This blog first appeared on Culinary Historians of Piedmont.
Then there are those who favor the packaged mixes, such as the ubiquitous Streits or Manischewitz boxes that appear in stores this time of year. “I’ve never had a box-mix latke,” Ferris said. “Holidays should make you slow down a little and enjoy things. It really doesn’t take much more effort to make them from scratch.”
Alan Adler of Streits, whose wife uses the family brand, said the company introduced its popular potato pancake mix in the late 1950s or early 60s – the same era in which Peg Bracken of “The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book” fame became a pitchwoman for Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables. Such products were part of a new convenience marketing concept that encouraged tired housewives to embrace pre-packed products as a means to escape the drudgery of daily cooking. Ferris decries the era for “de-skilling women” and minimizing the inherent health benefits of fresh food.
It's a question that may stump many a rabbi or bubbe, but not Ferris. It’s all good, she said, so long as you start with local and seasonal ingredients.
“I think my favorite, because we live in North Carolina, is the sweet potato latke,” said Ferris, acknowledging North Carolina’s time-honored status as the national leader in production of sweet potatoes. “And I like them with applesauce and sour cream.”
Ferris sometimes bakes her latkes in a super-heated cast iron skillet, “but this time of year you really need to cook them in oil.” Oil is meant to recall the time when the Jews reclaimed their temple from invading Syrians and rededicated it by lighting the one remaining vial of oil that should have lasted a single day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days and nights, allowing the ancients to make more – and us moderns to fry these crispy nuggets without guilt.
Currently on sabbatical to write "The Edible South," which will trace the historical basis of Southern foods, Ferris said she discovered little variation in latke recipes when conducting research for "Matzoh Ball Gumbo."
"There is an American trend of adding whatever vegetable is on hand – kale, zucchini, carrots – and that’s certainly true in the South,” she said. “Southern cooks also tend to pep them up a bit. It wouldn’t be unusual to find Cajun spices in latkes made in New Orleans.”
If you really want to be Southern, she added, “You could run over to the Krispy Kreme and get some jelly doughnuts,” apparently giving the OK to skip making scratch sufganiyot so long as you keep things ‘old-school’ with your latkes.
No matter what recipe you choose, the bottom line for Ferris is that making latkes is a great excuse for a party. “Whether you’re making them for children or adults, it’s all about having a good time,” she said. “It’s a process, and that’s a wonderful ritual.”
North Carolina Sweet Potato Latkes with Apples
Recipe by Miriam Rubin, provided by Marcie Cohen Ferris
1½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 medium), peeled
1 large Granny Smith or Honey Crisp apple, unpeeled, cut into quarters and cored
1 large carrot, peeled (optional)