Holiday catalogs from Seattle's Sur La Table are brimming with photographs of colorful Cuisinart devices that home cooks might hope to find under their Christmas trees. But the iconic Cuisinart food processor played a pivotal role in defining the menu for another winter holiday.
Latkes have been an Ashkenazi standard since the 16th century, when even the poorest shtetl dweller could afford a potato. Although the pancakes were served year-round, they almost always appeared at Hanukkah, when very observant Jews marked the Maccabees' military victory by eating something oily. Latkes, fried in goose fat, were the greasy food of choice.
But the custom was no more widespread than the contemporary practice of buying gifts for Bosses Day. On a calendar crammed with important holidays, Hanukkah is a very minor festival. "Not even the Zionists make a fuss about Chanukah," the American Jewish Chronicle reported in 1916.
What kept Hanukkah from slipping into oblivion was its proximity to Christmas, a holiday that many 20th-century Jews started observing without regard to its religious significance. Troubled by the trend, rabbis tried to lure their congregants away from the Christian holiday by promoting Hanukkah as an equally enjoyable celebration.
Since Christmas came with roasted turkey and plum puddings, Hanukkah needed its own special foods too. In The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950, Jenna Weissman Joselit quotes 1940s recipes for "menorah fruit salad" and egg salad sandwiches trimmed to resemble Hanukkah heroes.
Celebrants were also urged to make latkes, a chore which required long sessions of knuckle-skinning potato-grating. American Jews might well have stuck with the egg salad sandwiches had Cuisinart not introduced its food processor in 1973.
Although food processors were available as early as the 1940s, Cuisinart offered the first U.S.-made version of the device. According to company spokesperson Mary Rodgers, Cuisinart has never "specifically marketed the food processor as a latke solution." But word soon spread through temple sisterhood circles that the processor was a Hanukkah miracle machine.
"With a food processor, you can ply your family with latkes for each of the eight nights of the holiday," Florence Fabricant promised her readers in 1977. "The machine grates the potatoes in a twinkling. They do not even require peeling."
While barnstorming for her 1980 cookbook, The Pleasures of Your Food Processor, Canadian Norene Gilletz showed thousands of Jewish women how they could use the right shredding disc to simplify latke preparation. Gilletz's ring-bound book - now considered a classic of kosher cookery - helped solidify the relationship between Cuisinart and Hanukkah. "Gilletz is passionate about the Cuisinart food processor," Rogers says.
So are most latke makers. While a few purists still rely on box graters, the vast majority of latke mavens believe "the Cuisinart (is) a godsend," as Alex Witchel wrote in a 2006 New York Times column recalling how her grandmothers' potatoes turned pink and gray because they oxidized before the tedious task of hand-grating was completed.
Every Hanukkah season brings a wave of haute latke recipes made with sweet potatoes, zucchini, spinach and a variety of other non-traditional vegetables. But almost every latke recipe now starts the same way: "Using a food processor..."