Reporter Deborah Hirsch battles crowds at the Gershman Y's Latkepalooza in a mission to load up on starchy Chanukah goodness.
All last week, I had latkes on the brain. After years of something or other keeping me from the Gershman Y’s annual Latkepalooza, I was determined to get my potato pancake fix.
Maybe it was the line-up of caterers, including several of my favorite Philadelphia establishments. Or perhaps it was the epic failure of my apple potato pancakes that devolved into a casserole last year. Nothing would stand in the way of my mission to consume starchy Chanukah goodness.
I was wrong. There were actually plenty of things standing in my way — trash cans, tables, bunchy brown paper covering the floor that I tripped on at least four times and, most notably, people. Hundreds of people — seniors, young adults, parents, kids with balloons — crammed into the Center City building to sample local chefs’ takes on the traditional Chanukah side dish at the eighth annual event on Dec. 11.
I’m glad program director Warren Hoffman warned me to show up early because there was already a line out the door by the time my husband and I locked up our bikes. Within minutes, Hoffman announced that the event had sold out — more than 300 presale tickets and another 140 at the door.
There wouldn’t be enough latkes if they let everyone in, Hoffman explained, trying to soften the blow to the line of at least three dozen people perhaps salivating for latkes just like me.
For all the hard economic realities I’ve faced in journalism, moments like these remind me how nice it can be to have press credentials. You might say I’m overdramatizing, but there were latkes at stake here.
“We’ve never seen a response like this, never,” Hoffman said. The Y didn’t do extra advertising, but Hoffman said the event listing got picked up by a number of media outlets and popular blogs.
Inside the crowded gym, my visions of loading up on latkes deflated as I sized up the wall-to-wall food frenzy.
I had been looking forward to the chance to feel like a judge on a Food Network show, which is near impossible for someone who doesn’t eat trayf, not to mention other minor hurdles like my lack of expertise in the food industry. How would I ever manage to get through the maze of long lines plus have time to interview fellow foodies?
Work first, I told my stomach, and dispatched my husband to take notes on his favorites.
I wasn’t the only one thrown off by the onslaught of latke-lovers.
“Which line are you in?” one woman asked a group in front of her.
“We don’t know,” they said.
Sam Kaplan, 77, a retired sociologist from Center City, stood over a trash can as he grazed on his latkes.
“Going in, I said, ‘Oh, the country’s in despair, everybody’s coming for latkes,’ ” said Kaplan, who can’t even remember how many years he’s been to the event. “It’s a great way to be Jewish.”
His favorite addition this year? A serve-yourself toppings station that included everything from ice cream to raspberry apple sauce.
“The first time in my life I ever heard of such a thing,” Kaplan said. “I just got chewed out by my wife for spoiling the latkes.”
The toppings came from Nest, a Center City enrichment center for kids. Matt Gorman, one of the owners, said some kids had so much fun adding condiments that they loaded their latke with one scoop of everything.
Altogether, nine restaurants donated batches of 300 latkes in exchange for the publicity. A few of them have been doing this for years — Estia and Klapholz’s Kosher almost since the first event, and Sabrina’s Café for quite awhile, too.
“We have faithful followers that come back every year waiting for a latke,” said Stephen Nothnagel, general manager at Estia.
Other well-known restaurant operators like Stephen Starr and Michael Solomonov have volunteered a variety of their establishments over the years. This round, Talula’s Garden replaced Jones, a previous Starr staple. Solomonov threw a new twist into the mix: three types of decadent doughnuts from his newly opened Federal Donuts in South Philly (another appropriate food for a holiday that revels in fried delights.)
The variety of latke offerings continued to impress Daniel Curcio, who’s come for the past five years. Maybe there’s a market out there for a latke truck, mused Curcio, 41, of Center City. “Lots o’ Latkes” has a nice ring to it, he said, grinning.
Yeremiah Hardt, 34, was the lynchpin who brought Curcio and another non-Jewish friend, Robert Lewis, 42, of Northern Liberties, to the festivities.
“I’m usually traditional so I needed to try and expand and see what potato latkes can do,” said Lewis, noting that he’d tried a sweet potato version for the first time.
For a handful of non-Jewish high school students from Germantown Academy who came to the event as part of an “All Cultures Together” club outing, it was the first time they’d ever tasted any sort of latke.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to like latkes,” said Alicia Lu, 15.
“Who doesn’t like fried potatoes?” added Reena Patel, also 15.
Even those with years of latke-eating experience found something to suit their discerning palates.
David Garonzik, a 33-year-old fellow Latkepalooza virgin from Center City, highlighted a few favorites that were “the appropriate latke texture, the way they’re supposed to be.”
Everyone was so focused on the food that they hardly seemed to notice when the lights cut off about an hour into the event. The building has suffered several power issues in recent months, Hoffman said, so this had nothing to do with fry-pans overloading circuits. Nor was it mood lighting, he added.
It was quite fitting for a Chanukah event, though — only in this case, the miracle was that Sabrina’s chefs were apparently able to harness the weak power from the building’s generators to slowly cook their last few yukon gold potato latkes with apple pear compote and roasted garlic dill sour cream.
Technically, the event was only about halfway over by then, but several restaurants had already run out of food. Those who had finished eating filtered into an adjacent room where a guitarist entertained children or to the lobby to peruse tables of jewelry, hair accessories, handmade journals and other Chanukah gift ideas.
Finally, I had my chance to sit down and eat. Even cold, the greasy delicacies hit the spot. Dessert latkes, I discovered, might not be so weird after all. As my friend Sam commented after sampling a pancake topped with bananas and peanut butter mousse: “Holy crap, that’s awesome.”
The biggest disappointment was finding out that most of the restaurants don’t offer their latke creations on their menus, not even as a special.
As Tashan executive chef Sylva Senat told me, “If you like it so much, you have to wait until next year.”
Hoffman says that could be a good thing for Latkepalooza, because it makes it more of a “cool experience you might not get to have any other place.”
Maybe so, but what about all those poor latke-less souls who didn’t get in? More importantly, what about me? How will I satisfy my next latke craving?
Perhaps Curcio was on to something with that latke truck idea. If Latkepalooza is any indication, it could be quite a promising business venture. I’ll volunteer in advance to taste-test.
The "Best Of" 2011 Latkepalooza
Tastiest traditional latke: Klapholz's
Just like Bubbe's, it had a perfect consistency andwas kosher to boot.
Most innovative: Tashan
Indian spices enlivened this tapioca pearl-laced latke, which had the most doughy texture. It was served with a thick apple chutney and cucumber dill sauce.
Crowd favorite: Tie between Delicatessen and Estia
Delicatessen's roly poly bialy-inspired latke came with poppy seeds, sweet caramelized onion and goat cheese.
Years of practice has won die-hard fans of Estia's "Spanolatke," a Greek variation filled with spinach and feta.