This is the first of our five-part “What’s for Dinner?” feature series about Brooklyn meals.
by Daniel Roberts
On a cold, rainy Tuesday afternoon in Bensonhurst, nine adults and seven kids are warm and dry inside the Edith & Carl Marks Jewish Community House, where they’re cooking up a storm.
“Those potatoes are gonna be black by the time they’re finished and ready to cook,” yells Rifki Berger across the clamor of slicing and dicing. Berger is a graduate student in social work who comes each Tuesday to help out with this program. Today, the children, with the help of some neighborhood seniors, are cooking latkes.
“Well, we’re going to throw ‘em in water to slow the process,” answers Ari Wasserman, the program director, with an authoritative grin. Wasserman runs this program, which joins senior citizens and young children every Tuesday at 3:30pm for an hour and a half of cooking and eating.
“We get good kids,” says Wasserman. “They like helping, and they like learning. It’s been so fun to see these two generations interact with each other, and to see certain seniors emerging as leaders each time.” Intergenerational is the term that Lilia Turevsky, a program coordinator at the JCH, likes to use when she speaks fondly of this “cooking club” idea. “Today is a really quiet group,” she says. “The last time, I couldn’t even hear my voice. When boys are here, you can imagine, so much louder.”
Regularly the group gets a turnout of ten or eleven seniors, with fifteen kids. On this Tuesday, perhaps due to the rain, just six seniors and seven children showed up for the group. Curiously, they are also all women, leaving Wasserman rather outnumbered. “Next time, we’re going to have boys,” he says with excitement. Then, as if it’s just dawning on him: “And they’re going to be really hungry and loud.”
Still, the room is far from quiet. At three different tables, little girls, all nine-year-olds in the third grade, shred carrots and potatoes on a grating board as adult women look on. Meanwhile, atop a modest gas camping stove, Wasserman has set a single black cooking pan. Inside, first, goes some oil. “Canola oil, not olive oil,” he explains. “A little bit healthier.” Occasionally, he yells instructions to the girls from his table, like, “Laura, Claire, don’t forget the eggs and the matzoh meal!”
“We are a team. We work together to make the meal, and afterwards we eat together,” says Turevsky. “Everyone is so cute and happy. And really, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in my life.” She adds this last comment while pointing out that one of the girls, Nicole, has potato mush in her long hair and on the side of her face.
The kids that come are different every week, but some of the seniors are second-timers. One such woman is Diana Krystal, who fondly recalls making a turkey in the first week: “We took a bosque pear, cut it in half, and put that on the tray for the body, then we took orange slices for the feet and head, used a cashew for the neck-hanging thing, and sliced up apples for wings. The kids had the best time putting icing all over it. But this time, latkes, this takes a lot more effort and real cooking.”
As Krystal cracks an egg and brags, “Look at that, one hand,” a little girl named Laura says, “That’s no fair, you have so much practice.” Once they’ve filled two measuring cups with a mixture of shredded potatoes, carrots, and onions, Krystal announces, “Okay, who’s going to bring these over to Ari?” All of the hands go up. The group chants, Me, me, me. “All right, Gracie was first. When you bring it to Ari, you tell him these are the vegetable latkes.”
“Everyone knows I’m turning on the gas now,” Wasserman shouts, “so everyone stay away from the table.” Meanwhile, sitting with Laura is her friend Klare. “I do this at home all the time,” she says. “The carrots aren’t really part of the recipe but I bet they’ll taste good anyway.” Laura suddenly nudges Klare in the ribs and says, “Look, our hands are orange.”
Once the mixture goes in the pan, latkes fry up in only three or four minutes. Wasserman begins dishing them out to the kids and adults, and everyone sits down and falls quiet. “After we eat, Ari asks the kids questions or teaches them Hebrew words,” explains Turevsky. The kids all look excited for trivia. “I want the million-dollar question,” one girl whispers slyly to her neighbor.
“Okay girls, here’s my million-dollar question today. Why do we use oil in the pain with the latkes?” One girl is quick to answer: “Because they used it in the menorah,” she yells.
Meanwhile, when an adult mentions ketchup, Klare declares, “I hate ketchup.” But what about on French fries, someone asks. “I hate French fries,” she continues. But latkes are similar, both made of potatoes, right? “That’s not the same,” Klare insists. “French fries have fat. So do latkes, but it’s the good kind.”
As the latkes disappear and clean-up begins, the adults grow nostalgic already for this little club. “I have had a ball doing this, I really loved it,” says Diana Krystal. Today is the fourth and final meeting, though. Turevsky says the group was a success and will continue as soon as possible. The money to start the group came from a grant given by the UJA Federation of New York, and, as Rifki Berger explains, the donors want to see a final cookbook at the end. “We’re going to put in the recipes we used, as well as lots of pictures of the kids,” says Berger. “Hopefully we can continue the program.”
Dinner, or perhaps it was a pre-dinner snack, is over. But before the kids can hurry off, Berger asks them: “So girls, which did you like better, the plain potato pancakes or the vegetable?” Three children answer in unison: “Both!”