When I married into a Jewish family a dozen years ago, I quickly learned that debate would be the pre-eminent mode of communication, applied to everything from the highest Talmudic scholarship to the simplest holiday foods: latkes. Lacy-edged and onion-scented, these potato pancakes are fried in shimmering oil by Ashkenazi Jews to celebrate Hanukkah each year.
The recipe is easy enough: potato and onion bound together with egg and some kind of starch, from the eminently literal (potato starch) to the iconic (matzah meal) to the gastronomic (self-rising flour). Or no starch at all. As Claudia Roden, my favourite Jewish culinary historian, observes in The Book of Jewish Food, potato flour makes them “easier to handle but not quite as lovely to eat.”
Such a simple ingredients list. And yet there are as many variations on latkes as there are Jewish mothers. Perhaps the only thing latke lovers can agree on is that “the best are always homemade,” says David Sax, author of Save the Deli.
The latke debate is even formalized in competitions. A major one in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 19, will be judged by some heavyweights of the food world, including former New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton. In Toronto, I know families who hold Latke-palloozas each December, pitting cousins against each other to vie for the title of best short-order cook. Just a few weeks ago, the University of Chicago held its annual latke-hamantash symposium, bringing some of the United States’ best academic minds for a mock debate.
Latkes are served up during the eight candlelit evenings of Hanukkah to celebrate the miracle of the oil, when Judah Maccabee vanquished the oppressive King Antiochus in 165 BC only to discover the Temple had been desecrated by pagan rituals. All but one oil vessel had been polluted. That cruse contained only enough oil to burn for one day, and yet miraculously it lasted for eight.
While Talmudic scholars might debate why or how the holy oil lasted so long, Jewish cooks are more likely to debate the relative merits of their preferred oil for frying. Olive oil is what the ancients might have used to fry latkes, had they had access to potatoes, but potatoes were unknown outside South America until the 16th century. When they did come into vogue in Europe (after a stroke of marketing genius that involved a German king placing sentries to “guard” the royal potato patch, to motivate peasants to steal them), they were probably fried by Ashkenazi Jews in goose fat.
I have fried mine in duck fat and even peanut oil (both to delicious effect), but since this is prohibitively expensive when you are expecting 60 guests, I generally resort to whatever vegetable oil is half-decent and on sale. I’ve also learned that a good food processor for grating the potatoes is worth every penny – I have broken several machines while preparing for our annual party.
As with most traditional foods, mothers are the final arbiters of taste; even the experts defer to their mothers when making latkes. Gabriella Gershenson, a senior editor at Saveur magazine, prepares her potato batter in the blender. “It seems like a pretty unusual technique, but it's how I always ate them,” Ms. Gershenson says. “It makes for a tender, greaseless latke with lacy edges.”
My own pancakes are lacy and greaseless, too, but gravitate more to the crispy. I like to think I have an advantage as a newer convert to the latke-frying tradition; I don’t have a Jewish mother I am expected to emulate. (My mother-in-law is too discreet to comment on my Jewish food-making abilities and, anyway, she spends her winters in Tel Aviv.) Like many New World mongrels unmoored from Old World traditions, I can make potato pancakes however I want. Years of tinkering with the formula have paid off – many Jewish friends and families now ask me for the recipe. But the truth is once you get the oil temperature right – too low and the pancakes will be greasy, too high and the oil will smoke and set off alarm bells – they are always delicious when turned piping hot out of the pan. The only no-no is making them ahead of time, which is as successful as preparing French fries hours in advance and reheating them. They aren’t half as good.
You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy latkes – nothing is more ecumenical than the love of fried foods – but at our house you do have to be willing to pitch in because four burners of frying latkes is way too much work for one person. It’s chaotic. But that is what I like best about our annual latke party: the fire alarm ringing on and off, children roaming around the house like packs of wolves, and guests of all religious stripes devouring fried pancakes that are made with love and will wait for no one.
Special to the Globe and Mail