream with a little sprinkling of sugar, which he says is the perfect way to achieve maximum sensory overload: you get the salt, the potatoes, you get the oil and the fat, the sour cream gives you a little tartness, and the sugar gives you a little sweetness. Me? I'm a straight sour cream man.
"When was your first varsity high school game?"
Joel asks. I'm pretty sure he knows the answer. "Last year," I say.
He shakes his head in disbelief. "And they're offering you full scholarships?"
"A miracle," my uncle says. "But it's the season for miracles."
-- Excerpted by permission from Eat My Schwartz by Geoff And Mitch Schwartz With Seth Kaufman. Copyright (c) 2016. Published by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Geoff Schwartz on Twitter @geoffschwartz. Follow Mitch Schwartz on Twitter @MitchSchwartz72.