Recipe with a history: Joan Nathan’s Potato Latkes

Flavor, spice — the fabric of our kitchen, and the story of our lives.

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Mrs. Wallace hosted a Christmas party every year when I was a child. She was my sister’s best friend’s mom, and lived near the National Cathedral in an elegant row house where there was a sofa bench alongside the kitchen table, opulent tableware, remarkable baked goods, and that divine Christmas party. We went for the cookies, so many kinds, and for the Christmas caroling which we did on her living room floor with song books. I loved it and still know every song by heart.

In our neighborhood, Mrs. Mohamadi had us over for Yalda and made gorgeous homemade Iranian food. Mrs. Wilson served green bagels and green cream cheese on St. Patrick’s Day and on Christmas morning she brought us over and told us that Santa had filled a stocking for us. The Bentincks, who lived at the Dutch embassy residence, brought us in for formal European cheese and toast breakfasts. We also celebrated Kwanzaa at school, which was a Quaker school, and learned songs and dances of all the holidays (“Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa means first, first fruit of the harvest time”). Walter Payton’s cousin, Ricky, was our music teacher, and for holiday recitals we sang a whole variety of songs including Kha Vo’s rendition of a Mariah Carey song.

After my family drove through Christmas light displays in Rock Creek Park, and attended parties of all kinds, we returned to our house where we celebrated Chanukah and brought these same neighbors in to our world, in the same way they brought us into theirs. Ours was about candles and dreidels and so much fried food. After my grandfather died, my father’s mother moved in with us, and for holidays it was her, stewing things up from Poland, and my mother, a Jewish cookbook author who built our house around its centerpiece: the kitchen, her office.

My grandmother spoke mostly Yiddish and had a particular way about her. She survived the Holocaust by escaping to Russia where she was put in slave labor camps in Siberia for two years. When she emerged, she lived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, lost a child, had another (my father), and raised him for five years in a displaced person’s camp in Germany before coming to America, by then with two sons. Her holiday and food ethos was one drenched in memory, and fat.

My mother, on the other hand, who married the king, as my grandmother saw it — her king, was an anthropologist preserving lost Jewish history and expanding simplified understandings of Jewish food as white, as singularly Ashkenazi, and brought attention to the massive amount of diversity in Jewish food history. Moroccan Jewish. Algerian Jewish. Brazilian Jewish. The whole nine yards. In our kitchen it was always at least two stories, one stove.

I remember my grandmother’s hands cupping the matzoh balls made for holiday meals, the tenderness she used to shape the dumpling-esque balls. And I remember my mother, years later, introducing miso and matzoh balls, or Alsatian matzoh balls, and about 14 other varietals, and how there was this juxtaposition between my grandmother’s memories, her demolished town, and the food that came from it, and my mother’s desire to see that, and link that food to a global menu.

With my grandmother we made the traditional potato latkes, deep fried on my mother’s griddle, which I loved making griddle cakes on as a child. It was cast iron and fit over four stove burners. My grandmother’s latkes were fatty and thick. They had potatoes and onions and practically dripped, while being crispy. My mother added to the skillet later, recipes like sweet potato latkes, or curried latkes — a whole array of potatoes and other root vegetables grated into pancake form from worldwide Jewish recipes.

We didn’t do food simple for our parties. Yes, we made the donuts from scratch, the ones I always write about because my mother came to Quaker school at Chanukah every year to teach about how to make Jewish donuts. (She also went to Disneyworld kitchen in Orlando to teach them how to cook kosher.) These recipes always evolved, and our desserts and foods and applesauce garnishes were always international. At home I learned about African, Iranian, Irish — all the cultures I visited in the homes of friends and neighbors, and how they also had Jewish sub-worlds, Jewish foods, Jewish influences.

When my grandmother died, a chapter disappeared. It happened for years to follow, the survivors from her town, all now buried in Paramus, New Jersey together — one by one they grew old and left the world. My mother, though, saved their recipes, published them, and added them to this massive portrait she drew of Jewish history. 

Our holiday meals, the American ones, like Thanksgiving, where we make my mother’s mother’s food — sweet potatoes with pineapple, pearled onions, Brussels sprouts, those remain in New England. We will all gather in Chilmark and make the food we learned assimilating in New England, in Rhode Island to be specific. And Chanukah we spend on the West Coast, in Los Angeles, where fried foods are no longer welcome. We won’t cook the same way, but we have the recipes, our family’s, and the recipes of hundreds of others, preserved for perpetuity in my mother’s writing.

People ask me “what is Jewish food.” Or they label their gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup “the end of the Jewish line.” What my mother taught me, on the marble bread counter, by the butcher block, over the griddle, was that Jewish food isn’t a singular sentence, and is beyond international and complex. My sister brings in Mexican churros to her East Los Angeles Chanukah parties and my brother makes mojitos. We aren’t afraid of flavor, or spice, or multiplicity, because that was the fabric of our kitchen, and is the story of our lives.

Joan Nathan’s Potato Latkes with Celeriac Root and Apple

Ingredients

1 lb. russet potatoes, peeled
¼ celeriac root (about 4 oz.)
1 apple, such as a Granny Smith, cored and unpeeled
½ small onion (about ½ cup grated)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ to ½ cup breadcrumbs, Panko, or flour
½ tsp. fresh thyme or marjoram, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
Optional garnishes: applesauce, crème fraiche, or sour cream

Using a grater or food processor equipped with a grating blade, grate the potatoes, celeriac root, apple, and onion. Put the grated foods together in a mesh strainer or tea towel and squeeze out all the liquid. Once drained, put in a bowl.

Add the egg, breadcrumbs, Panko, or flour, thyme or marjoram and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, add a little more breadcrumbs, Panko or flour so the mixture holds together.
Heat a griddle or large, 12-inch non-stick pan and coat with ⅛ inch of oil.

Take about 3 Tbsp. of the potato mixture in the palm of your hand and flatten into a circle, about 3-inches in diameter.

Carefully slide the latke into the oil. Repeat with about 3 at a time separated by an inch or so. Using a spatula, press to flatten the latkes and fry for about 5 minutes on one side or until golden. Flip the latke and cook for another couple of minutes until golden on the other side.
Remove the latke and drain on a paper towel. Serve immediately with garnishes of your liking.

Yield: About 15 latkes

Tip: To make crispy latkes, remove as much liquid as possible from the grated potatoes, onions, celeriac, and apple. Be sure to fry the latkes in hot, but not smoking, oil. I try to use as little breadcrumbs as possible and test a few latkes to see if they stay together before cooking the rest.

Joan Nathan, a seasonal resident of the Island, considers food through the lenses of history, culture, and tradition. She regularly contributes to The New York Times, Food Arts Magazine, and Tablet Magazine and is the author of ten award-winning cookbooks; six focus on Jewish cooking, two highlight Israeli cuisine, and two focus on American cooking. Her most recent book is Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, which made both the New York Times and NPR lists of the best cookbooks of 2010; joannathan.com.

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer and educator and seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard.