Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Hanukkah!

Them's some good thin-'n'-crispy Joltin' Django latkes (seasoned with my Hanukkah salt shaker).

More 'bout the Festival of Lights, from

It took Hanukkah celebrants more than 2,000 years to hit upon the dish that's now considered the quintessential holiday food.

Potato latkes, as inextricably linked to the wintertime festival as dreidels, menorahs and chocolate gelt, are such a relatively recent addition to the Hanukkah canon that food writer Mimi Sheraton -- who grew up in a Jewish family in Flatbush -- was 30 years old before she realized the oily pancakes were connected to the holiday.

"Though my family observed that holiday with the weeklong lighting of the silver candelabra ... I never knew those marvelously crisp, hot, onion-scented latkes had anything whatsoever to do with the celebration," Sheraton wrote in 1981.

For many years, they didn't. While food plays a ritual role in many Jewish holidays, the only edible tradition associated with Hanukkah was the rather loosey-goosey custom of eating something with oil in it.

The practice -- intended to commemorate the miracle at the heart of the Hanukkah story, in which one day's worth of oil burned for eight days -- was variously interpreted by Jewish communities across the globe: Jews in Greece celebrated with loukoumades, little orbs of deep-fried dough soaked in honey; Jews in Spain made yeasty bunuelos; Jews in Russia ate buckwheat pancakes and Jews in the Middle East enjoyed fried jelly doughnuts.

When a New York Times reporter interviewed a Tangiers native about Hanukkah traditions in 1959, he discovered "the nearest she could come to remembering specifically the foods served was to describe a pastry that was something like a fried doughnut, dipped in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon."

To the reporter's evident exasperation, his other sources provided similarly unsatisfying insights: "Several persons, asked what they remembered about the foods they ate for Hanukkah when they were young, had only the haziest recollections," he wrote.

The collective culinary obliviousness that took hold of Sheraton and the unnamed Moroccan immigrant was probably rooted in Hanukkah's official status as a very, very minor festival. Long observed by only the most devout Jews, Hanukkah is the religious equivalent of Flag Day.

"Not even the Zionists make a fuss about Chanukah," the American Jewish Chronicle confirmed in 1916, in a passage quoted by Jenna Weissman Joselit in her definitive "The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950."

Hanukkah might have slipped off the modern Jewish calendar entirely were it not for a lucky stroke of timing. Although Hanukkah's starting date moves with the moon, it almost always falls in December, when most Americans are fixated on Christmas. Eager to lure their congregants away from the Christian holiday, rabbis in the early 1900s began touting Hanukkah's charms.

Since no holiday celebration is complete without treats, Jewish homemakers scrambled to create dishes that might conceivably compete with roast turkeys, plum puddings and mincemeat pies. Joselit quotes from 1941's "The Jewish Home Beautiful," which included recipes for egg salad sandwiches trimmed to resemble Maccabean fighters and "menorah fruit salad," a molded cream-concoction shaped like the holiday's signature candelabra.

But mostly they made latkes, a fixture of Ashkenazi cookery since the 16th century, when potatoes first appeared in Eastern Europe. Potatoes were so plentiful in the Pale of Settlement that when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov's family couldn't afford a menorah, his father "cut a hole in a potato, and poured the oil into the potato," he told the Times in 1977. Eastern European Jews ate potato pancakes year-round, but the delicacy -- typically fried in schmaltz, or goose fat -- almost always surfaced around Hanukkah. American Jews seized on the practice, making latkes a compulsory component of holiday celebrations by the 1950s.

By 1958, Los Angeles' Montebello Jewish Educational Center had begun throwing an annual latke party, featuring songs and dances from "The Nutcracker" and "a traditional meal of potato pancakes and all the trimmings."

The "trimmings" probably weren't as fancy as the Los Angeles Times implied -- latkes are typically accompanied by just two condiments: applesauce and sour cream. Among eaters who made their first super-greasy latkes as children under the tutelage of a patient Hebrew School teacher, serving potato pancakes with ketchup is still considered as uncouth as smearing mayonnaise on white bread.

But the conservatism that clings to latke condiment selection doesn't seem to extend to the latke recipe itself, which has been updated and tweaked thousands of times over the last half-century. Jewish publications have taught their readers to make spinach, eggplant and ricotta cheese latkes (a dairy variation that harkens back to the pre-potato Diaspora.)

Yet the single greatest innovation in the latke's short holiday history occurred in 1973, when Cuisinart introduced the first food processor for home use.

"Lately, knuckles skinned on the grater are no longer the battle scars of the devoted latke maker," Florence Fabricant crowed in 1977. "With a food processor, you can ply your family with latkes for each of the eight nights of the holiday. The machine grates the potatoes in a twinkling. They do not even require peeling."

Armed with their tater-grating machines, Jewish-American cooks churned out latkes at an unprecedented pace, solidifying forevermore the brand new bond between Hanukkah and a plateful of oil-drenched potato pancakes.


Capote said...

Will will Pat Buchanan approve of you doing good to the Jews, on a Jewish Holiday?

Joltin' Django said...

"Will will Pat Buchanan approve of you doing good to the Jews, on a Jewish Holiday?"

Not sure what the **** that's supposed to mean. Once upon a time I was driven through Washington, DC, by Pat Buchanan (no shit), and the subject of Jewish holidays never came up.