I Had an Anti-Semitic Latke

Ever wonder how certain Jewish foods traditionally eaten during the holidays have made it into the culinary mainstream?

Take the latke … please. No, really. Most often consumed on Hanukkah, it elsewhere has been relegated, in the restaurant universe, to delis, diners and coffee shops looking to provide folks seeking a nice, carb-laden munch at mealtimes with a little hamische naches. Outside of those spheres, it’s frequently called the “potato pancake,” but here in my hometown, New York City, it has been something of a rare find on contemporary menus.

Up until recently.

The Eighth Annual Latke Festival, slated to take place December 19 at the Brooklyn Museum, offers a snapshot of the changes occurring in gourmets’ circles. That’s right: It’s a festival … and according to the event’s website, it is “dedicated to celebrating the best latkes and creative interpretations of a potato pancake in New York City.” Yes, creative interpretations. No longer are we merely to choose between decorating our slabs of savory spud slivers with applesauce or sour cream. Instead, toppings of today may range from caviar to delicate sprigs of greenery, and combining the meat with the dairy may not necessarily be taboo.

Hey, I’ve got no problem with a little short rib on my disk of fried tuber, though I have to say, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to the dishes of my heritage. Too much refinement, and the vittles become something other than what they were meant to be. They’re transformed—and in the process lose their “oomph.” Their impact is lessened. Their context is lost.

Perhaps that’s what bothers me about this newfound gentrification of the latke, though the festival itself does have an altruistic bent, as it serves as a fundraiser for The Sylvia Center, which, per the organization’s website, aims “to inspire young people and their families to eat well through hands-on learning experiences on the farm and in the kitchen.” Pretty good, I must say. Yet what does that have to do with Hanukkah’s greatest contribution to the cooking arena? Given that this nonprofit also focuses on addressing the “epidemic of childhood obesity,” wouldn’t there be a less fatty, less, uh, fried food alternative to base a celebration around, anyway? I mean, a latke is … a latke. The whole idea behind it is that it’s sizzled in oil to symbolize the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days in Maccabean times. It’s not exactly something that’s considered a health food.

Which is, in part, a reason why it’s regarded as a Hanukkah treat. Maybe it’s not the best thing for our arteries, but it’s delicious and crunchy and filling and homey. It reminds me of kitchen scents, a warm house, presents and childhood fun. It reminds me of dreidels, of singing songs such as “Ma’oz Tzur” with my family. It reminds me of eight days of wonder and laughter.

It does not remind me of truffle oil, kale and beef cheeks with onion jam.

OK, maybe I’m going a little too far here. There’s nothing inherently offensive about serving up latkes as non-holiday fare. Or … is there? Doesn’t this seem to be a kind of cultural appropriation akin to using challah in French toast and charoset as a TV cooking show challenge ingredient? Is it, God forbid, potentially anti-Semitic?

On first glance, that seems to be an absurd accusation. Superficially, there may not be any edible anywhere that’s too sacred for culinary borrowing. Inspiration may come from anywhere, and many of the greatest chefs draw from their own experiences to create their masterworks. Still, I wonder if the latke may be too much, too well-associated with a Jewish holiday to warrant its presence in the phenomenon of gastronomic elevation. Matzo ball soup is one thing. So is that brisket that we always eat on Passover. But latkes? Um … I don’t know. True, Hanukkah isn’t a very religious holiday, and its importance is minor compared to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The latke’s connection with these Maccabee-recalling festivities, however, is integral; it’s an intrinsic part of the holiday’s fabric, and extricating the foodstuff from its background may, inadvertently or not, intimate a dismissal of its historical significance. A dismissal of Jewish history. And its replacement by a bourgeois ethos that views everything as mutable, adoptable. Even venerated holiday foods.

Far be it from me to condemn this practice altogether; as a foodie, I have to welcome the changes that ring in on a continual basis with regard to the province of fine fare. There is, on the other hand, a fine line between innovation and disturbance, and I wonder in this case if our eatery scene has gone too far. Surely, I should be proud that a munchie from my culture has become accepted, as I’ve always hoped my people would be after years of persecution and alienation? Surely, I should embrace the trend of Jewish delicacies sharing the spotlight with hen of the woods mushrooms and foie gras?

I’ll tell you one thing: It won’t stop me from scarfing down a latke or three come Hanukkah this holiday season. Bring on the pounds, I say, and oil and all that goodness. Just don’t bring on the disassociation.

We, as a group, get enough culinary tsures as it is.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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