Hanukkah (or Chanukah or Chanuqa or Xanuka—the spelling options are endless!) is far and away the best-known Jewish holiday in America. Passover is its closest rival, but only Hanukkah gets the Hallmark movie treatment, which presents it as analogous with Christmas, with twinkling lights and gift-giving and snow.
As every Jewish American child who ever attended Hebrew school will tell you, actually Hanukkah is a very minor festival and it’s only blown up in the past century or so because Jewish American parents didn’t want their children to feel left out during the Christmas season. The story behind Hanukkah is the standard “they tried to kill us, we’re alive!, let’s eat” narrative that applies to so many Jewish holidays (someone actually made a chart). The food at Hanukkah is especially good because the story involves oil—the eternal flame in the temple miraculously burned for eight days, even though there was enough oil for just one—so we are obligated to eat food that has been fried in oil. (Also, as Gil Marks notes in The Encyclopedia Of Jewish Food, the Judean olive oil harvest traditionally concluded on the 25th of Kislev, which became the first day of Hanukkah on the Jewish calendar.) What a hardship! Here in America, that fried food generally takes the form of potato pancakes called latkes.
Why do we eat potato pancakes? The short answer is the same as for so many foods American Jews eat: for most of us, our ancestors lived in Eastern Europe and were poor as hell. Potatoes are cheap. So are onions. In Ye Olden Days in the Old Country, nobody had olive oil or Crisco or even butter. They fried their latkes in schmaltz, or chicken fat. (Some food scholars suggest that latkes were originally fried in goose fat and were eaten in early winter to correspond with the seasonal goose slaughter.) However, Marks points out that potatoes didn’t reach Eastern Europe until the mid-19th century. Before then, Jews ate pancakes made out of buckwheat flour, similar to Russian blini. Once the Jews embraced potatoes, though, they held fast, because there are few things in life better than fried potatoes. The crowning touch on any latke is said to be the drops of blood from when the person preparing them scrapes her knuckles on the potato grater. (Or so my father said of the latkes prepared by his grandmother, a true woman of valor. The first year I made my own latkes, I grated them by hand. There was blood. The next year, I bought a food processor. I detected no difference in flavor.)
The pancake tradition, however, is much older than potato latkes. Originally, according to the great Jewish-American food maven Joan Nathan, Jews ate pancakes made of flour and water because that’s what the Jewish warriors, the Maccabees, ate before they went into battle against the Greeks. They were fried in oil to commemorate the miracle.
In the Middle Ages, though, in Italy, the Hanukkah story got conflated with another story, the story of Judith, a brave Jewish widow, who slew the evil Assyrian general Holofernes, whose army was holding her city, Bethulia, under siege. She did this by visiting his tent and seducing him with lots of cheese, which made him thirsty. Then she gave him lots of wine so he passed out. Whereupon she chopped off his head, stuck it in her basket, and carried it out to the other Jews who proudly displayed it on the city wall and scared off the rest of the Assyrians (and later inspired some truly badass Renaissance art). Therefore, the Italian Jews felt they should eat cheese in celebration—ricotta, because this was Italy—and they fried it in oil because Hanukkah miracle. Even though it came from a completely different story, from a completely different century. Syrians, Assyrians, Judah, Judith, it all blended together. Maybe Judah and Judith were brother and sister? Or nephew and aunt! Who cared? There were fried cheese pancakes, which tasted a hell of a lot better than flour and water!
(In an essay in The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum theorizes that the source of the confusion came from the fact that neither the story of the Maccabees nor the story of Judith appears in the Jewish Bible—they’re both included in the Apocrypha. But once the Jews got wind of the story of Judith and mixed her up with Judah Maccabee, they adopted it as part of the Hanukkah tradition, because, after all, it involved their people.)
