You don’t have to make latkes the same way every time… once you try the recipes in this pdf, you’ll wish Chanukah was longer than eight days. Here is some food history for you. When we think of latkes, we are immersed in the romantic tradition of this hot, crispy, delicious, oily potato pancake topped with various delicacies. We easily relate the oil to the miracle of the lighting of the Temple Menorah. Olive oil was used to light the lamps in the seven branched Menorah in the room next the Holy of Holies, and the miracle of one remaining daily portion of that precious oil lasting 8 nights is the Story of Chanukah. When we think of Chanukkah we also think of cheese and dairy products to honor Judith, whose story is told in the Book of Judith. It was she who cleverly seduced the general of an invading army, General Holofernes, and plied him with alcohol and salty cheese, and while he slumbered, cut off his head. Then she snuck the general’s head and herself out of the enemy camp and had it displayed on the town wall to the horror of the invading army, who fled at that sight!
Now, latke is an eastern European Yiddish name for what was really a standard peasant fried pancake that up to the 19th century were buckwheat or rye pancakes fried in schmalz or butter. (Did you know that the Eastern Europeans did not fry in olive oil because it wasn’t readily or cheaply available? That didn’t stop them from repurposing those fried pancakes to the crispy, oily latkes which symbolized Hannukkah.) Around the 1800s, potatoes became widely cultivated and more available in eastern Europe. Because they were cheaper, plentiful and easier to store, they replaced the grains for the makings of latke pancakes; and that is how latkes became potato latkes.
Actually using fried pancakes as a tradition for celebrating Hannuka started much earlier, in the fourteenth century, in Italy. Then it was fried pancakes made of cheese, deep fried ricotta, using available oils (oh yes, including olive oil) to fry this sumptuous treat. This tradition honored the custom of celebrating the holiday by consuming dairy goods (oily, dairy goods). The dairy food custom was to honor the story of Judith (see above), also a tradition celebrated during Hannukah. Thus these cheese pancakes were the first noted fried pancakes used in celebrating Hanukka, (however, they were not called cheese latkes until later).
Of course, we now know that the story of Judith didn’t happen during the Hasmonean period. We also know that Judith was not related to the Judah Maccabees family; only the names are close, just a coincidence. Some of the scholars do believe, however, that the Book of Judith was composed during the Hasmonean period. Regardless of all these truths, this did not stop the 14th century Medieval Jews incorporating this story with the Hanukkah story. So in the 14th century, the tradition of making fried cheese pancakes and other dairy dishes became part of the holiday season.
Now, by definition a myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths. The fundamental role of latkes and cheese is to symbolize the miracle of the lights and the cleverness of Judith during the Hanuka season which is usually in the beginning of the darker, colder months of the year. Let’s salute the romantic tradition of eating delicious, fried, oily potato latkes topped with sour cream and applesause, or make ricotta or other cheese latkes to make our Hanukah Season warm in our tummies and our thoughts.
Be happy and healthy during this upcoming season.
PS-how many ways can you spell Channukkah?
My sources for the above information:
Matzah brei, from the Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1st edition (August 25, 2010). ISBN-13: 978-0470391303
Everything You Know About latkes Is Wrong.The shocking true story of a Hanukkah staple. By Yoni Appelbaum. TheAtlantic.com. December 11, 2015
The Best Potato latkes Recipe Ever. By Carol Ruth Weber. Newyork.cbslocal.com. November 28, 2012