As in all cultures, food is central to Judaism. It’s not entirely custom, of course, as it’s an active component of certain religious rites. Take the Passover seder, which tells the story of Exodus to a unique tastetrack steeped in symbolism and tradition, and the food itself is an integral part of the religious experience.
Then there’s Hanukkah. A holiday in which tradition calls for Jews to eat foods fried in oil. Not any particular kind of food. And not sautéed or drizzled. Just fried. All to commemorate a miracle in which day’s worth of oil lasted eight days at the Second Temple after its liberation by the Maccabean guerilla army.
Would the average American Jew bother to enjoy a latke, much less own a menorah, if Hanukkah didn’t fall on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew (lunar) calendar, roughly coinciding with the Christmas season on the Gregorian calendar? My guess is it would fall somewhere in the collective Jewish experience as Tu Bishvat and the Fast of Tammuz. And you don’t see too many Tu Bishvat guestblogs floating around.
So Hanukkah is indeed, the most major of minor holidays. Who could turn their back on eating fried foods in honor of ancestors kicking serious Seleucid butt? Or betting the last gelt to your name (chocolate or otherwise) on a few spins of the dreidel?
That’s right – total indifference to calorie and fat-gram count, as well as the beloved tradition of gambling is key components of the holiday. And why not? What can pass as vice is commonplace during so many Jewish celebrations. Wine is key to the weekly Shabbat meal and flows during the Passover seder, while drunkenness is commonplace during Purim to the point that it’s a subject of debate. I had my first drink – a fuzzy navel, of all things – at my Bar Mitzvah. (Thanks for sneaking it to me, Dad!). Find the right interpretation and I’m sure you’ll find a holiday that requires painkillers and hookers. So it’s with apologies to my LDL levels and congratulations to the cardiology industry that I eagerly await Hanukkah every year.
The gifts are great, sure. But it’s really the tasty fried foods, and especially latkes, that are the reason for the season.
Growing up, latkes meant mom cutting open a box of Manischewitz or Streits latke mix. I’d eventually have the honor of mixing the powder with a couple of cracked eggs and some water. After some time in the fridge, you’d have a thickened bowl of potatoey goo that I naively thought was what a latke should be made from. Mom would deal with working with the hot oil, but as I got older, I’d be given free rein of the process.
Years later, living on my own and unemployed, I took to cooking more than I had, if only to save money and use my time to pick up some skills. I started picking off recipes in the library of cookbooks I let gather dust (and grease) in my kitchen, and that Hanukkah I figured it was high time to do it right.
And as I learned long ago from my wife and food blogger extraordinaire, once you go scratch you never go back to mix, regardless of the ease involved.
And with latkes, it couldn’t be easier anyway.
When I first started celebrating Christmas with Dianne, I missed traditional New York Jewish Christmas fare: delicious, delicious Chinese food and movie theater popcorn. But thanks to her encouragement, we’ve added my homemade latkes to the Christmas Eve menu, regardless of when Hanukkah falls (this year, the calendar was kind, overlapping the holidays).
Happy holidays, everyone, whatever you may celebrate. And happy eating!
Recipe adapted from The World of Jewish Cooking, by Gil Marks
6 medium Idaho potatoes (about two pounds)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 T. matzo meal
1 t. kosher salt
½ t. pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
Grate the potatoes in a Cuisinart if you have one (and laboriously by hand if not) and place in large bowl of water. I know some cooks lightly salt the water to keep the potatoes from browning, but I’m in the camp of putting a vitamin C tablet or some squeezed lemon juice in the water instead.
Drain the potatoes really, really well, pressing out every last bit of moisture. Return to the bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients. Beat another egg in if you think the mixture isn’t holding together, but be wary of adding any more or you’ll be stuck with a fried potato omelet.
Heat about a half-inch of the oil to 360 degrees on medium-high heat and add a heaping spoonful of the mixture into the oil in batches, and flatten them with the back of your spoon or spatula. Usually you can get three or four latkes frying up at once.
Once you see the edges of the latkes turn to a rich golden brown should you flip (it’ll take about three to five minutes). Cook the other side similarly and drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with kosher salt to taste.
Repeat until you run out of mixture. Make sure to keep the integrity, so to speak, of the latkes as you spoon them out or risk stray pieces of potato hanging around the periphery of the pan and charring.
Serve with applesauce (my choice) or sour cream. My dad used to like it cold with jam.
Makes 16 or so large latkes. Sneak a few away from the pile and stick in the fridge for an awesome cold breakfast the next morning. Get someone else to clean the stove. Thanks, Dianne, for giving me the keys for a day. All my love to you. - Dan