In Southold, CAST Shows a Latke of Love

There is a ‘latke’ to love about CAST’s immeasurably important work on the North Fork.

Food is never just food. Yes, at its most basic, food is fuel for human endeavor, but each and every little thing we eat tells a story about us: who has it, who grows it, who gathers it, who prepares it, who hoards it, who shares it. It tells the story of who we are and where we’re from as well as where we are right now. Food drives history, drives invention, drives culture. And sometimes, especially at the holidays, it can become the axis of our respective places in time and space, an intersection of history and religion and circumstance at which we can meet and—even over the simplest of foods—just be happy and good.

At that intersection, we have what sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A rabbi, a Latino and an American walk into a kitchen…” But it is actually the beginning of a cross cultural, transreligious, shared holiday food experience that tells the story of how Town of Southold residents come together to support and celebrate their neighbors, whether they are from around the corner or the other side of the world. 

The story begins far from Southold, in the Old Testament. In the 2nd century BC, a tiny force from the people of Israel reclaimed their Holy Temple from the Greeks. When they went to light the menorah in the temple, they found just one flask of oil—enough for one night of light. Miraculously, however, the oil lasted eight days, long enough to conduct the rituals for a fresh supply. Hanukkah is an eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrating this miracle with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods.

Those fried foods bring us to the latke, a humble grated potato pancake, fried in oil, that has come to be synonymous with the holiday. It is associated with the story of Judith, who is said to have saved the Jews of Bethulia from the Assyrian army by plying its general with delicious treats and strong drink and then decapitating him. Some versions allude to the fatally tasty treats being cheese pancakes, resulting in fried ricotta traditions in medieval Italy. In later generations, in Eastern Europe, the treats were represented by grated potato fried in schmaltz (chicken fat) which in North America became shortening and then oil. That oil came to represent the miracle of the lamp oil, further cementing the latke as a Hanukkah must-have. 

The latke sparked an idea for Deborah Pittorino, a longtime member of Greenport’s historic Congregation Tifereth Israel, former owner of Greenporter Hotel and founder of Agrocouncil, a North Fork agricultural advocacy group.

Pittorino asked Ira Haspel of KK’s The Farm to contribute some biodynamically-grown celeriac, sweet potatoes and leeks—vegetables alien to most Latino kitchens. Haspel reached into the soil, dug out some earthly treasures to give and took the opportunity to visit CAST and learn how their mission to nourish and educate dovetails with his own.

“I have been making latkes for the synagogue’s Hanukkah celebration for years,” she says, while prepping vegetables in the synagogue’s spacious, immaculately white kitchen on Main Street and 4th Street. “The first Sunday of Hanukkah is the Village of Greenport’s menorah lighting at Mitchell Park. There is a 10 minute ceremony and then everyone walks back to the synagogue for latkes, donuts and live music.”

“Everyone” is not just the congregation. The menorah lighting is a day when the community, which dates back to the late 1800s, welcomes friends and neighbors of all persuasions to the synagogue with its cozy sanctuary, the interior warmed by original stained glass. It was purpose-built in 1903 and is on both the New York and National Registers of Historic Places. 

The synagogue has been embedded in the larger community for more than 100 years. Both Pittorino and Congregation Tifereth Israel have longstanding relationships with CAST Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation, a not-for-profit which since 1965 has been extending help in nutrition, clothing, energy, employment, and education to struggling Southold community members. The goal is to keep folks afloat until they can be self-sufficient. 

“We have an organization within the shul (synagogue) called the Tikkun Olam group. Tikkun Olam tells us that Jews have a value to repair the world,” says Sara Bloom, president of the Congregation. “That group does charitable work on behalf of the shul and has an alliance with CAST. The synagogue funds Tikkun Olam so they can directly purchase chickens for distribution. We have drives for school supplies, personal items. We purchase some things and then the congregation contributes; the people who come to services always add something to the barrel.”

Pittorino’s work with CAST has grown over the years to include classes to show CAST clients how to use the fresh produce that CAST offers in its pantry, in addition to canned and other nonperishable items. 

“I am a proponent of zero-waste and food waste mitigation,” Pittorino explains. “As someone who owned my own restaurant in Greenport, I am familiar with running a kitchen and knew who had what; I worked closely with local farmers, winemakers, oyster farmers and fishermen and I had good margins because of reducing food waste. It is something everyone needs to learn because, one, it’s irresponsible as a nation to be throwing food away and, two, it’s hard to get ahead in life if you don’t know how to use all your resources.”

Pittorino’s classes gave her insight into how clients were using the pantry. 

A bountiful harvest at KK’s The Farm.

“My cooking classes have an emphasis on food preservation,” she says. “But I found that it is important to teach people how to use the produce that is less familiar to them.” 

For example, the CAST clientele is heavily Hispanic and eagerly selects fresh produce from the pantry—much of which is donated by the local farms that are themselves dependent on farm labor—to cook at home. But the clients are less likely to take items that don’t already have a place in their traditional cuisine. So Pittorino has focused on some of those ingredients in her classes as a way to get the clients to embrace them.

“Education is always important,” says CAST executive director Cathy Demeroto. “Turnips, kale, these are some things that people are not as comfortable cooking. Deborah has been great in her educational programs to show them what to do with what’s in the pantry and ensuring that it is not going to waste. The cooking classes are a great way to educate our clients who may not be familiar with certain types of produce. She’s been a great partner in that.”

