In 1927, when the word “latke” made its English debut, The American Mercury defined the Hanukkah delicacy as “luscious … pancakes made of grated, raw potatoes, mixed with flour and shortening.” Almost 90 years later, Jews are still frying the potato pancakes, and serving them up as a holiday treat. “The point of latkes at Hanukkah is not the potato but the oil,” Joan Nathan explained to her readers in The New York Times this year. “What matters is the recounting of the miracle of one night’s oil lasting eight nights in the temple over 2,000 years ago.”
Each year, Jews throughout the United States mark the holiday by frying grated potatoes in olive oil, savoring a treat that is, as Nathan put it, “traditional, nostalgic, and crispy.”
Or, at least, crispy. Because there’s nothing traditional about the contemporary American latke. Virtually every element of it is a lie. Delicious? Yes. Traditional? Not in the slightest.
Let’s start with the oil. There weren’t a whole lot of olive trees in the Eastern European lands from which many Jews emigrated to the United States. In the Old World, the common cooking fat was schmaltz—rendered from chickens, geese, or beef. And, in fact, the Mercury specified that latkes were to be “fried in schmaltz.”
But on this side of the Atlantic, Jews soon began to use Crisco—memorably marketed as the miracle for which “the Hebrew Race had been waiting 4,000 years.” When shortening fell from favor, it was replaced by olive oil, allowing Hebrew-school teachers and pulpit rabbis across the country to connect the pancakes to the story of Hannukah. Because if not for the oil, why are Jews celebrating the holiday by frying potatoes in the first place?
Which is a good question. Potatoes, after all, are Andean tubers. They arrived in Europe in the 16th century, but weren’t widely cultivated in Eastern Europe for another 200 years. By the early 19th century, though, they were a staple crop in the lands with large Jewish populations, most often consumed boiled or mashed. Shredding them and frying them in schmaltz elevated a dull staple into a luxurious holiday treat.
But when the landmark Art of Jewish Cooking explained in 1958 that these were the pancakes “which the wives of the soldiers of the ancient hero Judah Maccabee hurriedly cooked for their men behind the lines,” it was off by a couple millennia. One thing we know for certain about the Hasmoneans, heroes of the Hannukah tale? They weren’t eating potatoes.
So what was a latke before the arrival of the potato? Still a pancake, but made from grain—most commonly buckwheat or rye—and fried in schmaltz. That’s what there was in the early winter in those frozen lands, as Gil Marks details in his magisterial Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
But buckwheat and rye are northerly crops. How did Jews celebrate the festival before they migrated away from the Mediterranean shores? The latke, it turns out, has its roots in an old Italian Jewish custom, documented as early as the 14th century. That, it seems, is where Jews first fried pancakes to celebrate Hannukah. Only back then, they were made of cheese.
Cheese? Well, yes. The original latkes were, effectively, deep-fried ricotta. They honored the custom of celebrating the holiday by consuming dairy goods.
Hold on. Dairy goods? The custom was based on the story of Judith. She seduced a general named Holofernes, who came at the head of an invading army, by feeding him and plying him with wine. As he slipped into an alcoholic stupor, she seized his hair and hacked off his head with a sword. Then she tucked it in with her picnic provisions, left his camp, and presented it to the people of her town to mount on the wall. The terrified invaders fled, and the land was saved.
Did you miss the part about the cheese? Well, it’s not in the standard text, or in the ancient variants—except for an obscure Syriac version. The Book of Judith—like the books of I and II Maccabees, which relate the story of Hannukah—is not even in the Jewish Bible; it’s an apocryphal text. All three, however, were included in the Bibles of Catholic Europe. Whether through an unbroken chain of transmission, or more probably, as a story adapted from the version preserved in the Vulgate, the tale of Judith began to circulate again in Medieval Jewish communities.
And in one of those Hebrew versions, Judith feeds Holofernes two pancakes, salted and mixed with cheese. That version may have reflected an existing rabbinic tradition, but more likely inserted these details as allusions to other Biblical episodes. But either way, medieval Jewish legal codes soon recorded the custom of eating cheese to honor Judith, variously the sister or aunt of Judah Maccabee.
Clear enough? Only, it turns out, there’s another twist. The story of Judith is actually set hundreds of years before the time of the Maccabees, even though many scholars now believe it was composed in the Hasmonean period. There’s nothing in it to connect Judith to Judah Maccabee, save the similarity of their names; no explicit reason to tie Judith to the celebration of Hanukkah. But without ready access to the book itself, it appears that Medieval Jews conflated Judith’s story with the Hanukkah tale.
So what’s a latke?
It’s a shredded Andean tuber, fried like a buckwheat pancake, which was substituted for Italian cheeses, once eaten to honor a mistaken reading of obscure variants of an apocryphal text.
But it’s crispy, and delicious.