Dishing up Some Hanukkah Soul (Food)

Latkes. Oy, how I love them. What’s not to love? You have my favorite comfort food- potatoes. You have olive oil. And with a little bit of elbow grease (grating said potatoes) you have crispy tender goodness. You don’t have to be Jewish to love the pure genius of latkes. You can be Half- Jewess, Jew-ish (like yours truly), or even Honorary Jewish like Diane Keaton seems to be, slipping in Bubbe and schmata and drek in casual conversation. They say on St. Patrick’s Day that everyone is Irish. Maybe during Hanukkah, everyone is Jewish?

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Chicken soup may be the “Jewish penicillin,” but latkes are the “Jewish soul food.”  And there’s nothing I’m craving more this Hanukkah than a plateful of earthy, humble, pan-fried potato pancakes – warm and crispy on the outside, soft and savory on the inside – shared with friends and loved ones, with a little sour cream on the side.

Latkes are cooked in oil to remind us of a 2000-year-old story of hope, the story of the Maccabees, a plucky band of five brothers turned freedom-fighters, who successfully overthrew an oppressive Greco-Syrian regime, and allowed the Jews to reclaim their land, their faith and their holy Temple in Jerusalem after years of persecution. After cleansing and repairing the Temple, the Maccabees found a tiny flask of oil to light a menorah (ritual lamp) as part of the Temple’s big rededication ceremony. The oil was supposedly only enough to light up the Temple for one day, but it miraculously kept the lamp burning for eight days. Hence, Jews around the world commemorate Hanukkah with eight days of candle lighting and feasting on soul-satisfying foods, such as hearty lentil stew, tender roast brisket, ginger-spiked applesauce and latkes galore – from no-frills potatoto zesty zucchini to the sweet potato pancake. 

Phyllis Glazer of the L.A. Times shares a brief history on the traditional latke and some very non-traditional latke recipes:

The word latke derives from Yiddish, the Jewish language spoken by East European Jews. For Jewish villagers living in Russia or Poland, pickings were slim in winter, and potatoes were cheap and available from the root cellar. Grating and making potatoes into little patties to be fried, millions of Jewish mothers provided sustenance to their hungry children with just a few potatoes and very little fuel…..

 Ms. Glazer also reminds us that it’s the olive oil, not the potato, which is central to the story of Hanukkah. Forego the potatoes all together and try these latke recipes using olives, sweet ricotta, even beets. What’s your favorite spin on the soul-satisfying latke?

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