Everything You “Tot” You Knew About the Potato Pancake

I am from the great state of Idaho. Few people know where it is and most people think I’m from Iowa. Idaho; right in the top left corner of the country between Montana and Oregon. In the summer we have a dry, hot climate and in the fall we have a moist chilly season that leads into a miserable cold spell of a winter.  Potatoes are a staple in Idaho/ They grow very well in the colder climates and Idaho is perfect for that.  In Idaho everyone knows that it was the Simplot family who made Idaho famous for potatoes because JR Simplot figured out how to flash freeze potatoes and not have them lose their taste or crispy fried texture. This landed him french fry deals with McDonald’s and many other companies. At the time, nobody knew the effect this would have on the state of Idaho. It figuratively put us on the map, and somewhat embarrassing to some, became our identity. There is a 75 foot Great Idaho Potato that is hauled around the country on a semi-truck, the Idaho Potato Bowl in college football, and the fact that everyone I meet outside the state of Idaho immediately say, “Oh! The potato state!” or my favorite,  Damn! You really must love potatoes!” followed up by “Are you a potato farmer?” There are only so many ways to answer this question over a lifetime. Suffice it to say, I

have grown up in a “potato” world, so learning about the history of the potato pancake was right up my alley. Or perhaps I should say right up my potato field.

Potato recipes have been a staple of many food cultures for hundreds of years. Many people may be surprised to find out that potatoes were not native to Europe. They were introduced in the 1500’s, and they definitely were not the common cooking staple they are today. They were first used to feed animals, then eventually as a source of food used within prisons, and then finally dismal circumstances throughout various European countries forced people to begin eating them, specifically the poor (Wasserman, 2022). In the early 1800s there were terrible storms that seemed to have plagued all of Europe. Due to these season of crops communities did not know what to grow and were left with very few options. This is how potato popularity really shined. It was a New World crop from the Americas that was a great growing option compared to other crops (“Discover the History”, 2022).  Potatoes are easy to grow in harsh climates or with bad weather conditions, are easy to store for extended periods of time, and they grow in abundance, making them cheap. Potato pancakes themself have had a strong and rich cultural influence going back over two centuries (“Discover the History”, 2022). Potato pancakes are associated with almost every European cuisine and are referred to as a variety of names including latkes (Jewish culture), kartoffelpuffer (Germany), bramborak (Slovakia and Czech Republic), draniki (Austria), tattifish (England) and rosti (Switzerland) (“Potato Pancake Background”, n.d). For many of these cultures, during hard times potato pancakes even because a substitution for bread because it was cheaper and easier to make (“November 13”, 2021).

A potato field outside of Burley, in southern Idaho.

What exactly is a potato pancake? It’s pretty much exactly that; a potato that’s prepared like a pancake using flour and egg as binder ingredients and then fried. While there are a variety of recipes and variations too numerous to count, a basic recipe from 1883 starts with a dozen medium-sized potatoes, peeled and washed thoroughly. Add the yolks of three eggs (which makes for a creamier texture than using the entire egg), a heaping tablespoon of flour and if they seem too dry a little mix will thin them with a large tea spoonful of salts and last leave the whites of their 3x ft and stiff and thoroughly beaten in within the potatoes (“Household Hints” ,1883). This receipt is s basic standard recipe for potato pancakes. However, different regions and different cultures have different variations. This may be based on the ingredients available, and some of the recipe have their origins as far back as the Middle Ages (November 13”, 2021). Since the 1800’s, latkes in Poland have been eaten both savory and sweet, a during special occasions, people splurged on what would have been expensive accompaniments such as cheese or a sour cream (“November 13”, 2021). The savory versions are known to be salty, which makes sense as people all over love salty French fries, which are another version of fried potato. The sweet versions were often flavored with apple sauce, local berries, and cinnamon and sugar (“Potato Pancake Background”, n.d.). It seems as if every culture has their own version, and consider it to be the one and only way to prepare a “proper” potato pancake. The Irish are known to use more starch, while England is known to have added onion. The Swedish pair is with fried pork and lingonberry jam, and in perhaps the biggest straying from the basic recipe is Switzerland, who does not use flour or eggs (Potato Pancake Background”, n.d.). Whatever the twist, all versions seem to have the same base recipe similar to the 1883 recipe.

Despite being a cheap and easy option in other centuries, what makes these weird-shaped things so popular today? And they certainly are, with both toys and movie characters named after

them. There is also a dark history to them. Potato pancakes have been involved in poisonings on two separate occasions. This is quite possible. Culturally they have a strong place within the Jewish community during their season of giving, or Hanukkah. Whatever it is, potato pancakes are immersed in so many food cultures that one can assume they are here to stay, and despite being a fairly basic food staple, the history is extremely interesting.