A visit to CAST’s Southold location in a former church turned opera house turned community center demonstrates how critical the need is, as well as how joyous the work can be. 

The statistics are sobering. “We are serving 12 percent of the total population and 25 percent of the children in Southold Town,” Demeroto says. “Pre-COVID we were providing 40-45,000 meals a year. The first year of COVID it went to 195,000; the second year 244,000, the third year 361,000 and this year we are already close to 400,000 meals per year. There has been no slowdown in need. It keeps growing every year.”

Even on a day when the pantry isn’t open, the after-school day care is bubbling with happy kids waving at visitors and doing homework while having snacks. Prospective clients who pop by to inquire how they can get access to the pantry are welcomed by bilingual volunteers.

Deborah Pittorino prepares latkes at a recent cooking class at CAST.

The pantry shelves are packed with tidy abundance. The dry goods room is stacked with cans of tuna, pastas, bread and beans, all labeled with a colored dot system for identifying foods that are safe for those with dietary restrictions. There are fridges in which meat and dairy items are kept fresh.

But it is the fresh produce section that is the most eye popping. Like any of the farm stands on 25A, there are bins and bins of glowing fruits and vegetables. And in fact, like farm stands open to the paying public, the produce is largely local, but here much of it is donated. There’s a giant bin of apples from Harbes, carrots and other vegetables from Trieber Farms. Trieber is a major supporter of CAST and even sponsored the renovation of the Trieber Gathering Hall where major community events are held. 

Also, like the drive-by farm stands of the wider North Fork, clients can pick and choose what they want, rather than getting a bag full of whatever is available. “Choice takes the stigma out of asking for help,” says Demeroto.

It wasn’t always this way. Deborah Pittorino recalls that earlier iterations of CAST did not offer fresh produce. Cathy Demeroto arrived in 2017 and she and her growing staff have been focused on building the infrastructure to make this “Farm to Friends” revolution possible. The fridges, the van that provides a mobile pantry for folks who can’t make it to the building, the army of volunteers (there are 300 in the database) that make it possible for perishable items to be available—all of this is funded by donations and a near 24/7 grant writing machine, while outreach to the surrounding growers has brought the number of participating farms from nine in 2017 to 26 today. These farms donate surplus and also “seconds”: the less than perfect fruits and vegetables that have the kinds of surface imperfections that paying customers shun, but contain that same healthy goodness and tastiness inside.

“Latkes are essentially tortitas, which are fried vegetable fritters that are made in Central American countries; everybody recognizes them. And they are fried—who doesn’t like fried things?” says Pittorino. “So we just need to show them that tortitas can be made with any root vegetables.”

What Deborah Pittorino saw in these developing relationships was a web of interdependence and interconnectedness that deserved its own event. The farms and service industry that underpin the local economy need the labor and the labor needs the assistance—especially in the face of rising costs of living and an affordable housing crisis made catastrophic by wealthier COVID refugees from the city. The elderly also need support. And the surplus produce needs to be put into service rather than be dumped into the waste stream.

So on this day in October, Pittorino was marshaling the troops to bring it all together for the holidays, centered around that humble, adaptable and celebratory dish: the latke. Why not have everyone give back and share with each other?

“Latkes are essentially tortitas, which are fried vegetable fritters that are made in Central American countries; everybody recognizes them. And they are fried—who doesn’t like fried things?” she says. “So we just need to show them that tortitas can be made with any root vegetables.”

She asked Ira Haspel of KK’s The Farm to contribute some biodynamically-grown celeriac, sweet potatoes and leeks—vegetables alien to most Latino kitchens. Haspel reached into the soil, dug out some earthly treasures to give and took the opportunity to visit CAST and learn how their mission to nourish and educate dovetails with his own. Pittorino spoke to the synagogue about making latkes with nontraditional yet local ingredients and doing a class in the synagogue kitchen for members of the CAST community. And she spoke to CAST about teaching clients to make these novel latkes at the synagogue and inviting them to join this year’s menorah lighting celebration on December 10.

The finished latkes at CAST.

The October test run included José Morales, originally from Guatemala, who was cheerfully grating celeriac on a box grater on a break from work at a local hotel. He had never seen the vegetable before. “But it smells really good!” he said. 

Israeli-Yemini Rabbi Gadi Capela, nibbled on the celeriac leaves and peeled the sweet potatoes, waxing philosophical on the less-than-perfect vegetables. “I think they are beautiful,” he mused. “It’s a marginalized potato, but look at it; it’s beautiful!” 

Meanwhile, Deborah Pittorino buzzed about, salting the grated vegetables, squeezing the excess liquid, adding flour, frying the little fritters and laying them on layers of paper towels to cool, smearing them with sour cream and chunky applesauce, all the while explaining each step to her helper-students. The characters may have been from all over the world and the ingredients may have been a surprise to them, but the making of food together is universal: there were many hands making light work, but also many voices telling stories, learning, and laughing. 

So when the rabbi, the American and the Latino walk into the kitchen, it turns out not to be the start of a joke at all, but the beginning of another human story, one where there is greater understanding, unexpected relationships, a stronger community and, of course, beautiful food. 

And that’s just what the holidays are meant to be, no matter who or where you are. 

 

For more information on CAST, please visit their website at castnorthfork.org



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