Is Chanukah Food Any Good?


Chag Sameach! Chanukah starts on Saturday night, giving Hanna Raskin and Dan Person the chance to debate the merits of Chanukah food in this installment of Tabletop Wrestling.

Dan Person is chrazy about Chanukah cooking.

Full disclosure. I like Jews. Can't get enough of them.

It's in my blood. My aunt, a former nun, married a Jew. So did my sister. She was never a nun, but now I have a niece whose middle name is Yael. My buddy growing up had the first Bar Mitzvah in our town in, like, 50 years. The newspaper put him on the front page. Just for having a Bar Mitzvah. I read Chaim Potok on the bus to bait Jews into talking to me. And it works.


So maybe it's my inborn Hebrew-philia coming out when I write: latkes! Did somebody say latkes?!

I mean, shredded potatoes fried in oil? I was ordering Chanukah food off of the breakfast menu at McDonald's before I even knew it was Chanukah food.

I know, not really, but I can't imagine what harm having a few latkes on a plate around the office could do. It's not like Christians forgo the fat when putting together a Christmas feast. One sect, the "Lutherans," melts marshmallows over casseroles. Then there are sugar cookies, which have the starch and fat of latkes, but up the ante with a few pints of diabetes.

In this context, latkes just add to the global health crisis that is America's holiday cornucopia. We're going to be eating oil anyway. Might as well learn about an obscure battle in the meantime.

Granted, entire meals can't be built around the latke or the jelly doughnut. But this speaks more to the issue of Chanukah inflation than latke inadequacy. Were Chanukah put into proper context, it would be minor celebration marked by small but delightful, ahem, "gut bomb."

And small pleasures can be the finest pleasures. So pour me some Manischewitz, fetch me my Potok and I'll happily curl up with a plate of latkes.


But Hanna Raskin could care less if she never saw another latke.

Christmas may lay claim to Santa Claus, but Chanukah's the wintertime holiday with the most myths surrounding it.

Despite what many non-celebrants believe, Chanukah isn't a gift-giving orgy, with Christmas-like exchanges repeated eight nights in a row. Chanukah's a minor festival on a religious calendar crammed with observances (if you haven't already bookmarked, take a moment to do so now. Your Jewish co-workers will thank you in September.) While celebrating miracles and lights is lovely, so's celebrating trees and reflecting on the roots of Jewish mysticism, but those annual holidays typically go unmarked by most American Jews.

What elevated Chanukah beyond Tu B'Shevat status was a rabbinical push in the late 1800s to make the holiday more attractive to young Jews distracted by the allures of Christmas. By the mid-20th century, Chanukah had acquired its own set of games, songs and trinket-trading traditions. Parents started giving their children gelt, Jewish books or sensible socks (which my brother and I once pinned to the mantle in hopes of misdirecting Santa.) While there are surely parents who mete out one huge gift a night in Chanukah's honor, there are also folks who celebrate Christmas by erecting flashing reindeer on their roofs. I assume that's not the Yuletide norm.

So the mainstream perception of Chanukah presents is wrong, but no wronger than the idea that Chanukah food is delicious. First off, the list of Chanukah foods is short, which is why kosher restaurants started serving turkey dinners when the festival became voguish. Ambitious home cooks sometimes fashion Maccabees out of mashed potatoes, and there are families which reportedly use the holiday as an excuse to make a brisket, but the only two foods with irreproachable Chanukah credentials are latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts.

Latkes are more popular here, and doughnuts more popular in Israel, but what the two foods have in common is a surfeit of oil. That's by design: The Chanukah story revolves around a one-day supply of oil which lasted for eight days. By religious standards, that's a miracle. By modern measures, it's a bellyache.

Each winter (or fall, depending on the journey of the moon: Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving next year), Jewish publications run articles touting the secrets of grease-free latkes. Latke mavens optimistically endorse baking instead of frying and suggest vigorous potato-drying, promising a product as digestible as the applesauce and sour cream that are traditionally served with the pancakes as tummy consolation. But, as a Talmudic scholar might ask, can a latke be a latke without grease? Probably not.

What's your clearest childhood Christmas memory? Did you put on your prettiest dress for a performance of the Nutcracker? Did you hold hands with your neighbors and sing carols around a Christmas tree? Did you help your mother roast a goose? (OK, I have a hunch the answers are no, no and no, but there's a reason the rabbis worried about images of Christmas in popular culture.)

Here's what I recall about Chanukah from when I was growing up: Every year, we made latkes at Hebrew school, and the adventure always ended in disaster. Our teachers would press on after the smoke alarms had sounded a few times, helping us prepare latkes so greasy that they dripped thick droplets of oil when you lifted a forkful toward your mouth. Although we covered plenty of painful topics in our Jewish history studies, I don't remember any sessions as disturbing as Latke Day, when the students who hadn't fled for the bathrooms were found sprawled across the social hall floor, clutching their stomachs.

In a Food 52 chat earlier this week, Michael Ruhlman asked what happens to the Chanukah meal leftovers. "That's always the big Thanksgiving newspaper story, but I don't see a lot of Hanukka leftover advice," he wrote. That's because once the ceremonial fun's over, greasy latkes are ditched ASAP.

There are wonderful foods associated with Judaism, but latkes are least among them. Please don't lose any sugarplum-dream sleep over the Chanukah meal: There's nothing to envy here, folks. Even those of us who put up with a few latkes during the holiday are really just looking forward to Christmas, when we can eat a good Chinese dinner.

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