Songs, Blessings & Latkes - Lifestyle: Food File
Bangor Metro, December 2008
by Sheila D. Grant
At the Monson home of John and Melinda Wentworth, the Festival of Lights is also a festival of friends, family and food.
In order to give her children a sense of what it would be like to grow up in a large Jewish community, and to give them something similar to what non-Jewish children look forward to in December, Wentworth has gone above and beyond when it comes to celebrating Hanukkah.
“When I first moved here, I was one of a few Jewish people living in the area,” she said. “To preserve our culture and our traditions up here I almost had to make more of an effort. Because I was trying to make it as festive as possible, this house is obnoxiously decorated for Hanukkah. Most people have one sweet little menorah. I have more tchatchkes than any 10 people I know. Everyone who knows me gives me stuff and I put it up no matter how tacky or how silly. I even had singing Hanukkah socks!”
Melinda Wentworth grew up in New Orleans. She met her husband while he was on a cross-country motorcycle trip. His camera equipment was stolen and he decided to stick around to see if it would be recovered. He took a job in the restaurant where Melinda worked. The pair married in New Orleans, but moved back to Wentworth’s hometown of Monson in 1982. In 1983, they moved into an 1832 federal colonial home overlooking Lake Hebron. There they raised daughter Rebecca, 20, and son Matthew, 24.
“I have now lived in Maine longer than I lived in Louisiana,” said Wentworth, with the slightest tell-tale drawl. “I always had a passion for cooking, mostly because I had a passion for eating. In New Orleans, food is really a religion. People are very, very particular about eating good food and having a good time. Food and entertainment go hand in hand.”
Wentworth studied Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of New Orleans. She worked in several restaurants, and apprenticed with a French pastry chef. Wentworth owned the Appalachian Station restaurant in Monson for several years. Since then, she has honed her skills working for a local bakery, running her own catering company, offering kosher catering services and managing the Sebec Village Café.
Today the Wentworth home sparkles with blue and silver. Multi-colored lights depicting various Jewish symbols glow around windows in the kitchen, den and dining room. The dining room table is covered with menorahs. At the center is a wooden moose menorah that John made for Melinda (John’s family founded Moosehead Manufacturing Company more than 60 years ago).
Friends from the three Bangor synagogues have been invited – about 40 of them. There will be an equally large gathering tomorrow night with local friends and family.
Preparations have already been made for about 50 pounds of latkes. Wentworth slices a turkey, deftly separating meat to be served from that to go into a soup pot. She’s already whipped up two salads – and cookies. She loves to bake cookies. A three-tiered baking dish is layered with assorted shaped and flavored confections. Guests will add their potluck offerings to the menu, as well.
People begin to arrive. Wentworth, already wearing dreidel earrings and necklace, dons a sparkling blue paper “Happy Hanukkah” crown trimmed with white faux fur. Rich chocolates, bowls of nuts and chopped chicken liver with crackers appease famished folks until mealtime.
There are about 32 gathered now to chant the blessing. The meal begins shortly after 6:00 p.m. and by 6:25 the latkes have disappeared. Wentworth jumps into action for round two – running both skillets herself.
Later, there will be blessings and songs. Menorahs will be lit and the dreidel game will be played. But for now, the friends, family and food are more than enough.
“This is the party to come to,” said Marilyn Buzy of Pittsfield, here with her two young daughters Mykayla and Marta. “The food is amazing. We would do anything to make it to this party!”
Melinda Wentworth’s Latkes for a Crowd
Twenty pounds of potatoes have been peeled and sit in bowls of water.
Wentworth is a whirlwind in the kitchen, running potatoes through the processor until they resemble short pieces of spaghetti, then shredding three large onions and a couple of runts into the mix.
“This is ‘Cooking with Melinda’ so there are not necessarily any exact measurements,” she says. She cracks four eggs into the heaping pile of shredded potato and onion, then shakes what she deems “quite a bit” of salt, some pepper and matzah meal “until it looks right” into the bowl (about three-quarters of a 16-ounce container, by her guesstimate). The latkes are then mixed by hand, drained of excess fluid and covered to await cook time.
The latkes will be fried in shifts. Rebecca and John don aprons and heat oil in skillets. Spoonfuls of batter are added, browned and flipped. The cooked latkes are stacked in layers on paper towels that absorb oil and keep them warm. They will be served with sour cream and homemade applesauce from John’s orchard.
Later, when this first batch of latkes has been devoured by hungry guests, Melinda Wentworth will take the “second shift,” a spatula in each hand and more delicious potato pancakes sizzling in each of the two skillets.
For a family-sized version of the latkes recipe, Melinda Wentworth pulls a well-worn and beloved copy of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen off the shelf.
10 medium potatoes
1 medium onions
2 large or 3 medium eggs
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour, breadcrumbs or matzah meal
Salt and white pepper to taste
- Peel the potatoes if the skin is course; otherwise, just clean them well. Keep them in cold water until ready to prepare the latkes.
- Starting with the onions, alternately grate some of the onion son the large holds of the grater and some of the potatoes on the smallest holes. This will keep the potato mixture from blackening. Press out as much liquid as possible and reserve the starchy sediment at the bottom of the bowl. *Return the sediment to the mixture.
- Blend the potato mixture with the eggs, flour, salt and white pepper.
- Heat one inch of oil in a frying pan. Drop about one tablespoon of mixture for each latke into the skillet and fry, turning once. When golden and crisp on each side, drain on paper towels. Serve with yogurt, sour cream, sugar or applesauce.
Note: To freeze left over latkes, place them on a cookie sheet, freeze, and remove to a plastic bag. When ready to serve, place in a 450 degree oven for several minutes. The author did not recommend refrigerating latkes, as this makes them soggy. Instead, Nathan said to make the latkes early in the day, drain, leave out on a cookie sheet and reheat before serving.
*The steel blade of a food processor or the grating blade are less painful ways of grating the potatoes and the onions. The blade makes a smooth consistency and the grater a crunchy one.