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How Should a Latke Be?

Judging Brooklyn’s 8th Annual Latke Festival

Jonathan Zalman
December 20, 2016
Flickr / Ann Larie Valentine
Sweet potato latkes.Flickr / Ann Larie Valentine
Flickr / Ann Larie Valentine
Sweet potato latkes.Flickr / Ann Larie Valentine

What purpose does a latke serve? Is it meant to be messed with, infused and topped with quirky or exotic ingredients? Why fiddle with such a simple and effective creation, the likes of which can already be embellished with apple sauce and sour cream, which themselves are optional because the latke is sufficient on its own? Should the latke be a vehicle for, say, raw shrimp or gravlax? Is this disrespectful to the latke, a forefather of Jewish cuisine, because it isn’t quite the feature anymore? 2016, man.

The scene at the Brooklyn Museum for the 8th Annual Latke Festival. (Image courtesy of the author)
The scene at the Brooklyn Museum for the 8th Annual Latke Festival. (Image courtesy of the author)

Latkes, the Jewish French fry we eat on Hanukkah, is a can’t-miss food. Mostly. The best are a lively balance of chewiness and crunch, of oil and spice, of cream and sauce and garnish. The absolute worst of them—the burnt ones, the too-thin ones, the undercooked fat ones—are still a fantastic snack because they’re warm fried potato, and that beats a lot. But, dear reader, I fear I’ve overdone it on the latke-eating—and this, coming minutes before Tablet’s Hanukkah party at which there will surely be latkes, and hours after attending the 8th Annual Brooklyn Festival on Monday night at the exquisite Brooklyn Museum, where 19 latke vendors vended their latke creations, and two winning latke recipes—awards for People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice—were announced. I left so satisfied that I never want to eat a latke ever again.

My experience at the event, quite frankly, was overwhelming and I rushed to get out of there after 1.5 hours of straight eating, with breaks in between latkes for palate-cleansing sufganiyot and a couple conversations with a lovely couple from New Jersey in front of whom I funneled Hanukkah gelt into my jacket pocket to save for later, which they understood as permissible, like bubbes and their Sweet’N Low. At the end of tasting all the latkes, I was supposed to cast my vote for my favorite (or was it best?) latke.

According to organizers, proceeds to the Latke Festival benefit The Sylvia Center, a nonprofit that addresses childhood obesity and diet-related diseases by inspiring children, teens, and families to eat well through hands-on experiences on the farm and in the kitchen, as well as New York City programs that teach young people who live in low- and middle-income housing basic cooking skills and the principles of healthy eating. In this light, I think it’s important to begin here, at the Sylvia Center latke table, where I was fed a curried parsnip and potato latke with apple chutney, a recipe that was created, and honed by, the young people who benefit from the non-profit’s culinary educational efforts. It was delicious and sharp, and made my stomach feel loved because it was served by a handful of kids who were smiling and working together even though they’d be serving latkes for hours to ravenous passersby like myself.

The Sylvia Center latke creations were pretty “calm” compared to the rest of the lot, which dealt with ingredients like duck confit and caviar and smoked goat cheese and njuda, which is a spreadable pork salumi, thank you very much. Here are some highlights, food and otherwise:

Peter Shelsky’s arm tattoo. (Image: author)
Peter Shelsky’s arm tattoo. (Image: author)

Baz Bagel: Chef Bari Musacchio’s creation, a potato latke with gravlax, sour cream, and dill, was pretty good. They warmed my belly more when she told me the latkes were her grandmother’s recipe. “Hers are better,” she said, “but we try our best.”

Shelsky’s of Brooklyn: This “Great Gatsby” latke was just bomb-ass: caraway-seeded potato latke stuffed with honey mustard topped with horseradish cream cheese topped with pastrami smoked salmon. I mean, come on. That’s just unfair. These latkes were also bigger than all the others, which is something I considered impacting my judgment of them, but upon eating two more, I decided that these were surely in contention for tops at the entire event. Also, Peter Shelsky, one of the restaurant’s owners and a self-proclaimed “bad Jew,” had a tattoo of a fish and a pig on his forearm. So there’s that.

Kulushkat: Here I ate a “falatke”—a falafel/latke blend, topped with tahini, green onion, and cukes. Delicious and dedicated. But maybe swerved a bit too much in the latke lane.

Cabot: OK, I think this was just a Cabot Cheese brand table, but boy were these latkes delish. The flavors meshed well. Sweet potato and cheddar topped with sour cream and onion dip? I wish I’d been stoned, because that’s where I would’ve stayed all night. Oh, also, did you know that Cabot has a “New Jewish Traditions” pamphlet, complete with recipes? Neither did I!

Benchmark: This latke, a cranberry and juniper recipe with smoked duck leg confit and spicy pickled cucumber, won the overall judge’s vote. I’ll leave you with my note of the latke, verbatim: “Delish / didn’t need the toppings. Duck confit!”

Dizzy’s ridiculously delicious latke.
Dizzy’s ridiculously delicious latke.

Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola: This Lincoln Center-based restaurant served up a maple bourbon sweet potato latke with smoked goat cheese creme and sage oil. It was one of the best latkes there: simple, smoky, moist, and other terms that sounds like good sex, which is what eating can and should be. Also, the chef, Lisa Barone, assured me she smokes her own goat cheese. It made all the difference.

And this point, I realized that I had used a separate fork and plate for every latke. There was an entire staff dedicated to collecting these plates and forks and throwing them out. I asked one of them how many trips she’d made, less than one hour into the event, collecting trash. “One hundred?” I asked her. “Oh probably, maybe more.” Maybe they recycled all of it, dunno. But I think the waste was excessive. Thanks for listening, Brooklyn Museum and Co.

Mae Mae Cafe: At this table I ate a spinach latke with pickled carrot and tzatziki sauce. I thought it was OK. I think my mouth still tasted like sage oil. Sorry. Moving on.

Props to the event’s deejay, who played lots of Mary J. Blige remixes, and The Weeknd. All latkes go down better with hip-hop. G’head: Make a business out of that. Hip-hop Latkes. You’re welcome.

Garden Court Cafe: Here I ate a sweet potato latke with adzuki bean, ginger-infused creme fraiche, and spearmint. It was good but, honestly, I don’t remember it too much because this is when I began to get nauseous and feel like a balloon. A big Jewish balloon.

Samui: This new Thai fusion restaurant in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard put out one of the more unique latkes of the night, but I wasn’t convinced the two ingredients—potato latke and saki naked shrimp—went well together. If anything, the shrimp was exquisite.

Bustan: One of the best of the night, this simple potato pancake with labane and salmon caviar, was just luscious. Of course, it was created by an Israeli.

There were more latkes, of course, but I didn’t take notes any further. I probably ate some by accident, or by osmosis, and forgot about them, because I ended up in a daze. My favorites were Shelsky’s, Bustan, and Dizzy’s. But the best? I lost my token in my pocket of gelt, so I wasn’t able to choose. But looking back, and from the way my face bloats today, I must say that I left sated.

So what does this mean for latkes? After this event, I think I now know we’ve entered a post-latke world, a place in which a simple fried potato latke no longer suffices. At least it doesn’t in Brooklyn, and if that ain’t an honorary home for the latkes, I don’t know what is. See you next year.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

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