Simanaitis Says

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WE ALL HAVE immigrant ancestors. In the long term of the Bering Strait, Native Americans have them too. In this celebration of immigrant ancestors, I offer tidbits on one of my favorite cookbooks: Jeff Smith’s The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors.

The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors, by Jeff Smith, William Morris & Company, 1990.

Jeff’s book is subtitled, “Recipes you should have gotten from your grandmother.” I never knew my paternal Lithuanian-American grandmother, but I knew my maternal Polish-American grandmother well. Indeed, she was a participant in my youthful adventure with “Tonto, Train Rails, and Disillusion.”

She also was the chief (and chef) scrubber, peeler, grater, mixer, and fryer in her grandkids’ blini-eating contests. These were hotly contested among my cousins and me, and probably one reason I was comfortable, years later, to marry into a family, Wife Dottie’s, that worships the potato. Sort of like others worship oak trees or the sun. 

Jeff’s recipe for Polish potato pancakes is something of an editorial copout: “Use the recipe for Russian Potato Pancakes (page 418) but add a bit of grated onion.”

My grandmother called these “blinis,” though Jeff begs to differ with his blini recipe as more complicated pancakes with a host of ingredients, 11 of them including buckwheat flour, and no potatoes whatsoever. 

No, I’ll stick with Grandma’s name, blinis, and Jeff’s recipe for Russian Potato Pancakes er… Polish ones once the necessary grated onion is included.

This and the following images from The Frugal Gourmet. Add one onion, grated.

I eschew (a good word, eh?) Jeff’s jazz about additional grinding. Grandma used and I continue with the coarsest side of the grater and—important, squeeze out as much of the moisture before mixing the grated potato with the egg, onion, flour, salt, pepper, and oil. 

By the way, Jeff’s flour hint shows his purist approach to cooking: “To measure flour,” he says, “ simply scoop the metal measuring cup to overflowing in the flour and then tap on the edges of the cup with a table knife. This is to remove excess air and bubbles. Level off the cup with the back of the table knife and go on with the recipe.” 

I confess to being perhaps less accurate with the amount of flour. Also, my grated onion is “to taste.” It depends on the size of the onion I happen to select.

Grandma’s (and my) blinis are crispy, not as thin as Jeff’s, with a more coarse interior. (I detest the box-mix “latkes” that taste like nothing more than mashed-potato pancakes.)

Historical Aperitifs. Jeff’s 35 groupings of immigrant recipes, Armenian… to Lithuanian… to Polish… to Yugoslavian, each has a 2-3-page essay on its country.

Images from The Frugal Gourmet. Above, a Lithuanian young lady. Below, a Lithuanian woman with a colorful shawl, Ellis Island, 1926.

Describing the other side of my family tree, Jeff writes,“Modern history is so strange. Two years ago [i.e., 1988], if you mentioned Lithuania, the average American would have displayed a very hazy knowledge. Today if you bring up the subject, the average American will start talking about the morning news and the courageous efforts of the Lithuanian people to declare their independence from the Soviets.”

And, of course, these days, we read about Lithuania being a haven for those contesting the authoritarians of Belarus. I must try Jeff’s Lithuanian Kugelis Potato Pudding: bacon, potatoes, onion, and butter. 

What’s not to like? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021


  1. jlalbrecht
    September 10, 2021

    My Czech wife makes Bramboráky, which is the Czech version of potato pancakes. No egg required, so they are vegan. She often grinds a bit of zucchini in to make them healthier (and the green color looks cool). Delicious but with that much oil not something you should eat every day!

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