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Ralph Gardner Jr: Thanks A Latke

Sylvia Center participants at the 11th Annual Latke Festival.
Sylvia Center
Sylvia Center participants at the 11th Annual Latke Festival.

How often must you do something for it to qualify as a family tradition? Obviously, once isn’t enough because you don’t know if you’ll ever do it again.

Twice might still be coincidence.

Three times sounds about right. Your expectations are set. Plus you now have brief history to draw upon.

I can’t tell you how often our family has attended Brooklyn’s Annual Latke Festival, this year including my older daughter’s husband and younger daughter’s boyfriend.

The festival, held in the spacious, glass-enclosed lobby of the Brooklyn Museum and drawing hundreds of latke enthusiasts, celebrated its 11th year last week.

I doubt we’ve been to all of them. But the thing about the festival is that it’s such an orgy of caloric latke excess and creativity that you feel as if you’ve attended all of them even if you haven’t. Just thinking about them makes me stuffed.

Also the event benefits a good cause – the Sylvia Center. That’s a non-profit that raises awareness about the benefits and pleasures of fresh, healthy eating among children and teenagers from underserved communities in New York City and Columbia County. It also teaches them the skills to cook for themselves, their families and their communities.

The Sylvia Center, started by Liz Neumark, a part-time Columbia County resident, also runs Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY. Kids and their families come there to tour the greenhouses, plant seeds and harvest vegetables. They’ve also expanded into Columbia County’s classrooms, training teachers in healthy cooking curriculums.

Consider yourself lucky if you’re familiar with the glory of a perfectly ripe red tomato fresh off the vine or a crimson strawberry bursting with flavor. Unfortunately, many of these children aren’t. And when they’re exposed to them for the first time it can be a revelation.

Traditionally, it’s parents who have raised children’s awareness about healthy eating, not always successfully. As in, “Eat your peas!” But at the Sylvia Center it’s often the other way around. Children, exposed to the benefits --not to mention the fun of fresh, healthy cooking and eating -- return home to share the gospel with family and friends.

For the sake of full disclosure, my wife is on the Sylvia Center’s board. For the sake of even fuller disclosure, I’ve served as a Latke Festival judge not once but twice.

This year’s judges included Fern Mallis, the fashion authority; Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum; and Adam Kaye the former culinary director of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and the co-founder of the Spare Food Company. They design food waste out of the system and finds creative uses for overlooked food.

Don’t ask me why but I suspect it’s only a matter of time until The Spare Food Company has an entry at the Latke Festival.    

I prefer to be a guest, as I was at this year’s event. Being a judge requires you to try every latke, often twenty or more from some of New York’s finest restaurants. As a guest you get to pick and gorge and let your palate lead the way.

There’s also a bar courtesy of sponsors such as Grey Goose and City Winery. Perhaps it’s just my Russian roots. But I think any self-respecting latke cries out for a shot or two of chilled vodka.

For those who are unfamiliar with the treat, made to celebrate Hanukah, these days latkes are typically made with potatoes fashioned into patties and fried in oil. They commemorate the miracle when a temple lamp burned for eight days with only one day’s worth of oil. This year Hanukah runs from December 22nd through December 30th.

The Jews and latkes have traveled a long way since then; and some of the latkes at the festival would certainly have amazed and confused the ancient Hebrews. Over the years they’ve included substances such as crème fraiche, caviar, smoked salmon (obviously). But also braised short rib, microgreens, collards and crispy onions.

In the hands of chefs such as David Burke it’s probably best to think of the latke as a blank, if tasty, canvas on which the artist is free to experiment. Burke triumphed in the “Best Newcomer” category with a horseradish and caraway latke with pastrami smoked salmon.

The Bankers Club, another participant, even heaped marshmallow brulee on their sweet potato latke. Surprisingly, it worked.

The overall winner was Hanoi House’s sweet potato and shrimp fritter.

Can we discuss sweet potato latkes and sweet potatoes in general? As much as I applaud this year’s winners, sweet potatoes are not potatoes. They’re a vegetable. And sweet potato fries aren’t French fries. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Perhaps my favorite latke was Veselka’s. Veselka is that Ukrainian Lower East Side institution, best known for their pierogis. Those are dumplings, boiled or fried, filled with meat, potato or cheese and topped with sour cream and sautéed onions.

I should have known better than to write this commentary before breakfast. I’m getting ravenous just thinking about it.

But Veselka also seems to have perfected the latke, understanding that while duck confit sounds like a good idea, simpler is often better. This year they won the “People’s Choice” award, tying with the Banker’s Club. Veselka’s contribution to the conversation was a smoked ham Rueben latke with sauerkraut, homemade Russian dressing and Swiss cheese.

Forget what I said about simpler being better.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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