A Taste of History

A contestant in Eddie’s Latke Showdown focuses hard on crafting the perfect latke (potato pancake).

Where do you think one of the most successful Jewish grocers in the history of Baltimore gets her latkes?

From a recipe in a foreign language on a torn and smudged sheet of paper that her bubbe brought over from the Old Country? Maybe a best friend from long-ago summer camp?

Nope — it’s 5779, who has time to cook?

“I get my latke from Eddie’s,” said Nancy Cohen, smiling. She is the owner of Eddie’s of Roland Park, established in 1944 along a gilded thoroughfare in North Baltimore by her father, a young immigrant from Kiev named Victor Cohen who arrived here just about the time of his bar mitzvah.

It was Eddie’s latkes — freshly grated potato frying in hot pans over blue flame — that perfumed the Jewish Museum of Maryland on the evening of Sept. 19, a bit of theater highlighting the 75th anniversary of
the enterprise.

Billed as “Eddie’s Latke Showdown,” the cook-off between three of the market’s chefs (none of them Jewish, none brought up on the delicacy, and all of them pros) was staged to promote the current exhibit at the Lloyd Street museum detailing the history of Eddie’s.

“The perfect latke is very light and crisp with plenty of onion,” said Chicago-born Marvin Pinkert, JMM’s executive director, watching as contestants Mike Balcer, Patsy Brocato and Marie Russell stood by their un-peeled potatoes, raw eggs, graters and other tools of the trade at a table in the museum lobby.

When asked who made the best latkes he’d ever had, Pinkert gave the presumptive Jewish answer: “My mother.”

Nancy Cohen, who grew up on Ivy Lane in Pikesville, near Druid Ridge Cemetery, responded with the flip side of that coin: “My mother didn’t cook.”

While the young Marvin Pinkert liked his latke topped with applesauce while his father preferred sour cream, it’s a stretch that either of them would have cottoned to the latkes that bake-off judge Salle Carter — an Irish-Catholic from New Jersey long-time local — makes every year with a Jewish friend.

“Our favorite recipe is zucchini and carrot — no potato,” said Carter, who shops at the Eddie’s just over the city line on North Charles Street, opened by Nancy Cohen in 1992.

No potato? Such a shande!

The trophy awarded after two rounds of competition regrettably did not feature a frying pan. In the first round, only traditional latke were judged. A free-form recipe followed with “secret ingredients” foisted on the chefs. including hazelnut butter and olive tapenade.

The top three contestants pose with their trophies.

The winner was Marie Russell. Russell’s method is to use an ice cream scoop to plop the batter in the skillet before flattening it with a spatula.

The lacy “lattice work” that connoisseurs crave is the result “of how you shred the potato and lay it in the pan,” she shared.

The Man Behind the Store — and the Daughter Out Front Today

But just who was this eponymous Eddie, who inspired not just a night of flipping and frying latkes but a museum exhibit celebrating “Baltimore’s Local Grocer”?

Edward A. Levy, who died in 1964, was an old-school Baltimore “buyer” and advertising man who founded the now-gone Eddie’s Supermarket chain, known by its logo of a stork carrying groceries in a blanket instead of an infant.

The exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland includes archival photos and a timeline of Victor Cohen’s life’s journey.

At one time, more than two dozen local markets from Park Heights to Lansdowne bore the Eddie’s name — but there’s only one Eddie’s of Roland Park.

Victor Cohen was part of a citywide business cooperative with Levy, a sharp dressed man who lived in a mansion overlooking Lake Ashburton and started his first store in Sparrows Point just before the Depression.

Generations knew and appreciated “Mister Victor,” the self-made man who gave kids oatmeal cookies. Nancy — long active in Jewish affairs like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — has now steered the ship for more than half her life. And sons Michael and Andrew are the fresh faces of an old favorite.

In a typical year, Eddie’s will make and sell on-site more than 400 gallons of matzah ball soup, nearly a ton of homemade croutons from a small oven on Roland Avenue and — particularly during the Jewish
holiday season — over 6,000 latkes.

Celebrating with good food, family and friends.

The narrative on display at the JMM traces the journey of Victor Cohen — whose father, a lumberman, lost everything in the Russian Revolution — from high school delivery boy at a pre-World War II A&P in Northwest Baltimore to the apex of his career and retirement.

“My father was an incredibly gregarious man,” said Nancy, who is a lifetime congregant of Chizuk Amuno and graduated with Pikesville High’s Class of ’67. “He could walk into a party not knowing a soul and leave knowing everybody.”

Victor Cohen did not groom his daughter for the family business; her parents, said Nancy, were not the kind to push their child into this or that direction, whether music or medical school.

Dad was happy to ride bikes with her, throw a football around and take the apple of his eye to carnivals. He certainly didn’t imagine that his daughter would one day grow the business into a Baltimore landmark
employing more than 250 people.

“When I was in my late 20s I was gently nudged into it by my cousins,” said Nancy. “‘You’re the only one,’ they told me. ‘If you don’t take over, what’s going to happen?’”

So, what happens now?

The success of North Charles Street had led to many queries about further expansion; but if there are plans, they don’t seem to be imminent.

“I’m backing off a little bit,” smiled Cohen, secure in the knowledge that her boys — the Schaffer brothers, Michael, 35, and Andrew, 32 — will do their best to take grandfather’s dream to its centennial and beyond.

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