Nailya Yakubova/shutterstock
Nailya Yakubova/shutterstock

Editor’s note: This is the fourth annual holiday post from Karen Brooks Hopkins, in which the president emerita of Brooklyn Academy of Music shares some end-of-the-year reflections from her career in fundraising. You can read Karen’s previous posts here, here and here.

When you run a large, complex organization, every day is an adventure. During this pandemic, things have certainly been hectic and uncertain, but also quieter. As I look back on the period that I served as president of BAM, from 1999 to 2015, the holidays were always very active, both on and off stage!

In addition to movies and performances, the holiday season was filled with all kinds of parties and special events. One of the most unusual for a theatrical enterprise such as ours was the Great Latke Competition of 2011.

Latkes, for anyone who has never experienced this delicacy, are deep-fried, crispy, delicious potato pancakes that are traditionally served with sour cream and apple sauce during the Chanukah celebration. This is definitely not a health food item, and one latke probably has more calories and trans fats than most of us consume in a month.

Nevertheless, latkes are a hot item and very popular with New Yorkers of all ages.

The Great Latke Competition was the brainchild of Liz Neumark, the head of Great Performances caterers, which handled all of the food service at BAM. Food service for an arts center, by the way, is a thankless job. No matter what you serve, people complain. Simply put, New Yorkers are obsessed with food.

I used to say that someone could spend $150 on an opera ticket, hate the show, and you never hear another word about it. But if they don’t like their pre-performance appetizer—beware—you may get a death threat in the mail! So much misery: “Those sandwiches are too thick,” or “I can’t even find the meat in this sandwich with a magnifying glass,” or “Why don’t you sell potato chips at the concession?” vs. “All you have in this concession are these vile potato chips.”

Alas, when it comes to food you just can’t win.

But I digress—back to the latkes. Liz Neumark decided that something was missing among the crowded array of holiday activities available in the city. “Bah, humbug,” she declared. “I have had it with dancing sugar plums, the Grinch, mistletoe, Scrooge and even dreidels. We need something new and exciting.”

She thought and thought, and then, after deep and serious contemplation, concluded that what was required was a giant creative latke contest, where chefs and restaurants of all kinds would compete for “the coveted golden latke pan.” She asked me if BAM would agree to host the event, and I thought, why not? It sounded like fun, and the friends of BAM, our group of members, would probably like it, and it seemed original and worthwhile.

Then… the latkes arrived. They literally took over the building. The BAM café hosted about 12 latke stations and there were another 12 in the lobby. For an admission fee of $20, you could buy a ticket and sample as many latkes as you could eat. It was bigger than “The Nutcracker!” Who knew? The audience of latke tasters wrapped around the building. Hundreds of people shivered in the cold, waiting to experience their latke moment.

The choices were mind-blowing. There were latkes with peanut butter and jelly; latkes with short ribs and bacon; latkes piled high with fried rice and Chinese cabbage; curried latkes; latkes with veggies; chocolate latkes; latkes with shrimp, shredded cheese and Tabasco. It was, in a word, overwhelming. And this event was not only a hit with audiences—the donors went crazy! The phone was ringing off the hook for days in advance with donors on the line clamoring for patron tickets and the opportunity to be “first latke responders.”

As the big day grew closer, not only were tickets flying out the door, there was an accompanying media frenzy. The New York Post, for example, couldn’t get enough of The Great Latke Competition. As I recall, they demanded free tickets for an army of latke critics who insisted on covering the event.

It was latke madness. We brought in legions of new patrons who were willing to support BAM in order to gain early latke access. Who knew this could be a successful fundraising strategy?

On the night of the event, my role was to serve as a judge. This, I thought, would be fun—but let’s just say it took its toll. First, the other judges were serious food people. Mimi Sheraton, for example, a renowned food critic and writer, was horrified that I, a lowly arts administrator who had never considered making a latke (or even dinner, for that matter), was a co-judge. I vowed to prove my worth and give each latke my full attention. That was fine for the first five or six tastings, but by the eighth latke, I was suffering physically and mentally. By the 10th latke, a revolting combination of latke, baloney and mustard, I had to hold back the tears. Somehow, I survived, but at the end of the night, I swore to the Gods of Chanukah that I would never eat another latke again.

The winner (I think it was the short ribs, bacon, ketchup and guacamole combo) was thrilled, and held the golden pan in the air for all to see when her name was announced.

I was relieved that it was over. But was it really over? The smell of latkes permeated the entire building for days. And in fact, when the audiences for the “The Nutcracker” lined up at the food concessions during intermission, they shunned the Christmas cookies and festive treats. They inhaled the odor and chanted, “We want latkes. We want them NOW.”

I sighed. It was going to be a very long holiday season.

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