Last night was the first night of Hannukah. Seven more nights remain for this Festival of Lights. And of course, lakes are among the most nostalgic treats this time of year. As part of my ongoing holiday partnership with @wholefoodssantacruz, today I am flipping around the many historical bits of the latke.
To myself and many others, the key piece of symbolism for the latke is not the potato pancake itself—rather the story revolves around the oil it is fried in. The word Hanukkah literally means “commemoration,” and this holiday of eight days and nights commemorates a miraculous lighting of a Menorah (a seven-branch candelabra) on one night's supply of oil that lasted for 8 days. And since oil is what the holiday’s story is lit from, frying yummy potato pancakes in oil seems like a natural way to celebrate, right?
At least, that's the traditional story of “why latkes”—but as you start peel this back even further, you see even more complexities to this tradition. First, the potato itself comes into question. The Andean tuber is a much more recent import into Europe and the Middle East. Some sources say the original latkes would have been made out of barley and rye, which makes sense for any latkes before the late 16th century.
But according to The Atlantic, fried ricotta cheese pancakes belong in this story too. It is possible that was the original latke also referred back to the story of Judith and Holofernes. And if you're an art history buff like me, you immediately think of the gruesome Caravaggio version. The Klimt version is much more subtle and palatable, since we are talking about food. One ancient version of this tale includes pancakes: Judith takes pancakes to Holofernes just as Tamar took pancakes to Amnon. And this source cites that pancake being made of cheese, and cheese being a Hannukah mainstay, as well.
So regardless of the twists and turns in this story—and despite us flipping our own heads on the many complexities of the tale—the latke is a Festival of Lights mainstay.
And you can enjoy the wonderful potato leek version pictured here from Whole Foods this Hannukah. Happy hot oil flipping!