Photo: Russ & Daughters, Lower East Side, New York City
So what actually makes a potato pancake a latke? To us, American Jews, it is more than a pancake that we make from potatoes—it is a pancake imbued with symbolism, a pancake layered with the flavor of both tradition and history. Latkes, so central to the celebration of Hanukah (which began this year last night on Sunday evening, December 6th), have a multi-faceted origin, one not necessarily rooted in Hanukkah cuisine.
Hanukkah commemorates, and in fact celebrates, the triumph of the Maccabees over the capture of the Israelites by the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus in 168 BC, who had plundered and defiled the holiest site of the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem. The term “Maccabees” derives from an acrostic of the Hebrew “Mi Kamocha B’Elim Adonai” (Who among the mighty is like you, God?).
After the battle, the Maccabees purged the temple of idols and, finding a small amount of purified olive oil, lit the golden menorah. The oil, ostensibly enough to burn for just one day, lasted for eight days. According to tradition, this was a miracle. To commemorate the Miracle of the Oil, Jews throughout the world eat foods fried in oil on Hanukkah.
Over the centuries, a spectrum of recipes has been developed using local ingredients reflective of local cuisines. Jews living in Mediterranean countries or in the Middle East had freshly-pressed olive oil available to fry their holiday foods, which coincided with the end of the olive-pressing season. Greek, North African and Turkish Jews also developed several kinds of olive oil-fried dough-based desserts.
Food historian Gil Marks credits the origin of latkes to somewhat modern times: “The Maccabees never saw a potato, much less a potato pancake.” Potatoes were brought from South America to Europe, where they were slow to be adopted as a food into the various cuisines. According to Marks, the concept of a pancake began with Italy, where Italian Jews fried pancakes in olive oil. They were later associated with Hanukkah by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus in the thirteenth century. Pancakes at the time were ricotta cheese-based. After the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily in 1492, the pancake travelled to other locales, and, along the way, became firmly associated with Hanukkah because of its successful combination of two traditional food types—dairy and fried. Because of the reluctance to fry cheese in the traditional animal fat and, during winter months the scarcity of milk products in northeastern Europe, substitutions for the cheese were made. Most involved local grains. In the meantime, the potato was slowly gaining in popularity and reach. Eventually, the potato became incorporated into German cooking and, later, after crop failures in Eastern Europe in the early 1800’s, into the local cooking of that region.
The word “latke” is Yiddish in derivation, a German-based language fused with Hebrew and Aramaic, oft-spoken by East European Jews. For the Jews of the shtetl villages in Eastern European countries such as Russia and Poland, potatoes comprised the most abundant of crops. Grating and frying the potatoes, often in chicken fat (schmaltz) was the culinary vernacular. According to Tel Aviv-based food writer Phyllis Glazer, who researched the word “latke,” certain sources “claim it derives from the Old Russian oladka, and is a diminutive of olad’ya, from Greek eladia, the plural of eladion, which means ‘a little oily thing’ and comes from elaia, which means ‘olive’.”
Let’s face it, everyone has their own recipe, idea or version of what a latke should be. Family history and food traditions come into play here. Latkes can take form from coarsely or finely grated potatoes. Flour or matzah meal can be the binding agent. As creativity prevails, latkes can be made from potatoes with a bit of onion, or may take form from sweet potatoes, beets, carrots or even zucchini and feta cheese.
It is the method of cooking, the frying in oil, that renders a latke a latke!