This Hanukkah party was no different from any other party: People congregated in the kitchen.
As the guests arrived, the men, mainly, would filter back to the kitchen to shake hands with the host and head cook, Rich Kaplan.
“This is where all the good smells are,” said Steven Novick of Raleigh as he wandered into the kitchen at the Northbrook Country Club clubhouse, which is more like a community center than a fancy club. Kaplan, wearing a bright blue apron that says “Love, Peace and Latke Grease,” was warming up latkes, or potato pancakes, in the oven before carting them out to the buffet table.
Kaplan and his wife, Cathy, have been hosting this Hanukkah party for about a dozen years. It started at their North Raleigh house with five other Jewish families because, as Rich Kaplan explained, he kept hearing this refrain from friends: I love to eat latkes but I hate to cook them.
And yes, Kaplan concedes, his house smells like a fish-and-chips shop after weeks of late-night latke-making sessions. In the intervening years, the guest list has grown to 120 guests and now he has to make 600-800 latkes ahead of time, which he stashes in the freezer.
Several nights a week for several weeks leading up to the party, Kaplan pulls out his two electric skillets and a cast iron skillet to make dozens of latkes in several flavors: potato, a corn and onion pancake (a perennial crowd favorite) and an experimental flavor, which this year was white bean, sundried tomato and pesto. He also makes noodle kugel and ricotta pancakes. This year, his friends Felice Bogus and Robert Mermelstein helped him by bringing dozens of Indian samosa-flavored latkes.
Only one year did the party almost not happen. Cathy was due with their second child, Eva, a week after the party. However, Cathy went into labor two days before the party. A friend agreed to host and Rich delivered all the premade latkes and some Krispy Kreme doughnuts to the friends’ house. The party carried on while the Kaplans were at the hospital.
Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday that has become more prominent as a sort of cultural counterbalance to the behemoth that is Christmas. The eight-day festival of lights celebration commemorates the rededication of the Jerusalem temple. Families light candles on a menorah each night, say blessings, exchange gifts and eat fried foods, such as latkes and jelly doughnuts called a sufganiyot.
Beyond the latkes and the jelly doughnuts at the Kaplans’ party, there were potluck dishes: eggplant Parmesan, spaghetti squash pad thai, carrot souffle, key lime pie and even rugelach, a popular crescent-shaped Jewish pastry.
Talk to any of the longtime invitees and it’s clear this party means more than just the chance to eat fried food. For many, it’s a chance to reconnect with friends they may see in synagogue but rarely see in social settings. For many, it’s a chance to enjoy Jewish celebrations with their children and pass on traditions to the next generation. For some, it’s a chance – in a predominantly Christian community – to be in a room with people of the same cultural and spiritual upbringing.
Leslie Gartenberg of Raleigh has been coming since the beginning, when she and her husband, Adam, met the Kaplans at Beth Meyer Synagogue in North Raleigh. None of her boys, ages 12, 8 and 5, have ever known a Hanukkah without the Kaplans’ party.
Gartenberg said, “There’s a heartbeat that comes from the Jewish year – this is part of that heartbeat.”
COMBINE corn, onion, green onions, red bell pepper, ginger, garlic, dill, cilantro, cumin, salt, ground pepper, matzo meal, baking powder and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl. Mix well.
BEAT egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites into corn batter.
HEAT oil in heavy skillet. Carefully heap spoonfuls of corn batter into pan and fry, a few at a time, about 2 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Serve unadorned or topped with dollop of Chipotle Cream.Yield: about 20 latkes. Chipotle Cream 1 cup sour cream 1 chipotle or jalapeno chili 1 tablespoon lime juice Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
PUREE sour cream, pepper, lime juice and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor. Serve with latkes.Yield: 1 cup
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl