14 December 2009

Latkes: What do YOU put on yours?

While latkes are often considered to be a staple of Chanukah, European Jews had never even seen potatoes - that "New World" crop - until the late 16th century.

In fact, food columnist and author Matthew Goodman says latkes and other potato dishes weren't popular in the Russian Empire until the mid-19th century, as the vegetable was rumored to be a carrier of typhoid and leprosy. It wasn't until the failures of other common grains that farmers decided to try their hand at the new-fangled potato plant. (And aren’t we glad they did!)

The above is the sidebar from a story I wrote in 2007 for the World Jewish Digest (a magazine that reached some 240,000 homes and is now defunct) on what people put on their latkes. Read on and see some familiar names in Jewish genealogy who contributed to the story. The frying latke photo is by Lisa F. Young.

In honor of the holiday, here it is:

You Are What You Eat
By Schelly Talalay Dardashti
(World Jewish Digest, November 2007)

Potato pancakes. Latkes. These golden delights of potato and onion appear in nearly every Ashkenazi frying pan during Chanukah, helping to honor that one small vial of oil that lasted for eight days. While the rest of the world crunches candy canes, decorates trees, sits on Santa's lap or returns strange gifts, our people are frying.

I, of course, a seasoned genealogist, know the truth. (Well, part of it, at least.) No recipe is created in a vacuum and, sometimes, learning a family's latke tradition is more like playing a round of Jewish geography than anything else. For instance, Galitzianers (Galicia was in the former Austro- Hungary, then in Poland, now in Ukraine and Poland) tend to like their food sweet, while Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) tend to like theirs salty. Some genealogists surmise that sweeter cuisine resulted from cheaper prices of sugar, whereas saltier cuisine resulted from high taxes on sugar. But no one knows for certain. The question is: do these regional tendencies apply to latkes, too? And if so, what are the geographical boundaries?

The topic came up one day last year when I was cruising through the various online genealogy discussion lists I belong to. I noticed a post from one Shelly Crane, whose family comes from both Poland and Ukraine. Crane's Polish relatives used sugar on their latkes and the Ukrainian ones, in turn, would tease them. Having come across other sugar lovers of Polish origin, Crane wanted to know whether the tie between country and condiment was a bubba meiseh (Yiddish for a grandmother's tale) or not.

Crane wasn't the only one thinking along these lines. Judy Baston of San Francisco, Calif., who moderates the Jewish Records Indexing-Poland list (http://www.jri-poland.org/) - which provided the framework for much of this story - found that "nothing brings people into the discussion as much as the foods served in their family homes...[it's] a link to 'old country' connections."

Old country connections indeed. Crane's question seemed to awaken something warm and fuzzy in my fellow genealogists, whose discussion threads are generally limited to archival records, cemetery stones and translations of new records. A deluge of postings suddenly bombarded the discussion group, each regaling list members with the "right" way to eat a latke. Intrigued, and hoping to make some order of the chaos, I fished out a few of the more interesting stories. So, here to relieve your Chanukah kitchen angst is a peek into the lighter - and oilier - side of Jewish genealogy. But whatever you do this holiday - whether you serve your latkes with sour cream or sour pickles - just remember one thing: don't use a store-bought mix. Traditional hand-grated latkes are best, no matter how scraped your knuckles may get!

1. Less is More
Hadassah Lipsius, who lives in New York but whose family roots are in Poland, likes her latkes plain. Her family's holiday traditions include the annual guarding of the pan, whereupon those individuals who are quick enough snatch the latkes out of the spitting hot oil and wrap them in a napkin. Most of the time, says Lipsius, the latkes never reach the table - let alone any condiment. "Am I supposed to add anything else?" she asks innocently. Former Londoner Ingrid Rockberger, who now lives in Ra'anana, Israel, but whose family roots are near Lodz, Poland, also eats them naked. "Oh, the calories!" she adds.

2. The American Way
Hal Stein lives in Sacramento, Calif., but his maternal roots are in Kapyl (Kapulie), near Slutzk, in Belarus. He remembers eating his latkes thin, moist and crusty around the edges, served with sour cream, apple sauce or both. "I don't understand how some of these concoctions of today, which look and taste like stringy hash browns, can pass as latkes. They’re an insult!" Sarah Lee Meyer Christiansen, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, but whose roots are in Warsaw and southern Ukraine, says she never knew about sugar or sour cream on latkes. In her family, they knew only of applesauce. There’s another American classic - ketchup - but only one person publicly admitted to this tradition. He knows who he is and we don’t want to embarrass him...

