The Hanukkah latke story

Adam & Maxine's famous latkes

Fried foods feature prominently in Hanukkah celebrations, and latkes are popular expressions of the tradition. The popularity of potato latkes is no surprise - what's not to love about the contrast between the crispy exteriors and creamy insides? They're so delicious, Epicurious dreams of a latke party with their five favorite latke and sauce pairings.

But did you know that the first latkes weren't made with potatoes, but with cheese? According to Tori Avey, food blogger and culinary anthropologist, "latkes descends from Italian pancakes that were made with ricotta cheese. The first connection between Hanukkah and pancakes was made by a rabbi in Italy named Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus." While potato latkes are now a Hanukkah tradition, the tradition of eating dairy during the holiday is actually older.

This practice traces back to the Jewish heroine Judith, who saved her village from the invading Assyrian army. Judith plied the general of the army with salty cheese. When he got thirsty she gave him plenty of wine, getting him so drunk that he fell asleep. Judith then beheaded the general with his own sword, and the Israelites were able to defeat the leaderless army after launching a surprise attack. In Judith's honor, dairy foods are eaten during Hanukkah.

Potato latkes arrived much later, in 18th or 19th century. The tradition can be traced back to Northern Europe, where the slaugher of geese which produced a lot of cooking fat. Even the poorest person could "find a potato in the field, an onion in the cellar, and some of the precious, newly-rendered goose fat to create the Hanukkah culinary story of Neis gadol hayah sham―A great miracle happened there." The fact that they are delicious as well as symbolic cemented their association with the holiday.

Photo of Adam and Maxine's famous latkes from Bon Appétit Magazine

2 Comments

  • Cubangirl  on  12/10/2014 at 8:09 PM

    Thanks, never knew the story. I love latkes and for five years made them for Hanukkah first for my daughter's, and then for my son's preschool classes. Fun memories trying to fry them in hot oil, surrounded by curious and hungry pre-schoolers.

  • susan g  on  12/12/2014 at 9:56 AM

    Time to revisit the ricotta pancakes I love! The story of foods that Europeans took from the Americas has yet another facet., and another instance of much we take them for granted.

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