Twenty years ago, Liz Neumark was a busy mother, balancing running a successful catering company and raising four children under 10. Life worked because it was structured. There was a schedule and Liz was a master of sticking to it. But, “Breaking the rules and doing the unexpected, are really moments that we remember,” she explains.
One night, she read a story book that features a scene with apple strudel to her two youngest Sam, then 5 and Sylvia, 3. The apple strudel got the kids thinking about applesauce, which was followed by pleading to delay bedtime — as only kids can — to head to the kitchen for fresh latkes with apple sauce. “It was a complete and total detour from our routine,” Liz says. She hesitated, but “In the back of mind, I knew I was going to say yes.” The brigade marched into the kitchen to start to make latkes, dusting themselves in flour and batter, as every child cook does. As the latkes were made, Liz reached into the fridge for a jar of her homemade applesauce, something she learned to love as a child when her grandmother Nelly, a Russian immigrant, would make it with crab apples.
The scent of freshly frying latkes has followed Liz. She doesn’t recall making them as a child, but started cooking them in earnest at the preschool her children attended and made them for her catering company Great Performances, sometimes topped with creme fraiche and caviar. In her house, latkes and applesauce aren’t a once a year production. Every couple of months, the family would do a deep dive into latkes, as Liz explains.
And, there was the time she participated in a James Beard Foundation latke competition, bringing all four kids into the cramped, famed kitchen that once belonged to one of America’s greatest gourmands, James Beard. The family took home the people’s choice award for their latkes.
A handful of years after the contest and the midnight latke escapade, life in the Neumark family was abruptly altered impermeably. After complaining one afternoon of a headache, Sylvia suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away. “She was a remarkable kid, who really wanted to make a difference in the world,” Liz explains.
After Sylvia died, Liz wanted to keep memory alive for her and her family. “In trying to navigate grief and loss, I thought, if we don’t talk about her then she’s really dead. And I wanted to keep her part of the family, part of my memory, part of my day,” Liz says. “You don’t move on, you live on.”
In her honor, Liz founded the Sylvia Center, a non-profit aimed at improving the health of young people through teaching them how to cook. Eleven years ago, Liz started an annual fundraiser for the project: a Latke Festival in her catering company’s kitchen. “I don’t know why we ever started it, it seemed like a good idea,” she says. Today, the event is held at the Brooklyn Museum and features two dozen chefs who compete for the title of the best latke.
Liz says she doesn’t think often of that late night latke escapade when her children were little. It was tucked away, she adds, but surfaced recently as she started to prepare a story to share at a special edition of our signature live storytelling event Schmaltzy, hosted in collaboration with the New York City Wine & Food Festival and Great Performances.
Working in catering, she spends her days with people planning celebrations and relishing the joyous moments in life. But, Liz says, “we all carry pain and scars and experiences and things that are less than perfect... I think those are important values to affirm and talk about. And talk about celebrations that come from difficult places.”
Find more Hanukkah recipes in our holiday collection.