3. A Pinch of Salt
With parents from Poland, Bobbie Fromberg eats latkes with salt. "I don't know anyone who doesn't add a little salt to their potatoes. Sour cream or applesauce - feh! Just gimme some really good fried-in-schmaltz latkes with salt and pepper." (If you're dieting, Fromberg shares a great way to have your latkes and eat them too: in a non-stick waffle iron. "Yes, they look like waffles, but put a little salt on them and they taste just like latkes without all that grease.")

4. A Spoonful of Sugar...
Susan Rosenthal grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Salt Lake City, Utah. Her family roots, however, are in a shtetl south of Bialystok, Poland. According to her, the family rule was cinnamon sugar, although she doesn't know why or when the cinnamon was added. Yael Liber, a former Israeli who now lives in the U.S. but whose maternal roots are near Lublin, Poland, also sprinkles hers with sugar. "I knew of no other way to eat them until I arrived in the U.S. from Israel," she says. Of course, 100 percent Litvak Jonina Duker, from Maryland, disagrees. "Sugar on latkes?" she writes. "Feh!"

5. Elbow Grease
Marilynn Handelman, from Laguna Woods, Calif., says her grandmother from Ukraine mixed together potatoes, onions, garlic, as many eggs as were available, matzo meal, salt and pepper, and then fried them in shmaltz until crisp. "We ate them right out of the pan - the greasier, the better! Oh, were they good! Gramma lived to be almost 100." Today, Handelman makes her latkes much healthier, substituting egg whites for eggs, grilling them instead of frying and blotting with a paper towel—after which she freezes, reheats and blots again, lest there be a drop of oil. "My kids and grandkids think they are the best in the world. What do they know? They’ve never tasted those greasy latkes fried in shmaltz."

6. Fish 'n' Chips 'n' Vinegar...
Jerusalemite Harold Lewin, who emigrated from Manchester, U.K., says his family from Lithuania always ate latkes with malt vinegar, as in the British fish-and-chips tradition. The vinegar was a U.K. invention, he says; he’s never heard of such a custom before.

7. If You Say So ...
Albuquerque native Ken Rubin, a chef now living in Portland, Ore., and editor-in-chief of http://www.chefs.com/, has his own recipe. "I used to eat latkes with matzo brie [fried eggs and matzo with salt or sugar on top] and raspberry preserves were great on a crunchy, salty latke." Rubin’s family, originally from Russia and Poland, was not quite as daring.

8. Cream Rises to the Top
Across the country, in New York City, Joel Maxman remembers that until he left for college, "latkes on the stove meant sour cream on the table." Maxman's mother was from Zalozhits, Galicia. Sandra Greenberg, from Denver, Col., says her mother-in-law - from Minsk, Belarus - was too poor as a child to eat sour cream. (Another reason for the paucity of sour-cream eaters is that, in the old country, most latkes were fried in chicken or goose fat. Since most Jews observed kashrut - and therefore could not mix milk with meat - sour cream was not an option.)

9. Pass the Gravy
Herb Huebscher, of Long Island, N.Y., says his parents were from Horodenka, Galicia, but lived in Vienna after World War I, until they immigrated to the U.S. in 1939. He insists that his mother made genuine authentic latkes, never putting a grain of sugar or a trace of applesauce or sour cream on them. "I remember always bathing them in gravy from the roasted chicken or the like and adding a little salt." He maintains there is a latke Mason-Dixon line, along a geographical latitude north of Lviv, Ukraine.

10. Scarborough Fair
"I once flavored potato latkes with small amounts of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme," says Lisa Kahn Betros of Riverdale, N.Y. "They were delicious with sour cream." Betros, who grew up in Dallas, Tex., says her father, whose family originated from the towns of Pultusk and Makow, Poland, was known locally as the "Lat-kuh Doc-tuh." In spite of his expertise and Polish origin, he found her American concoction "acceptable."

That's it. Go make some latkes and put on your favorite toppings ... or not!

Does your family do things differently?

Tell Tracing the Tribe. Everyone is interested in what YOU put on your latkes. and don't forget to vote in the JGSLA 2010 latke topping poll


  1. They all sound good to me.....

  2. Salsa! I mince three nice ripe tomatoes, a big ole jalapeno pepper, a small onion, one clove of garlic, and a half a cup of cilantro. Stir in the juice of a lime, salt, pepper, cumin, and oregano. Serve as a single topping on the latkes, or together with sour cream. It ROCKS!