Nancy L. Hohns remembers the distinct smell of grease wafting in the air of the Gershman Y in 2002.
It was the first Latkepalooza, a now-annual event and staple of the holiday season that features a slew of Philly restaurants that fry up their own creative takes on the Chanukah staple. The 15th iteration of the fried potato pancake extravaganza takes place Dec. 10 starting at 2 p.m.
The inaugural event reminded Hohns of a backyard barbecue.
“There was a lot of laughter,” she recalled. “It was like a happy chaos that I recall the first year, but everybody left smiling and laughing … and as the years went on, the event really became so much more sophisticated.”
It began as a way to spread the message of the organization and showcase its programming to a broader and more diverse audience, noted Hohns, who was then a board member and chair of the marketing committee.
“After giving it a lot of thought and thinking, ‘The holidays are soon to be upon us,’ I realized there wasn’t a lot going on with a Jewish flavor during the holiday season,” she said, adding with a laugh after a brief pause, “I guess that was a pun I didn’t really mean to make.”
She brainstormed ideas and came up with lollapalooza, and took it a step further with a Chanukah twinge: Latkepalooza.
“It came to me, Latkepalooza, and I thought, ‘Yes, we could do this!’” she said. “I thought it was a food item that would be readily available, not costly and that’s how we came up with the original idea, which is still really what the event is all about today: The best restaurants in Philadelphia making their particular gourmet creation of the latke.”
This year’s lineup includes restaurants that bring more than 300 latkes each, including Jones, Sabrina’s Cafe, Estia, Tria Taproom, Mission Taqueria, Kanella, Whetstone Tavern and Aldine. In the past, other Philadelphia culinary institutions like the former Bookbinder’s have joined in, Hohns noted.
Hohns looks forward each year to standing by the entrance and greeting the hundreds of guests who show up and seeing how the event has grown.
“Every Latkepalooza has developed its own personality,” she said. “Each one is slightly different than the one that has taken place the year before.”
This year will see its own set of changes, particularly with how people will get to try the creations from (hopefully) all the different restaurants.
Whereas in the past, guests were given a sheet of tickets to use at any vendor, this year, the tickets will be individualized so that people won’t be able to take a bunch of latkes from one place at a time and leave none for those who come to the event later.
For instance, Mission Taqueria could only give latkes to those using a green ticket and Jones could only give to those using a blue ticket.
It’s sort of like a tasting menu format, said Bill Chenevert, Gershman Y director of public relations and marketing.
For him, the annual festivity remains popular because it invites a certain sense of nostalgia for Chanukahs past and family latkes, but also, of course, because of one key ingredient.
“In a way, Latkepalooza has succeeded for so long because at this point we’ve arrived on a formula that makes sense in terms of the formatting and processing, but what it really boils down to, though, is potatoes,” he laughed.
“The reason, of course, everybody comes back year after year or the reason why ears perk up at the phrase ‘Latkepalooza’ is people who can figure it out realize that it’s gonna be a blowout of potato pancakes. And who would say no to that?”
And if the latkes themselves somehow aren’t enough of an enticement, the event could also be a way to meet a special someone.
In a recent article, national women’s site Bustle named Latkepalooza a promising place to meet someone special this holiday season.
“I never thought about it until I started to,” Chenevert laughed, “and I thought there’s a lot of things you could spark up a conversation with a stranger about,” citing questions like “Which latke did you like?” “Did you grow up making them?” “Do you prefer applesauce or sour cream?”
Hohns even recalled an older couple who met at a previous ’palooza.
“Every year they’ve come to the event with matching buttons that say ‘I met my beshert at Latkepalooza in 2003,’” she said.
But hey, if you don’t meet your own beshert, there will still be another something sweet for you: sufganiyot, courtesy of Federal Donuts.
The event will also include plenty of activities for the young ‘uns, too, including DJ Patty Pat, who will serve up some tunes, and Fishtown’s Portside Arts Center, which will bring crafts and facepainting.
For Hohns, she hopes the event continues to become a Chanukah tradition for those in the community and beyond (she’s met people who have come to Latkepalooza all the way from California).
“The energy and the enthusiasm and interest and excitement for Latkepalooza is never not there,” Chenevert said, noting it’s unique in the city. “People bring a lot of expectations and a lot of hunger and a lot of enthusiasm, and we just want to meet it.”
For tickets, visit gershmany.org or call 215-545-4400.
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