Latke Fest

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(HOST) This week VPR commentators are serving up some “Very Vermont Food”. Today commentator Melissa Pasanen tells how potato pancakes have become the main attraction at her Green Mountain Chanukah Fest.

(PASANEN) I do not have many fond memories of my two grandmothers’ cooking – may they rest in peace. As poor Eastern European Jews and then refugees in New York City, their mothers must have been too busy surviving to pass on much culinary tradition. Then during their own married lives, my grandmothers each had a housekeeper to do most of the cooking, a status symbol of their ascent to middle-class privilege.

My mother tells me that my maternal grandmother made a great sour cabbage soup and I do have her recipes for blinis, although I don’t remember her making either. The dish I liked most from my father’s mother was a layered casserole of pork chops, onions and potatoes – not exactly the specialty you’d expect from a Jewish matriarch. That grandmother, however, did make a very good potato latke, the potatoes grated entirely by hand. I have her grater – a flat grid of wavy wires that you place over a bowl – but I must admit that I use my food processor to grate the many pounds of potatoes I use each year to feed the hordes that come to the annual Chanukah latke fest I throw at our South Burlington home.

My husband rolls his eyes when I tell him that this year it’s a small party, really. Only 16 adults and 19 kids. I’m not religious, but it’s important to me that our seven- and ten-year-old sons have a sense of their Jewish heritage, particularly growing up in Vermont where it’s not as visible as, say, in New York City. Inviting other families, many of them transplanted and blended like ours, to share traditional food and ritual is a way to give them a connection to their cultural roots. I’m probably also overcompensating for the guilt I feel when we set up our twinkling Christmas tree next to the photo of my Russian great-great-grandmother, who glares at it every year.

After Chanukah, it is my husband’s turn to share his traditions with our boys, which he does each holiday season by constructing some fantastic gingerbread creation and baking up a golden, braided loaf of Finnish pulla bread, scented with freshly ground cardamom and sprinkled with pearl sugar and sliced almonds, just as his immigrant grandmother did for him. With the smell of latkes sizzling in the pan still wafting through our house, the good cooking smells intermingle. So may our family’s cultural heritage be entwined and the flavor of our life here in Vermont enriched.

I’m Melissa Pasanen of South Burlington.

Melissa Pasanen writes for the Art of Eating and the Burlington Free Press – where this piece was originally published. Tomorrow morning in our Very Vermont Food series, Marialisa Calta builds a Gingerbread House.

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