Randi Kreiss

Potato latke, the holy grail of pancakes


Consider the Yiddish word latke. It is what it sounds like, an onomatopoeic name for a flat, fried potato pancake consumed by Jewish people during Hanukkah. The eight-day festival commemorates the miracle of the burning oil that lit the Second Temple of the ancient Jews for way longer than it should have. Thus the miracle. Thus the celebration of the oil, with the extra added attraction of dropping delicious oniony blobs of potato and flour into the fat.

Latkes, like all the unhealthy foods Jewish people eat on the holidays (brisket, cholent, tsimmis, matzo balls, matzo brei, bagels and lox, kugel), came from Europe. Specifically, the potato pancake can trace its roots to Poland, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. How ironic that we carried a love of the national cuisine even as we were being driven out of the very same countries. I can imagine my great-grandparents, with cloth sacks over their shoulders, schlepping the bare necessities of their lives, which apparently included a recipe for potato latkes.

Like little Trojan horses, the latkes carried hidden threats into the new world: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure. On the upside, an entire generation of Jewish doctors made a living off latkes. It’s all very complex.

Today, of course, the media informs us that latkes need not be unhealthy. In fact, they publish latke recipes featuring zucchini, celery root, carrots and parsnips. Heresy, I say.

It is written that once a year, we are required to cook and eat the authentic potato pancakes, just as they were prepared by our foremothers and consumed in great quantities by our forefathers, who never lived very long.

The Bible tells us that up until age 12, we can eat as many latkes as we like, but from the day of our bar or bat mitzvah, we must subtract one latke per year. By age 50 it’s high-risk behavior to eat more than two, but few people adhere to the limitations.

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