Holiday traditions merge in sweet potato latkes

Sarah Refson of Mount Pleasant makes latkes, or potato pancakes, with sweet potatoes instead of white, and seasons them with curry, Cajun spice and cilantro. This recipe originally appeared in The Post and Courier on Dec. 21, 2011.

Sweet Potato Latkes

Makes 12-18 pancakes about 3 inches in diameter

Ingredients

3 pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 large potatoes)

3 eggs

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning

Dash of curry powder

Peanut oil for frying

Directions

Peel potatoes and shred with the coarse grater in a food processor. Whisk eggs. Mix eggs and seasonings with potatoes. Make loosely formed patties about 3 inches in diameter. Fry on both sides in hot peanut oil until golden brown. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

It’s not unusual for people to talk about chopped liver in the form of a question. But Mary Kasman’s particular question about chicken offal, onions and schmaltz (chicken fat) is almost unfathomably unique: Kasman is wondering whether to serve chopped liver on Thanksgiving, a quandary she won’t again face for 77,000 years.

“My husband is leaning toward yes,” says Kasman, who’s also preparing butternut squash soup; turkey; potato latkes with black pepper gravy; cranberry sauce with apples and green bean casserole for what American Jews have taken to calling “Thanksgivukkah.”

By a quirk of lunar cycles and the federal calendar, Thanksgiving this year coincides with the first day of Hanukkah, an unprecedented convergence. Entrepreneurs are energetically celebrating the double holiday with turkey menorahs and commemorative yarmulkes, but the overlap means home cooks have to make hard choices about how to honor two culinary traditions in a single meal. Their decisions are complicated not just by flavor considerations (Do guests really want fried turkey pastrami for their main course?) but also by issues of cultural identity.

“It’s always that crazy dance we do in being assimilated but holding onto our Jewish presence,” Kasman says of her attempts to balance the table.

Kasman’s very pleased with the pumpkin chocolate-chip challah bread pudding on her Thanksgiving menu. Yet she’s had misgivings about adding chopped liver to the other end of the meal because “it’s not even a normal thought for Hanukkah.”

Still, she adds, “I thought doing something really Jewish could be good.” (Comedian Lenny Bruce a half-century ago delineated the difference between Jewish and “really Jewish” foods: “Fruit salad is Jewish. Black cherry soda is very Jewish.”)

The answer to the chopped liver question hinges on whether Kasman wants to overtly assert her ethnicity on a holiday that has long served as a symbol of Americanization.

Frying up new ideas

Thematically, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are relatively similar. Both holidays recall the surprising triumph of a band of outcasts, and both holidays emphasize the expression of gratitude. In kitchen terms, though, all the two holidays have in common is potatoes.

Hanukkah is officially a minor festival. On the federal holiday scale of magnitude, it’s closer to Flag Day than Thanksgiving. But its proximity to Christmas caused Jewish leaders in the 1920s to recast it a holiday capable of distracting Jewish children from their schoolmates’ Yuletide fun. They urged families to give gifts, spin dreidels and fry potato pancakes in remembrance of the miraculously long-lasting oil at the center of the Hanukkah story.

Although mid-century Hanukkah snacks such as Maccabean sandwiches (tuna on warrior-shaped bread) and Menorah fruit salad (canned fruit molded into a cream cheese candelabra) petered out pretty quickly, latkes and jelly doughnuts are still popular holiday foods, which helps explain why the edible item many modern celebrants associate with Hanukkah is antacid.

Figuring out how to inject Hanukkah’s few defining flavors into the traditional Thanksgiving feast this fall became an irresistible challenge for even non-Jewish cooks, understandably eager for the chance to riff on dishes they’ve been making for decades. Across cyberspace, inventive cooks swapped ideas for cranberry sauce doughnuts, pumpkin kugel and gefilte fish stuffing.

Food 52 and Serious Eats last month staged a Thanksgivukkah battle in which the websites competed to come up with the ultimate dual-holiday hybrid: Food 52 sandwiched leftover turkey between schmaltz-fried sweet potato latkes, while Serious Eats concocted stuffing fritters with liquid cranberry cores served with turkey schmaltz gravy.

Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who oversaw his site’s entry, initially made the fritters’ latke coating with matzo meal, but switched to white flour after the first batch of balls disintegrated in the fryer. Yet Lopez-Alt says the fritters retained their essential Hanukkah character.

“The potato mix doesn’t really taste like Thanksgiving because of the onions,” Lopez-Alt says. “And the deep-fried element is a lot of it.”

Because of Hanukkah’s reputation as a frying frenzy, many Thanksgivukkah celebrants are frying turkeys for the first time this year.

In Charleston, Lisa Rovick’s deep-fried turkey will be accompanied by sweet potato latkes with pecan chutney; an apple, cranberry and walnut salad and apple challah. For dessert, she’s serving pumpkin bread pudding with chocolate gelt, or coins, and bourbon pecan pie doughnuts, for which she’s spreading pecan pie filling over store-bought glazed doughnuts.

“For Jewish people, having to share the holiday, it’s nice to incorporate more of Hanukkah,” Rovick says of her willingness to dispense with standard Thanksgiving sides. With three young children, Rovick wants to make sure Hanukkah isn’t eclipsed.

Rovick says she was “trying to think outside the box,” but was initially stumped by how to make kugel, or noodle pudding, suitable for Thanksgiving. She settled on a sweet potato kugel au gratin with sweet potato cream cheese.

“I think it’s kind of special,” Rovick says of the holidays’ confluence. “There’s so much you can do.”

What very few local Thanksgivukkah hosts are doing is leaving the turkey off the table. Even Lori Hoch Stiefel, who’s putting together a vegetarian Thanksgiving, is building her family’s meal around a “turkey-less roast” from Trader Joe’s, rather than an imaginary brisket.

Assimilation rites

Securing a turkey for Thanksgiving has been a rite of assimilation since at least the late 1800s, when Ellis Island marked the holiday by serving turkey, vegetables, pies and puddings to newly arrived foreigners. “Among the immigrants who partook of the dinner were 18 men who will be sent back to their native land as soon as (the Immigration Bureau) can arrange for their sailing,” The New York Times noted in 1894.

Jewish immigrants didn’t immediately take to the annual habit. In 1955, literary critic Pearl Kazin chronicled for The New Yorker her childhood efforts to bring Thanksgiving to Brooklyn: When she begged to have a turkey “like everybody else,” her mother responded:

“Who’s everybody? The Feins eat turkey Thanksgiving? Doris Levine’s mother goes on the subway to buy a turkey God knows where Thanksgiving? ...We don’t have enough our holidays for you? Headaches she has to give me with her turkey yet.”

Thanksgiving skepticism wasn’t confined to Jewish immigrant communities. Future New York City restaurateur Eddie Huang in the 1990s tried to persuade his Taiwanese-born parents to assemble a classically American Thanksgiving.

“I remember for Thanksgiving at our house we would just eat hot pot or some strange spread of sauteed Chinese items, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole from Boston Market and sushi from Publix ’cause I guess it really made the table pop,” Baohuas’ Huang wrote in his 2013 memoir, “Fresh Off The Boat.” “Our family really didn’t like Thanksgiving until I went to my neighbor Warren’s and finally understood what it was about.”

For the Huangs, it was about green bean casserole. “We need more! How do we make this casserole?” Huang’s mother exclaimed after sampling a canned cream-of-mushroom dish Huang brought home from his friend’s house. Huang watched the Food Network devotedly until he was able to fix every iconic Thanksgiving dish.

“Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday because it was the first one I felt like a full participant in,” Huang wrote. “I earned my way in.”

In Huang’s house, a Thanksgiving turkey stood for strength and self-determination, the very attributes demonstrated by the Pilgrims and Hanukkah’s starring Maccabee soldiers.

Whether or not Kasman places chopped liver atop her specially ordered Thanksgivukkah tablecloth, she wants the once-in-a-lifetime meal to reflect the ethics that unify her cultures.

“I’m trying to bring in all the great moral values of the holidays as well as their spices and flavors,” she says.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.