I stared at Shelsky’s sweet potato and celeriac pancake with a hunger that was literally insatiable. Ironically, I was forbidden from ever actually tasting this latke, a delectable hallmark of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, because of my observance of Judaism.
I’m kosher, which means I don’t eat any forms of meat that haven’t been killed in a specific way. It’s a ritual I follow more out of family tradition than religious belief and one that I was even more tempted to break after Shelsky’s was voted the People’s Choice for best latke at the 6th Annual Latke Festival at the Sylvia Center in New York City.
Shelsky’s beautiful latke was not only layered with a house-made chopped liver that I am pretty positive came from meat that wasn’t slaughtered in kosher fashion, it was also fried in schmaltz, the fat rendered from a chicken, goose, or duck. In case you couldn’t tell from the delightfully clunky-sounding Yiddish name, schmaltz is an Eastern European Jewish food staple. Yet, I couldn’t actually eat any latke cooked in it—of which there were many—because almost none of them came from kosher restaurants.
Schmaltz was the least of (what I presume were) the delicious violations of the laws of kashrut Monday night. The 24 different restaurants and vendors submitting their versions of latkes were all too eager to dip into traif (non kosher) ingredients. Veselka layered its latke with pork goulash, and Toloache added beef short rib chorizo. While Joseph Leonard added a nice, fat slice of a bratwurst on top of its “Tailgate Sunday” latke, the chef running their stand was nice enough to make me a latke without the brat, but topped with their delicious beer mustard and crispy onions, instead.
Many of the booths were used to modifying their latkes a little, which I had somewhat expected. After all, many of the latkes came from the trendiest restaurants in the city, and nothing says hip like a peculiar food restriction.
Still, when I saw the menu of latkes the different vendors offered, I was a bit taken aback. At an event about traditionally Jewish food, I initially expected a little more awareness of kosher restrictions.
However, on second thought, it actually made a lot of sense. For one, the event wasn’t affiliated with a Jewish group. Secondly, most American Jews aren’t kosher. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study 28 percent of Jews ages 18 to 49 keep kosher inside their homes. That’s interestingly larger than the 16 percent of Jews over age 50 who keep kosher, but it’s still a relatively small number.
As I am in most restaurants, I was grateful for any modifications that could be made. With some, though, there was nothing to be done to help a kosher gal out. The best and funniest kosher offender was Egg, which made a latke out of country ham and had a fantastic sign warning “CARFUL! TRAIF!” Mokbar’s pork potato pancake was a close second.
Some of these latkes I did not regret passing up, especially after witnessing other’s reactions. After trying a potato pancake BBQ chicken slider, my colleague, Andrew Goldberg, concluded, “B.B. King’s should not be making latkes.”
I walked into the Latke Festival with at least a few preconceived notions about what a latke should be, but even more about who would be interested in eating the potato pancakes. Apparently, most people willing to shell out $65-$100 to attend a latke festival aren’t kosher—and maybe not actually Jewish. I struck up a conversation with a man in his fifties or sixties who had a Brooklyn accent. “We’re in a room full of shikses that probably don’t even know what they’re eating,” he told me.
I hardly spoke to every patron, but there may have been some validity to his assessment. An Australian woman in her late twenties told me she was an “honorary Jew” with no actual Jewish heritage. She came to the Latke Festival because she loved any dish so based around the potato. Perhaps having enjoyed the open bar, she added, “I never knew a Jew in Australia, and when I moved to New York, everyone I knew was Jewish!”
Most of the vendors were, like this woman, honorary Jews for the night, not that Jews have a monopoly on potato pancakes. My coworker from Poland told me about plackis, which are essentially the same thing as latkes without the Chanukah story. Esther Choi of Mokbar said she has made Korean potato pancakes called gam ja jun, and Charles Rodriguez of PRINT. Restaurant described latkes as “Mini hash browns,” which he thinks is why they are so universally beloved. “I think as the ubiquity of French fries prove, everyone loves a crispy fried potato,” he said in an email.
Potato pancakes weren’t originally a traditional Chanukah food. The first latke appeared around the 14th Century, according to beloved and recently deceased Jewish food historian Gil Marks, but it was actually made from cheese curds. It was created to commemorate the story of Judith, a Jewish woman who plied a Babylonian general with salty cheese and lots of wine to get him drunk enough to cut off his head and save her people (it’s a little complicated how it got meshed with the Chanukah story about the Maccabees). With the use of dairy came some complications, though. Ashkenazi Jews had trouble finding oil and began using schmaltz as a substitute. Mixing meat and dairy is a kosher rule-breaker, so they switched the cheese for potatoes.
However, that switch to potatoes occurred around the 19th Century. Since most American Jews in 2014 aren’t particularly concerned about kosher laws, the Latke Festival offerings probably weren’t a problem for most of the attendees. The vast majority of American Jews would not think twice about biting into Rodriguez’s “mini hash browns,” which won the judge’s prize. PRINT. Restaurant nabbed top honors with what it named an Okinawa Latke: Japanese Sweet Potato & Crispy Chestnut Latke in Duck Fat with Miso Créme Fraiche & Yuzu. It shared the judge’s prize with Mae Mae Café, which submitted a latke with whipped crème fraiche, pickled Katchkie farm ginger, and cardamom apple bake.
These gastronomical twists and inversions weren’t the exception; traditional potato pancakes with sour cream or apple sauce were. Tres Carnes offered a smoky poblano latke with 16-hour Texas smoked brisket, and the Sylvia Center, which hosted the event, served a masala latke with raita and Indian pickles. The Plaza Hotel cooked a fancy-pants latke with red wine braised oxtail, horseradish sunchoke cream, and crispy kale. Personally, I was blown away with the creativity, even if I couldn’t enjoy it myself. To steal a cliché, they were a feast for the eyes.
However, the more innovative latkes weren’t necessarily my favorite, at least purely taste-wise. Granted, I often tried these in moderated forms, so I wasn’t getting the full effect. Still, I found myself agreeing with the older gentleman who saw the room as a sea of gentiles. He opined that these latkes weren’t like the ones his bubbe made simply with applesauce. “Overdressed and overproduced” is how he described the general selections.
And I mostly concurred. My favorite latkes were the no-frills Fairway supermarket’s inch-thick monsters with the traditional trimmings served at the festival or ones from Ben’s Deli, a kosher Queens landmark. A slight exception was a latke layered with lox and sable. Taking a bite out of it made me feel like I was at a family bris… in a good, nostalgic way.
Perhaps the most Jewish part of the 6th Annual Latke Festival was that the food went way faster than the liquor. The bar remained open well after the latke stations ran out or closed up for the evening, but the lines for booze never rivaled the ones for any of the food.
Yet, there was something quite fitting about how un-Jewish the Latke Festival was. Chanukah itself is a relatively minor holiday on the religious Jewish calendar. It grew in popularity during the 20th Century when assimilating Jews wanted their kids to have something that could hold water with Christmas (before they realized candy canes and jolly fat men with gifts were unbeatable). The way Chanukah is celebrated today in America comes with many elements that are not Jewish, or at least not traditionally religious: food, presents, RugRats television specials.
Besides, to paraphrase the famous Levy’s bread slogan: You don’t have to be Jewish to love latkes.