An American Riff on the Latke

Lifting the lowly potato-onion pancake latke to a seasonal ethnic cultural point is a yearly rite of passage in these United States among the Jews. The lifting is also absurd. The latke was not a symbol of great Jewish culture or ethnic identity in Russia or Poland nor was it meant to be. The latke was a symbol of persistent poverty. As Eastern Europe and its vast spread of peasants plunged into winter at the end of the calendar year, the poor family’s larder shrunk as the fall harvest bounty disappeared. Those who had a few more pennies stocked up on sausages and salamis, well-salted and suited to stay untainted through the long, cold winter. Potatoes and onions maintained well in cold root-cellars for everyone though.

If the history strips away any romanticized version of life in Eastern Europe, it is because of a more important truth. This persistent poverty with no hope of a better life was the engine of Jewish migration to the United States from 1880 to 1923. The Russian czars of the Romanov dynasty had turned Jew-hatred into an obsession. The Jews had to leave.

America was a blessing to these immigrants. Leaving the abject poverty behind, the lowly latke is allowed a remake in the United States – An American Latke.

  • 1 russet potato
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1 medium to large onion
  • 1 yellow squash
  • 1 zucchini
  • 1 carrot
  • (You can swap out an ingredient or simply add butternut squash, peeled and seeded)
  • Kosher salt
  • ¼ cup potato starch (for you gluten-avoiding hopefuls)
  • 1 large egg
  • Oil for frying

Shred all the vegetables and place in colander. Add a small handful kosher salt and mix thoroughly. Allow the colander to drain in the sink for 45 minutes to an hour. Quickly wash out the salt with a burst of water and then squeeze as much liquid out of the mixture as possible. Transfer to bowl and add potato starch and egg. You can pre-season with salt and pepper if you like.  Let sit.

Preheat oven to 375º (F). Fill the bottom of your frying pan with oil and heat on medium until nearly smoking. Make a patty in the palm of your hand, squeezing out the liquid. Place gently in pan and do not crowd the pan. When brown on both sides, transfer to baking sheet. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

Let rest on paper towel for a few moments to soak up extra oil and then serve warm. Serve with applesauce or crème fresh. (I don’t recommend American sour cream products – read the ingredients.)

New TV Trend or Old

The emerging trend on cable series is the killing off of the lead characters, a development that crosses a boundary of trust of previous generations of television shows. Harken back to the days of “Gunsmoke” and no matter what happened, the lead characters would return week after week. Even JR returned to “Dallas” because his death was only a dream in the next season. Some critics call it a betrayal of an unwritten agreement between the television industry and the viewer. A trust has been broken. Others call this dramatic turn a conscientious reflection back to the viewer of a more reality-based probability of circumstances. Writers and producers are killing off beloved fictional figures, ones with whom the viewers identified.

The story of the Maccabees is also a case of lead characters dying and the plot carrying on to a morally pleasing ending – when we tell the story to the children. The actual source material, Maccabees I and II, is far messier. The father, Mattathias, starts the rebellion by slaying the Jewish idolater. The plot shifts from there to his eldest son Judah taking command of the rebel force and only then are we told that Mattathias has died. Following the story we have already shifted our focus to Judah and we are not unduly upset at the death of his father.

Judah Maccabee prevails and liberates the Temple in Jerusalem. Hurray! They celebrate and rededicate the temple after which the children’s version of the story ends. However, the real story does not end. Judah dies a few months later by the betrayal of an allied army in battle. One by one, the other brothers are killed as well, one in battle and the rest by regicide. Sounds terrible, does it not?

Their sacrifice, their mistakes, failures and successes led to the founding of a more secure dynasty – the Hasmoneans. The unfolding consequences of the Maccabean saga were that the Temple ritual was solidified, a new class of teachers/officials called the Pharisees arose, and the process of selecting the books for the second part of the Bible began. History does not always fit into a plot for a children’s story but the reality is infinitely more interesting.

Maybe this year’s producers are not wrong after all.