Potato pancakes have been documented as far back to 168 BC, when the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus invaded and captured Israel. This event is noted as a brutal plundering and defiling the holiest site of the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem (Glazier, 2008). Many historians contend that it this this particular incident that eventually led to the popularity of the potato pancake in Europe as there was a strong Jewish influence in Europe so, when the crop failures came about, the use of potato recipes such as potato pancakes were reintroduced during the holiday season by the Jewish people, with other cultures borrowing from the Jewish people. The use of cheese that is used in many potato pancake versions is also connected to the Jewish community as they actually used to put cheese in pancakes prior to the widespread use of potatoes (Glazier, 2008). In Jewish communities all over the world latkes are innately connected to the celebration of Hanukkah, as it is said “that every grandmother will make this specialty treat when the family is all together “ and family recipes not only “preserve culture but can

preserve each family’s heritage” (Wade Wichard  ). The holiday of Hanukkah has been around for thousands of years and within the last two centuries potato pancakes have been a staple in the culture. However, it took a bad crop season some 200 years ago and now it is expected that every December potato pancakes will be on tables around the world. 

Potato pancakes have not always had this bright and happy holiday association to them. In 1882 in Buffalo, New York an entire family was poisoned out of the blue and nobody knows who from or how. The Reger family was comprised of Aloise Reger, his wife, two sons and one daughter. They owned a corner grocery store and would frequently eat potato pancakes on Friday nights in order to follow the “no-flesh” eating mandate of the Catholic church, so it would appear that people were likely to know about this habit. The family ate the potato pancakes at their noon meal. The 8-year-old son returned to school but became violently ill and returned home. The rest of the family did not return to work as they also felt ill. Two local doctors were called to the family home and said it appeared similar to arsenic poisoning. The son was too ill to take the necessary medicine and died that afternoon. His mother died later that evening. A neighbor had stopped by and tried some of the pancakes and she was bedridden and ill for a very long time, but she did not die. Mr. Reger as well as his wife prior to her death claimed there was no arsenic within the house. Mr. Reger contended that maybe the potatoes had trace amounts of Paris Green, a poison used by farmers to kill potato bugs (“Potato Pancakes”, 1882). An incident such as this was sure to make people wary of eating a potato pancake.

For many, the potato is a simple, basic staple of meals worldwide. What people fail to realize is that even the most basic of staples can often have an intriguing history, especially as one traces the origins of a food such as the potato pancake from 168 BC, to the crop failures of the 1800’s, to the death of a family in the late 1800’s, to the current holiday seasons. So, if you “tot” the potato pancake was just a potato pancake, you got a latke to learn. (I know, bad potato puns- I couldn’t help it)

References

Discover the history of latkes during Hanukkah. (2022). PBS.   PBS Food.     \https://www.pbs.org/food/features/history-of-latkes/#:~:text=Potato%20latkes%20are%20a%20more,latke%20of%20choice%20was%20cheese

Glazer, P. (2008, Dec. 2008). The little pancake with a big history. LA Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-dec-17-fo-hanukkah17-story.html 

German kerfuffle pancakes. (n.d.).  https://foodal.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Kartoffelpuffer-German-Potato-Pa ncakes-Pin.jp

Household hints. (1883, Oct. 13). Wisconsin Historical Society. Vol. 57, issue 6, GALE|GT3000711083

November 13 is the Potato Pancake Day. (2021, Nov. 13). The Poland Daily. https://polanddaily24.com/6494-november-13-is-the-potato-pancake-

day/trivia/13107#:~:text=Poles%20have%20been%20eating%20potato%20pancakes%20for%20over,the%20European%20cuisine%20only%20in%20the%2019th%20century.

Potato pancake background and history, (n.d.). primidi.com. https://www.primidi.com/potato_pancake/background_and_history

Potato pancakes that nearly exterminated the Regers. (1882, Oct. 28). The Buffalo News.

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/35802040/alois-reger-family-poisoning-article/

Poisoned pancakes. (1882, Oc. 2029). Wisconsin Historical Society. Vol 8, issue 161, 

p.3.GALE|GT3004123581

Wasserman, T. (2022). A brief history of latkes: Why we really eat them on Hannukah. Judaismreform.org. https://reformjudaism.org/brief-history-latkes-why-we-really-eat-them-hanukkah

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