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An L.A. Latke Lament

An L.A. Latke Lament

Too many of us are losing our Jewish roots. Even the Latke is assimilating.

by

As a child, I was reared near the Lender family, heirs to the bagel empire spawned in my hometown, New Haven, Connecticut. Not satisfied with the a$toni$hing $ucce$$ of their local bakeries, the wonders of their split level ranch home, its iron jockeys with actual horses, their bagel shaped pool, round island for tanning in the middle, just by cranking out those old-fashioned crunchy bagels that fight your mouth back, the Lenders made bagels very big business. They launched such innovations as the frozen bagel in a plastic bag in your supermarket frozen foods section, the cinnamon raisin, the pumpernickel, the green for St. Patrick's Day.

They made the bagel a household word, but in this very effort may have assimilated and Americanized it beyond recognition. What a paradox. In America you can't even mess with state flowers, but an entire culture's cuisine can be bastardized and nobody even kvetches! Many second and third generation Ameri-Jews cannot recall what an aboriginal bagel feels like amidst all this infernal creativity. In recent years, in "we're so hip we're nutty" Los Angeles, I've even had cream cheese flavored bagels, much like sour cream potato chips, for those too lazy or busy to combine two distinct ingredients by themselves.

In America you can't even mess with state flowers, but an entire culture's cuisine can be bastardized and nobody even kvetches!

I fear the same blurry fate for the purity of the potato latke. At this holiday time of year, hankering for the foods of my youth, I went searching my area for that familiar flat, latticed little golden brown crunch-orama, fried in a generous batch of oil (Chanukah being a celebration of oil), served with homemade apple sauce or fresh sour cream--those perfect patties that my mother faithfully recreated from her mother's recipe.

You risk all nostalgia and sentiment when you order your precious Jewish childhood comfort foods from L.A.'s melting pots. After all, this is the land where they put pineapple on pizzas. You could get digestive amnesia, eating what people pass off as Jewsine around here, and bury the real thing in the recesses of your baffled palate. See, a lot of our Jewish deli kitchens in Los Angeles are manned by those lovely folks from the Southern Americas, gracing your latkes with jalapeños and red pepper flakes while our Jewish brethren are at the door welcoming you, at the cash registers charging you.

I visited one famous 'mother of's' kosher eatery, decorated with her son's film posters brazenly staring you down on you like the Almighty Himself. Here I found an improvisation on the theme: blackened strands around a peppery pudding-y mound of oily potato--Cajun? I think not. More like the home fries fabricated from frozen shredded potato product found in highway diners, with a bit too much pepper.

Some other local delicatessens' were very spicy (cayenne?), some dicey (the potatoes cubed rather than grated?), some more like fritters which could have contained anything from fish to farm animals, so unrecognizable was a potato flavor amidst the puffery. One local noshery's pancakes were like Egg Foo Young, and I glanced in the kitchen to see affable Asian folks preparing them with their blessing from the Far East, corn starch. Rumor has it that the best latkes in this area are at a deli called Brent's, located on the earthquake fault line in our Valley city, Northridge, so God knows how long one will be able to get them. Eating them is risky enough, as evidenced by the fact that the folks who made me the best latkes have all passed on.

Getting yourself invited to the home of someone whose ancestors came over on the Ellis Island is your best bet. Although, granted, I have been to parties at kosher homes, at which the noodle kugles were topped with cornflakes, having been made by the imported nanny earlier that day. Is nothing sacred in the revolutionary, tradition hating West anymore?! In the words/lyrics of Jim Hammerstein, son of Oscar, from his tune "Delicatessen:"

"Have you ever had matzoh ball soup on the Loop?
Its taste is both foul and acidic.
Go try chicken liver beyond the Hudson River
It's absolutely Anti-Semitic!"

Forgive my rant. I'm a new agey kind of gal, but some things are better kept "old school." So this Chanukah, let's "keep it real" and make our latkes at home as a celebration of the Old World ways. And let's not get carried away with extravagant gift giving either – I'm sure they didn't do that in the shtietel. Instead, as my gift to you, here's our mother's mother's recipe for the quintessential, Eastern European potato pancake for two, lovingly scribed on greasy pink paper by my sister Norma. Happy Chanukah!

