Potato pancakes are an essential element of Hanukkah tradition

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

As Christmas approaches, the Clement Moore poem tells us, many children, nestled snug in their beds, will have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. But this coming Sunday many other children will dream of potato pancakes instead.

That's because at sundown this Sunday, the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the Jewish holiday Hanukkah begins, and like most holidays it is inextricably linked to food. Moreover, potato pancakes are essential to the celebration.

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication (the word Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word for dedication) commemorates the world's first great victory for religious freedom. Its roots go back to around 165 B.C., when Antiochus, the King of Syria, was in control of all that remained of the Kingdom of Judah. He oppressed the Jews, demanding that they and all his subjects worship the Greek gods. He even put a Hellenistic priest in the Temple and required the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar.

Two groups opposed Antiochus. One was led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee. The other, the forerunners of the Pharisees, was known as the Chasidim. They joined forces in revolt, and though there were only 6,000 of them, after three years of battle they defeated the King's army of 47,000 (including a detachment on elephantback) making it possible for Jews to once again worship in their Temple.

The temple was rededicated and cleansed of all traces of idolatrous worship, and the great menorah (candelabrum) was returned to its place. But only one cruet of consecrated oil remained, the rest having been defiled. This was only enough to burn one day. Yet according to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, the oil burned for a full eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply.

Recognizing this as a miracle, Judah Maccabee declared, "Let these events be celebrated with mirth and gladness for all time to come!" And for over 2,000 years, the Jewish people have been doing so by observing Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights.

In Israel, where Hanukkah is an affair of state, menorahs glow from the windows of every office building, school, synagogue and home, and even the tops of water towers during the holiday. Schools are closed, there is dancing in the streets, parades are held and a torch is carried by runners from Modi'in, the ancient home of the Maccabees, to Jerusalem where the Israeli president uses it to light a great menorah. Here in this country the holiday is celebrated in the home, as is typical of Jewish worship, as families gather to symbolically light candles, exchange gifts, play games, sing songs and eat special foods.

The central religious activity of Hanukkah is the lighting at sunset of the candles on the menorah, a new one added each night until finally all are ablaze commemorating the miracle of the oil. Blessings are recited and children are given small gifts.

The most popular game played during Hanukkah involves the dreidel, a four-sided top inscribed with Hebrew letters referring to the miracle of the oil. The game goes back to when Jews used it as a subterfuge concealing unlawful study of the Torah.

During Hanukkah children and adults also play riddles, sing songs and do good works, but the celebration really heats up in the kitchen. Fasting is prohibited, and foods are cooked in oil to recall the miracle. These include bimuelos (fritters), sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and zelebi (snail-shaped pastries). But without question the quintessential food of Hanukkah is latkes.

Latkes are pancakes. (Latke means pancake in Yiddish.) Though potato latkes are the classic variety, originally latkes were not made from potatoes at all since, being a New World crop, they were unknown in ancient times. The first latkes were based on cheese, which also has deep significance. According to legend, Judith, a daughter of the Hasmoneans, fed cheese to the invading Assyrian general, Holofemes, making him thirsty. Quenching his thirst with wine left him drunk enough that Judith was able to behead him and save her people.

Besides cheese, latkes can be made from almost any vegetable, including corn, sweet potatoes, zucchini, pumpkin, carrots, parsnips, chickpeas, cauliflower and spinach, as well as fruits like apples. Faye Levy, author of "1000 Jewish Recipes," says you can even make them out of fish or noodles. Actually, the ingredients in latkes are not so important. Rather, it's the oil they're fried in that is meaningful because it is a reminder of a miracle.

Still, for all but the most trendy, potato latkes are the preferred variety and preparing perfect ones doesn't require a miracle. Just follow these guidelines offered by Jody Seligman of Cape Girardeau:

The secret to crisp latkes is removing as much liquid as possible from the shredded potatoes. Wrap them in a clean towel and wring to squeeze out excess moisture.

Russet potatoes are ideal because their high starch content helps hold them together when shredded.

Grate potatoes by hand rather than in a food processor to insure proper texture. You can dice the potatoes and then grind them using the regular blade of a processor, but be careful you don't puree them.

Soak potatoes in acidulated water to prevent them from turning brown before frying.

You can fry latkes in vegetable oil, but olive oil is more authentic since that was the kind of oil miraculously burned at the Temple.

Ironically, because of its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah is among the best-known Jewish holidays, yet it's actually a relatively minor religious observance, far less significant than Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Passover. But if you make a batch of latkes you'll discover there is nothing minor about Hanukkah's principal delicacy. Nor is there anything minor about what it symbolizes -- freedom, tolerance and the triumph of light over darkness.

Classic Potato Latkes

Though seasoned latke-makers like her 93-year-old Bubbie (grandmother) no longer need written instructions, this is the recipe Jody Seligman of Cape Girardeau relies on when she and her daughter Rachel prepare latkes for the Hanukkah feast.


2 cups grated potatoes

1 small onion

2 eggs

2 tablespoons flour or matzah meal

1 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons oil

Grate onion and add to potatoes. Squeeze out excess liquid. Add eggs, matzah meal and salt to potatoes and onions. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of batter into oil and spread out to 3-inch rounds using the back of a spoon. Fry until brown, about three minutes per side. Drain on paper toweling. Serve with applesauce or sour cream.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. and Saturdays at 11:59 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 on your FM dial. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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