What is a Latke Party and why it is the perfect forum to memorialize my mother.
In my last post, I promised more detail on Latke Parties, so here I am fulfilling that promise!
Quickie administrative note: I’m changing my comment policy from “First comment on my blog moderated, further comments automatically approved” to “All comments moderated” you’ll see why at the bottom!
What is a Latke Party?
Actually, before I answer this question, I have to answer a more basic question, in case any of you don’t know:
What is a Latke?
At their essence, Latkes (the plural of latke) are simply potato pancakes. They have a rich history for a number of cultural groups, and you can get full background by clicking HERE for the Wikipedia entry.
For the purpose of THIS discussion, their traditional appearance at Hanukkah celebrations are the best general cultural reference.
Our family tradition has a very specific latke recipe that we use. It’s very simple, but messy! And I’ll put it at the END of this post, so those of you who care not about our specific recipe don’t have to read it!
OK, now it’s time for “What is a Latke Party?”
I’m sure that there are other forms of latke party, but our family party throws them as a gathering of friends and family in the style of an open house, generally for 2-3 hours on a weekend afternoon. Initially, we thew these parties vaguely around the holiday/Hanukkah/Christmas season, but that became a VERY loose time frame over the years.
Along with the latkes, we serve hot mulled wine, hot spiced cider, an array of cold cuts with breads, cheeses and condiments for do-it-yourself, generally finger sized sandwiches – we accomplish the size restriction by using cocktail sized rye bread, both light and dark, and crackers instead of full sized sliced breads. We also serve “That Terrible Jello Mold” which is another family tradition with an amusing story – a story which I’m NOT going to detail here, but promise to tell – with recipe – in one of my NEXT few posts!
We set up a buffet with everything except the latkes and we direct people to first visit the kitchen, grab a plate, and take a few latkes from the warm oven, then proceed to the buffet for toppings and everything else. Then, everyone mingles, much like a cocktail party, but casual like.
So that’s our family’s definition of a Latke Party, now on to…
Why a Latke Party is the perfect forum to memorialize my mother
To fully understand this, we must travel back in time to the early 60s, when my family were regular guests at somebody else’s annual Latke Party! One gregarious family threw their own latke party – always during Hanukkah – and my parents attended every year beginning before I was born. The hosts had plenty of friends with young children, so Mary and I were included as infants.
Oddly, the connection was through my father, who was raised culturally Protestant. So the tradition did NOT come through my Mother – the culturally Jewish side of my family!
In the late 60s, the husband of that family died a sudden and unexpected death. My memory is vague, but I think it was shortly before the annual party. In any case, Mom offered to take over throwing the Latke Party, and continued to throw it for decades.
Initially, Mom hired a helper for both the preparation of the latkes and to insure that the mulled wine and spiced cider didn’t run out during the actual party. As Mary and I grew, we started to help with the prep. Eventually, Mary and I demanded that WE could be the helpers and, with a bit of persuading, Mom agreed and even paid us. As we grew older, we continued to do the prep and the cooking, and by our middle teens we were inviting our own friends to the party, so we thus gradually moved into the role of co-hosts.
When our parents separated in 1979, the parties continued at Mom’s house, but Dad missed them and started throwing his own, expecting our help. We did, but after a few years of 2 parties, very close together in time, we got sick of throwing two a year and, since the “main line” of the latke parties was really Mom’s thing, we participated in hosting Mom’s party, but insisted that, for Dad’s party, our role was more that of a guest than of a host.
After Mom moved out of the house we were raised in, and into a much smaller condominium, she tried to continue the party for a couple of years, but her condo was just too small to do it well, so she abandoned the tradition and (grudgingly) attended Dad’s party. Once Mom gave it up, Mary and I returned to the co-host role at Dad’s.
If I recall correctly, the last Latke party at either of my parents’ home was at Dad’s in winter of 1992, shortly before his diagnosis with the metastatic cancer that took his life shortly thereafter, in June of 1992. There may have been one or two smaller ones after that that Mom threw in the next few years, but the tradition picked up again at Mary and Hugo’s home in Berkeley. I don’t recall if we managed one in 1996, but we had one in subsequent years until Mom became too infirm to attend.
So the essential point, so far, is that a Latke Party is a Dorst, Lucero-Dorst, Lucero, Retana and Elman family tradition. A tradition begun by (and continued mostly by) Mom.
The other essential point is that, as far as I can recall, the latke party was the only LARGE party my mother ever threw!
