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.