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Four golden brown, shredded potato pancakes frying in a cast iron pan.

Photo by Shoshana Finkel, @kosh_by_shosh

  • The Modern Potato Latke Was Not Inevitable
    The Hanukkah staple has taken many forms over the centuries

    For many Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, Hanukkah would not be complete without inhaling the tantalizing smell of latkes frying in oil. To celebrate the winter Jewish holiday, many families cook and eat large batches of the fried potato pancakes. Latkes, however, are only one iteration of traditional Hanukkah fare.

    The popularity of potatoes is undeniable. Diverse cultures worldwide cherish the potato as a staple and treat. Originally from the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes Mountains, the potato wasn’t incorporated into the Eastern European Jewish diet until the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. Historically, Jews in Central and Southern Europe cooked kaese (cheese) latkes, and Jews in Eastern Europe made latkes from buckwheat or rye flour.

    Black text in Yiddish on white background.
    Recipe for carrot (top) and buttermilk latkes from Ṿegeṭarish-dieṭisher kokhbukh: 400 shpayzn gemakht oysshlishlekh fun grinsn by Fania Lewando, 1938.
    Image courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

    In 1938, Fania Lewando published a cookbook of vegetarian recipes in Vilna (the Hebrew name for Vilnius, capital of Lithuania). She captured the wide range of latke traditions, highlighting variations made with carrots, rice, farina, potatoes, buttermilk, or apples.

    Latkes are tied to Hanukkah because Jewish cultures worldwide eat fried foods to mark the holiday. But why fried? Part of the Hanukkah story celebrates the miraculous nature of a small vessel of oil said to have kept a sacred lamp lit for eight days instead of just one. Many Jewish families light candles each of the eight nights of the holiday in a hanukkiah, or Hanukkah menorah. This special candelabra holds eight candles plus the shamash, used to light the other candles. Building on the theme of oil, many Jews fry foods to eat while basking in candlelight.

    When considering the latke, or any other Jewish food, it is crucial to focus not just on the consumption of dishes but also on the agency of those doing the cooking. After a recipe has been passed down for generations, it may appear fixed. This can be a great quality. It can be meaningful to carry on tradition by cooking in the same manner as one’s family did in years past. However, if one were to go back in time far enough, someone in the lineage had to have been the first to incorporate a new ingredient. Some Jewish cooks, generations ago, had the bright idea to make latkes from the new-to-them potato, in addition to making latkes from root vegetables, grains, or dairy. All the more reason to honor all the cooks—women, most likely—with the skills necessary to coax a meal, even a festive feast, from humble ingredients.

    All steps of the process, from selecting and purchasing ingredients to nourishing a family, are creative opportunities for the savvy home cook. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s free, self-paced, online course on Ashkenazi Jewish foodways highlights, for example, the resourcefulness of Jewish women immigrants in the tenement kitchens of New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. Bustling street markets, as the one depicted below, are an example of a site of active decision-making for home cooks. (Watch food historian Jane Ziegelman delve further into this topic in the YIVO video “Resourcefulness in the Tenement Kitchen.”)

    Black-and-white illustration of a busy street market with bins full of produce. Text below the drawing: Market night in the Jewish Quarter of New York. From a drawing by Durkin.
    “Market Scene” by Durkin, illustrating a street vendor market on Hester Street, Lower East Side, New York City, in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, 1891. RG 120US: Territorial Photographic Collection.
    Image courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

    Latkes are a great example of the thriftiness of home cooks. Transforming scraps of vegetables, bits of cheese, or scoops of hearty flours into special fried foods is a clever way to mark a winter holiday when fall harvests have since passed. (Co-founders of The Gefilteria give further insight into latkes as part of YIVO’s online course. Cook root vegetable latkes along with Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz.)

    While the incorporation of the potato in European diets introduced Jewish home cooks to a new potential ingredient for their latkes, the invention of Crisco in 1911 spurred further cooking options. In Eastern Europe, latkes were historically fried in schmaltz, rendered poultry fat. Observant Jews following the laws of kashrut do not eat meat and dairy products in the same meal, so latkes cooked in schmaltz could only be eaten alongside meat or non-dairy dishes. Crisco is made from vegetable oils and seeds, and thus is parve (neither meat nor dairy). Thanks to this technological change, Jewish cooks had the option of frying and eating latkes in a new way.

    Not only did Crisco certify their products as kosher, but they also produced bilingual English-Yiddish advertisements. As seen in this advertisement from 1949, Crisco specifically marketed to Jews in the United States for cooking “digestible fried foods.”

    Old print advertisement, both Endlish and Yiddish versions, with the headline: Use New Improved Crisco for cakes, pies, fried foods. Three cartoons of people holding up a slice of cake, slice of pie, and a donut.
    Advertisement for Crisco shortening, United States, 1949. In Yiddish and English. RG 131: Advertisements and Menus.
    Image courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

    As a twenty-something in the twenty-first century who loves history and cooking, I reach for my grandmother Sherri Kost’s latke recipe during Hanukkah each year. Following my mother’s advice on how to tweak her mother’s recipe, I usually grate in a few extra potatoes and use vegetable oil instead of shortening. I personally love ground pepper, so I tend to also increase the amount of pepper.

    As access to ingredients and cooking supplies has changed, different generations of Jewish home cooks have taken the broad tradition of eating fried food on Hanukkah and distilled it into new variants that have become beloved traditions in their own rights. And, in varying economic situations, home cooks have been tasked with creatively shopping for and preparing food with limited budgets to produce a special holiday meal. The modern Ashkenazi tradition of potato latkes, perhaps topped with applesauce or sour cream, was not inevitable. There are many foremothers to thank for adopting new-to-them foods and adapting to new circumstances to allow us to bite into hot latkes on Hanukkah.

    This winter, consider the opportunity to learn more about traditional holiday foods. How long has the dish been eaten? Who was responsible for creating it, perfecting it, and passing it down to future generations? How did technological advancements come into play? Food history, one discovers, is not situated outside of world events. Historical changes directly impact the ingredients, techniques, and dishes that may become so ingrained in a culture’s repertoire that they seem fixed and immutable.

    Which gets us thinking: what food-related decisions, impacted by current political, economic, and social environments, could we make this year that may eventually be seen as fixed traditions in the way future generations enjoy their holiday foods?

    Recipe for Potato Latkes handwritten on an index card. A transcript of the recipe is in the text below.
    Photo courtesy of Jane Tuszynski

    Potato Latkes

    Ingredients

    5+ medium potatoes
    2 tablespoons flour
    1 1/2 teaspoons salt
    ¼ teaspoon pepper
    2 tablespoons onion, grated
    4 eggs, beaten until light
    Shortening or vegetable oil

    Preparation

    Peel potatoes and grate. Make four cups. Drain out liquid.

    Add flour, salt, pepper, and onion. Fold the eggs into the batter.

    Melt enough shortening to cover a quarter-inch on bottom of frying pan.

    Drop batter by spoonfuls, press flat. Cook until both sides are browned.

    Jane Tuszynski is the program coordinator of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Her research  at the University of Chicago focused on pressures of assimilation on Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States, specifically in the kitchen.


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