Jews at various times and places have adapted the ingredients and tools that come to hand for their latkes; talk to a Jew who doesn’t have Eastern European roots and they may have never had a potato latke. Leah Koenig has assembled a variety in her great Jewish Cookbook: cheese from medieval Italy and potato from 19th-century Eastern Europe, of course, but also spinach from the Mediterranean, curried sweet potato from modern America, meat and herb from Syria, chard from North Africa, rice from contemporary Italy, and chicken (or fish), scallion, and ginger from India. My sister’s ex-in-laws made their own variation from squash, which they called squashkes. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen recommends topping them with a crispy fried egg or taking them on a spin through the waffle iron. Recently, Joan Nathan has been singing the praises of mashed rather than grated potatoes, and I once made a variation that blended the potatoes with salted cod. A few years ago, Bon Appetit, in an act of total apostasy, recommended serving them with bacon. Pig bacon, not turkey bacon.
Over the past few days, in anticipation of writing this story and also inspired by a few threads of Jewish Twitter, including this one, I’ve been thinking about the great irony of how latkes have assimilated into the cultures they’re cooked in when the story of Hanukkah celebrates Jews who fought against assimilation. Because while the Maccabees were staunch traditionalists, there were plenty of Jews who were not: Jews who went to Greek schools and gymnasia, Jewish priests with Greek names like Jason. It’s been suggested by some scholars that the war against the Syrians was actually the result of King Antiochus intervening in a civil war in Judea between the traditionalists and the assimilationists. Part of me kind of hates the Maccabees because they represent the religious zealots I normally despise. (On the other hand, scholars also say that Antiochus’ “reforms” were actually pretty brutal and were intended to exterminate Judaism altogether.)
But—and this is the most important part—no matter what we eat on Hanukkah, it’s still a sign that we’ve only assimilated to a point. We still celebrate Hanukkah. In the past few years, some people have asked me why I don’t just celebrate Christmas since, at least the way it’s celebrated in modern America, it doesn’t have much to do with Christ. The timing is based on ancient solstice rituals. The tree comes from European pagans. Santa is a Victorian invention to delight children (and perhaps encourage good behavior).
The origins of Hanukkah, I must admit, are nearly as suspect. I mean, just look at how Judith got into the whole thing. Could the timing of the Maccabean victory been tweaked just a bit to coincide not just with the olive harvest but also the darkest part of winter, when we need light the most? Possibly. Still, it’s ours.
Maybe the wisest—and kindest—thing I’ve read about assimilation and Hanukkah comes from commenter Ryuthrowsstuff on a Takeout article from last Hanukkah.
But Hanukkah didn’t have a lot of universal traditions to itself to begin with. There’s the Menorah, there’s prayer and traditional stories, dreidels and gelt. And there’s mother fucking fried food. But if you think about it everything else about Hanukkah isn’t compromising traditions. Its this astounding act of cultural creation. An active attempt to bind together a community, and assert a cultural identity at the exact time where the majority is most thrown in your face.
The Maccabees went to war. Today we eat fried potatoes. Sometimes history works itself out in interesting ways.
This is the recipe used by my maternal great-grandmother. She, too, was a woman of valor, but she also valued her knuckles and delighted in finding a kitchen shortcut whenever she could. I have tried other latke methods that guarantee perfect crispness, but this recipe always beats them, hands down.
Makes enough to feed 4 people.
- 3 medium potatoes
- 2 eggs
- 1 small onion
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 Tbsp. flour
Mix all in blender and fry in oil.
There’s no need to shred the potatoes, but you should probably cut them into smaller pieces before you put them in the blender. My family has followed in Grandma Dora’s footsteps and adopted better technology as it becomes available, so we now use a food processor.
Heat a thin film of oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat before you add the potato mixture. Fry them a minute or two on each side; check underneath to make sure they’re golden before you flip. If your latkes start to burn, turn down the heat. You will probably need to add more oil as you fry more latkes.
You can make your latkes any size you like. My mother usually uses two tablespoons or so, because smaller latkes are crispier.
Drain latkes on a paper towel and keep warm in a 200-degree Fahrenheit oven.