OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a Catholic school girl, born and raised. Yes, I wore a uniform for most of my educational career, and yes, I took theology classes in college. Because of my religiously dominated upbringing, you’re probably not surprised to hear that I’m somewhat unfamiliar with Jewish holidays and celebrations.
Take Hanukkah, for example: an eight-night celebration of light that honors the day the Jewish community took back control of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Sure, I knew there were eight days of presents for Jewish kids and that they lit candles in that candle-holder called a menorah, but I also knew that there was so much more to the story, and something kept poking at me to figure it out. Something having to do with food, and wanting to discover where the Jewish community’s passion for it came from — something that had to do with latkes.
The best way I understood latkes before setting out on this journey was that they were a sort of Jewish hash brown — crispy potatoes molded into a palm-sized bite and fried to perfection. But I knew that latkes are more than just fried potato pancakes for the Jewish community, and I wanted to find out why they are such an important part of Hanukkah. So I turned to Devra Ferst, food editor at The Jewish Daily Forward, and asked her what their role was in relation to the Festival of Lights.
Ferst explained that the light that burned miraculously for eight days in the temple was actually olive oil, and while most people don’t use olive oil for frying, fried latkes were a way for Jews in Eastern Europe to honor the oil-related miracle by working it into their food. Interestingly enough, says Ferst, the older latkes were closer to the ricotta pancakes that we find in Italian cuisine, and that when the potato latke first originated, it was most likely fried in chicken fat (schmaltz) to lend it an intense flavor, but this is not commonly practiced today.
The most important thing to remember, says Ferst, is that unlike the Sabbath, Hanukkah does not require Jews to eat any specific type of food, and so this fried treat presents itself as a form of celebration and indulgence, and it has become a tradition part of Hanukkah meals for many Jewish families. Most families, like Ferst’s, celebrate Hanukkah by throwing latke parties, where everyone gets involved, which brings me to the next leg of my journey.
Meet Roger Mummert, food writer and latke-enthusiast. Mummert is such a latke fan that he hosts an entire festival devoted to the starchy dish every year, where traditional and untraditional latke recipes are served to crowds and voted upon to determine the winning recipe. While unique and innovative latke recipes are encouraged by Mummert and his team of talented latke chefs, there are a few basic rules that go into making the perfect latke, and he’s shared them with The Daily Meal and this Catholic school girl so that I can once and for all understand latkes.
Anne Dolce is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce