Christmas celebrations tend toward the sweet: Cookies, candy canes and hot buttered rum. But the savory latkes traditionally served at Hanukkah might outdo them all in sheer addictive deliciousness.
That’s probably along the lines of what Philadelphia marketing exec Nancy Hohns was thinking. Check her LinkedIn page, with its line naming her the “Creator of Latkepalooza.”
Wait, what? Read on.
‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat’
For the uninitiated, the last 13 years have gone like this: A handful of top Philly chefs toss a boatload of grated potatoes in hot oil, add seasonings and toppings, and serve at an absurdly cheap price.
It all started in 2003, when Philly’s food scene was starting to really take off. Hohns was on the board of the Gershman Y, a Jewish community center that traces its origins back to 1875, and she and her colleagues were brainstorming on how to celebrate Jewish culture and cuisine in a way everyone could appreciate.
Then, she had her flash of inspiration: Create an event where people could partake in the fried food associated with Hanukkah.
(Side note: We’re talking about a minor holiday, during which oil symbolizes a wartime “miracle” that occurred during a revolt/civil war around 150 years before Christ was born. But it falls around the winter solstice, aka Christmastime, so presents, ya? And it fits the classic model for a Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.)
Some of the city’s Jewish restaurant folk seemed a shoo-in to participate; indeed, Stephen Starr has sent a chef or two to the event every year of its existence. But if there was any doubt that chefs who weren’t part of the tribe would be into the idea of making latkes, it quickly disappeared.
The first Latkepalooza featured potato pancakes fried up by cooks from all ethnicities and specializing in all kinds of cuisines, from Irish latkes by Plough and the Stars to an Asian riff from Chinatown icon Joseph Poon.
That diversity continues.
Enter the ‘Spanolatke’
“We’ve been part of Latkepalooza since we opened and it’s a tradition that represents the holidays for us,” said Jeff Hudson, manager at Estia, whose Greek restaurant is located right near the Y. As he has every year since 2009, he’ll be making what he calls “spanolatkes,” where spinach and feta is mixed with the potato, and the fried cakes are served with tzatziki sauce for dipping.
Imli Indian Kitchen is bringing a version with scallions and fennel seeds, plus tamarind syrup drizzled over the top. Sabrina’s Cafe is mixing zucchini, squash and pesto with the potatoes before frying and tops the cakes with a pomegranate-pear chutney and honey-Dijon sour cream.
“I was raised Jewish, and always had [latkes], always loved them,” said Jon Myerow, whose chef de cuisine at Tria Taproom Todd Van Wagner is in charge of the recipe for this year. “Latkes are at once crispy and moist — it’s a paradox!”
Jeremy Nolen, chef at Whetstone Tavern and Brauhaus Schmitz, is also a longtime latke lover, even if he knew them under a different name.
“I first had them as a kid at the German restaurant we used to go to growing up but honestly didn’t know they were called latkes until much later in life,” he explained. “In German they are called Kartoffelpuffer.” Nolen will be frying up a gluten-free version made from parsnips that comes from his recent cookbook, New German Cooking.
George Sabatino of Aldine may be a latke noob, but he’s still extremely excited to participate. “The first time I ever had a latke was when my sous chef made them last year for staff meal,” he admitted. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow…this is way better than a potato pancake!’”
How’d he get involved in the first place? By request, according to Sahar Oz, the Gershman Y’s director of programs. “Two of our regular Latkepalooza guests asked if we were full with restaurants yet and suggested we ask Aldine. So I called, and one day later, they said yes!”
Sabatino’s contribution — sweet potato latkes served with housemade yogurt, pickled chiles and apple salad — will surely be a hit with the 500 hungry people expected to attend.
Tickets for the two-hour festival are just $20 for adults and $12 for kids, a price that hasn’t gone up very much over the past decade.
“It was probably $10 the first year,” Oz guessed. “This is kind of a fundraiser, but really it’s more of a ‘fun-raiser.’” The event attracts a huge number of people who are not Jewish. “We don’t ask people, but many volunteer the information. They’ll say ‘I’m Italian, and this is just awesome!”
In other words, it’s not about the money. It’s all about the fun.