As far as timing goes, initially Mom threw it during Hanukkah. But she soon got tired of throwing the party when Hanukkah occurred early enough that many of my parents non Jewish friends weren’t quite ready for a holiday party. For a few years after that, we held it on the weekend between Christmas and New Years – having it the day before or after the new year if Christmas or New Years Day was itself on a weekend.
A few more years passed, and we saw fewer guests come, most honestly admitting that they were overdosing on holiday parties. So we moved it into the new year, and the date crept later and later, and we found that it was a more pleasant party – with more attendees – as the weather became more reliably NOT rainy!
As Mom was not, in any way religious. And as the latke party was really the only party she threw, it immediately struck me that it would be the best way to celebrate her life, with only the slight twists of delaying it into the summer when Mary, Hugo and Adriana will return from their Swedish Sabbatical, and with the guest list rewritten a bit to exclude people who were never in any way close to Mom (their attendance was more as invitees of Dad, me, Mary or Hugo). I proposed it to Mary and Hugo – and they instantly agreed!
So that’s it. I hope I’ve answered any questions anyone reading this might have (except, of course, for the story of “That Terrible Jello Mold” which, in my crafty blogger way, I’m delaying to a future post to convince you to follow my blog!)
Again, I ask that, if you have any specific anecdotes revolving around your memory of Mom, you put them in writing here – ESPECIALLY if you don’t think you will be able to attend the Kate Elman Memorial Latke Party. Even if you DO think you’ll attend, I’d still like them so I can gather them together in a booklet as party “favors”. If you would prefer to communicate them privately, then please email them to me. If you don’t have my email, then please, at least, comment that you NEED my email and why, thus giving me YOUR email (required to post a comment.) For this post, I’m going to make ALL comments moderated, just so that I can NOT post your comment if you prefer I don’t, but so I’ll still see it when you make it.
And now, as promised, the family latke recipe. But one warning first! If you have any inkling to serve multiple batches in a party setting – beyond your immediate family – I encourage you to make a batch or two first! Cooking them well does require a bit of practice!
One batch serves 5-6 people with accompaniments and other things to knosh, 2-4 people if served as the primary food in a meal.
6 Large Russet (aka Idaho) Potatoes – Skins on, coarsely grated – divided
1 Large Onion, pureed
1 Cup All Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon Table Salt
LOTS of high smoke point oil (Canola, or Peanut, although garden variety “Vegetable” oil has been used with success.
Cover one shelf in your oven with aluminum foil. If you are making multiple batches, cover EVERY shelf with aluminum foil. THEN heat oven to its lowest “keep warm” setting.
In an electric fry pay, add oil to a depth of about 1/4″. Start heating on “High” and back off only if the oil starts smoking. As you cook, the oil will deplete.
Combine 1/2 the potatoes and the remaining ingredients (not the oil!) in a large bowl. Once combined, add the remaining potatoes. (It’s hard to combine if you start with ALL the potatoes!)
Cover the mixture with a clean, moistened kitchen towel to reduce browning of the mixture before cooking.
Spoon an good dollop of the mixture into the hot oil. You may need to pat it down a bit so its fairly flat. It’s OK if a few strands of potato at the edges stick out – they form the crispy parts that many prefer!
After a few seconds of sizzling (and your oil is too cold if it doesn’t sizzle!), gently slide a spatula under the latke to make sure its floating. Then, wait until the edges start to turn golden brown. At that point, check the underside for decent browning and flip if you’re satisfied. The second side cooks faster, so once you flip, check more often!
Note that, when you start having a hard time getting the latkes to “float”, you’ll need to replenish the oil and wait for it to return to cooking temperature.
When done, transfer to a plate or platter with paper towels to soak up the excess oil. Pat with more paper towel as necessary to remove the oil on top. Then transfer to the warm oven.
Serve with topping of your choice. Our family serves them with applesauce, cranberry sauce and sour cream – all on the side. My personal favorite is to spread a thin layer of sour cream, then top with cranberry sauce.
No matter how hard you try, the latkes will NOT be uniformly cooked! Some will be totally crisp, others will have a soft center with crisp edges. That’s OK. Latke variety is part of the spice of the party!
One final note: The mixture will slowly get soupy as the water in the potatoes leaks out. You will need to drain it periodically. We do it by taking any mixture remaining, wrapping it in the kitchen towel, then wringing it out over the sink. And we always choose our one or two most ragged, but clean, towels as they usually need to be discarded after the party. The onion smell from the mixture doesn’t wash out well!