2 large mature potatoes
1 t. onion
1 egg, well beaten
1/4 t. salt
1/4 –1/2 t. baking powder
2 T. all purpose flour
Crisco or Oil

  1. Peel potatoes and grate finely into a bowl of cold water.
  2. Wet onion piece first so you don't cry too much. Grate it well in another bowl. Mix with eggs, salt and flour.
  3. Drain potatoes and press out the liquid with the bottom of a cup. (Don't forget to wash the bottom of the cup-- you always forget!)
  4. Stir potatoes into batter and mix well.
  5. Heat 1/2 inch oil (from Crisco if you can find it) in a 10 inch skillet on a low flame for a couple minutes. Put a drop of water in and if it bounces, the oil is hot enough. Drop batter by tablespoons into hot oil, from close by so it doesn't splash back or spritz in your pretty punim.
  6. Flatten into 3 inch pancakes and fry slowly until golden brown and crisp. Turn and brown on the other side.
  7. Arrange on paper on a nice plate. Serve with sour cream or applesauce. Essen!

Published: December 1, 2007


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Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Anonymous, January 8, 2008 9:26 AM

cultural gastronomy doesn't assimilate

As someone who also knew of the Lenders American dreamlike lifestyle, it should be noted that as a family and as Jews the Lenders were always demonstrative in their Jewishness and support of Israel. Also their bagels have enhanced the American culinary saucepan not taken from the Jewish saucepan.

(14) Anonymous, December 10, 2007 3:52 AM

I can appreciate Melanie Chartoff's feelings and I must admit that we have participated in this assimilation. Because making appplesauce took so much time, I served jar applesauce with our latkes when our children were little.
For my son, now grown, jar applesauce is an integral part of his Chanukah memories. Additionally, the latke recipe in "LA Lament" is itself an assimilated item. Again because of the time, my husaband, our Latke King,
doesn't grate potatoes by hand. He uses our electric food shredder (a
wedding present that is now over 40 years old). Thirdly, Crisco is a 20th century chem lab creation that came into use in 1911. Before that kosher
food was most likely fried in rendered chicken fat or olive oil.

(13) Mosheh Wolfish, December 5, 2007 12:46 PM

It's the box, stupid! (ala Bill Clinton)

I am reminded of the little boy who got a tricycle as a gift. He was so very excited by the gift. His parents were so happy that he was so happy. He opened the box, pushed aside the tricycle and climbed into the box and played all sorts of imaginary games. He was delighted with the great BOX that his parents got him. Dear Melanie, the food is just the box. You're right, the box is very, VERY nice. But still, it's just the box. Don't throw away the real present that is in the box.
Happy Chanukah!

(12) DD, December 5, 2007 12:36 PM

The origin of the bagel -surprising

I just finished reading a collection of letters written by a sage of almost a thousand years ago, R'Ovadia MiBartenura, who wrote of his travels and experiences on his way to the Holyland. He described the bread in Egypt as round bread boiled in water and very soft, not like the hard bread baked in ovens that he was used to from Italy. WE're all mixed up -vive la difference!

(11) Ima of Ima's Kitchen, December 5, 2007 11:20 AM

We've Come a Long Way!

I have the funniest memory of a 3rd grade public school experience: the teacher asked us kids to think of rhyming words. The word "box" was up on the board. When the kids were stumped after the usual "clocks," "socks," "locks" and "rocks," I timidly raised my hand and offered "LOX."
The teacher: We put that up already - locks.
Me: NO, I think this is spelled L-O-X
Teacher (giving me one of the oddest looks ever received): there's no such word. No made up words, please.
Me (doubting my sanity. Didn't our family just sit down to a brunch that included this delicassy last Sunday?!): I think it's a kind of a food. (Then, to be helpful): I think you eat it with bagels.
Teacher: Bay what?
Getting worse...
Me: You know (does she??)- Bagels and Herring and stuff?
Teacher: (A strange look to beat the last one) Honey, I'm not sure any of this is real. I'll write it down and ask someone and let you know tomorrow.

FYI, this was Ohio, USA in the mid-60's. Maybe we have something to thank the Lenders for, even though their recipe might not exactly be Lower East Side.

By the way, I have an assortment of "latke" recipes ranging from apple to salmon, and it's all ok because the custom isn't the potatoes, it's using olive oil. So, no, Crisco,or even schmaltz won't do it for Chanukah, even though it may be delish and quite sentimental. AS for Rebbecca's comments about true Jewish food: WE are a Galut nation. All of our food, whether filled with potatoe or filled into grape leaves, is borrowed from our local host cultures throughout the ages. So we can enjoy them all and feel somehow authentically Jewish. so, let the Mexican cooks add Jalopeno, as long as it's Kosher!
My latkes, by the way, are strictly potatoes, eggs, onions, salt & oil. No matza meal, flour or baking powder. It works for my folks!

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