By Ellen Girardeau Kempler
Our family’s latke parties were born out of an impulse to create a Laguna Beach tradition of our own. As an agnostic married to a Reform Jew, I had helped shape unconventional family rituals around common practices: candles, lights, music and, of course, food. As our two daughters grew up, we made compromises: gifts and menorah lighting in Hannukah and stockings on Christmas morning, followed by a homemade popover breakfast, a movie. , a beach walk and the Mandarin King. No tree. No synagogue. No church. For years that was enough. Ultimately, we all wanted to do more.
The inspiration started with a gallon of canola oil and bags and sacks of potatoes and onions. In addition to the potato pancakes, our party was to create a wacky invitation using collages, photos, and references to all the countries we had visited over the past year.
My husband, an extrovert in the broadest sense of the word, would start emailing the invitation to people we all agreed to. The list was unconventional. It included people of all ages, income brackets and social backgrounds. This reflected our volunteer interests with Laguna Playhouse, Festival of Arts, Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, Transition Laguna, and other non-profit organizations. We never thought about how the guests would get along, or how we would greet them if they all arrived at the same time.
We decided that the party should always be an open house potluck 4-8, with no official start and end times. We asked guests to bring a favorite vacation dish and toiletries for the Laguna Beach Friendship Hideaway. We agreed from the start that we would have food upstairs, live music and dancing downstairs.
Our first party was to fry over 400 potato pancakes for at least 100 people. The early arrivals included friends loosely known as “Wandering Jews.” (It always amused me that they were the ones who brought the “treif” food, not kosher, for example, a platter of shrimp to accompany what I irreverently called “Hannukah’s ham”).
With the crispy pancakes in the oven and the table set for an abundance of potluck, we thought we were ready. Then the oven would not open.
“We can’t have a latke party without a latke!” ” I said.
“Don’t worry,” our friend Ron said. “The party isn’t over until you run out of wine. “
He and his teenage son then removed the oven door, releasing the presented dish.
Another year we made a rum cake so strong a mom sat in a chair next to keep the miners away. To save time for another year, we used sacks of grated potatoes for the latkes. It ended after a friend’s daughter said our pancakes tasted like hash browns.
This being Laguna, people often recognized and reconnected. The reunion was not always happy. One year, my daughter’s friend ran to me. “Oh my God,” she said. “That drunk woman in the corner was dating my dad!”
On the last latke night, my stepdad chatted to a woman standing next to a Ferris wheel painting he admired. Turns out she was the artist. It was the same year our cousin’s son was practicing break dance moves on the family room floor and an unusual 80 degree heat forced us to open the doors and move the furniture outside. The cops arrested us at 8 p.m. (a first). We still wonder which neighbor complained. (We thought they were all at home.)
When people say they miss our party, I explain that our daughters have moved and we have moved. Our latkes are the legend of Laguna.
Ellen is a longtime Laguna resident whose widely published poetry, articles and essays celebrate the arts, culture, community and the environment.
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