Sunday, December 25, 2005

On Chanukah, Cheese Was the Norm, But Then Came the Potato

By the grace of G-d
The Story of the Ever-Evolving Latke
On Chanukah, Cheese Was the Norm, But Then Came the Potato

The Food Maven
By Matthew Goodman

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which knows about this sort of thing, the first published reference to latkes in the United States dates to 1927, specifically to the phrase "luscious potato latkes — pancakes made of grated, raw potatoes," from an article in H.L. Mencken's monthly The American Mercury. The OED goes on to note several subsequent citations, mostly from cookbooks, but among them an aside from the great 1964 comic novel "To an Early Grave": "I make a few latkes, I paint the kitchen chairs." Though surely of limited etymological use, the citation is delightful nonetheless, if only for the notion of the Oxford English Dictionary quoting Wallace Markfield.

In any case, by the third decade of the 20th century, when The American Mercury first announced them to the general public, latkes were already commonplace in Yiddish literature — as in, for example, Sholom Aleichem's 1900 story "Khanike Gelt" (Chanukah Money), which begins: "Can you guess, children, which is the best of all holidays? Chanukah, of course. You don't go to school for eight days in a row, you eat latkes every day..." The reason for the time lag, needless to say, is that "latke" is Yiddish, and like most immigrant parlance took a while to find its way into the pages of English. The Yiddish word is thought likely to derive from is the Russian oladka, the diminutive of oladya, defined as "a flat cake of unleavened wheat dough." (Alternatively, it may come from the Belarussian aladka, a word with a similar meaning.) The etymological sources agree that the word seems to have descended from the Middle Greek eladion, an oil cake (the American Heritage Dictionary prefers to define it as a "little oily thing"), derived from the Greek elaion, meaning olive oil.

The distance from the Yiddish latke to the Greek elaion is about as vast as Diaspora itself, but the relationship is interesting because the first latkes were little cakes made from curd cheese and fried in butter or olive oil. (Eating cheese on Chanukah is said to refer to the Apocryphal story of Judith, who fed salty cheesecakes to the Syrian general Holofornes to make him thirsty, and then plied him with wine until he was so inebriated she could chop off his head with a sword; this symbolic connection, though, was not made until many centuries after the first cheese latkes.) As Jews began to migrate eastward into Eastern Europe, butter and oil grew increasingly precious and expensive, and poultry fat became the chief frying agent; this made the use of cheese off-limits, and so by the Middle Ages latkes were most often made not from dairy ingredients but rather with a simple batter made from buckwheat flour (recall the original Russian meaning of "a flat cake made from unleavened wheat flour").

As for the potato, it was certainly not finding its way into any latkes at that time, because potatoes were unknown in Europe until the late 16th century, when they were shipped back from the New World by Spanish conquistadors. Further complicating matters, potatoes were rumored to be a carrier of typhoid and leprosy and were not widely planted in Europe until disastrous harvests of the staple grains left farmers no alternatives. This happened in stages throughout the continent, beginning in Germany in 1720 and culminating in Russia by the 1840s; it is only at this time, the mid-19th century, that we first start to see references to latkes being made from potatoes. Sometimes the latkes were made with potato flour, after the earlier buckwheat version, but more often they were made in a new way, by grating the potatoes and frying them in rendered chicken fat or, more luxuriously, goose fat. Geese, which were fattened in summer and fall and slaughtered when the weather turned cold, were especially plentiful just before Chanukah, and so it is no surprise that latkes fried in goose fat would become a trademark of this holiday celebrating fried foods; often the latkes were served with the roasted goose, which would be a worthy feast for almost anyone, but for impoverished shtetl peasants it must have seemed a glimpse of paradise.

Even without a crackling roast goose alongside them, potato latkes are about the most satisfying food imaginable — hot, crispily browned, slightly salty, shimmering with a patina of oil. Though their pedigree is shorter than we might have suspected, by now potato latkes have become the very embodiment of Jewish-American holiday food, and the subject of impassioned debate about the best way to make them. The intensity of these arguments recalls those about the making of matzo balls, the other Jewish-American holiday food nonpareil, but while I tend to be a middle-of-the-roader on the matzo-ball question, when it comes to potato latkes I am a Maccabee-like partisan.

The latke must be thin rather than thick (if the fryable surface area is too small, the latke will never attain the necessary crispness) and must be made from starchy Russet potatoes (not the waxy red-skinned variety; and though Yukon Gold are said to work, the idea of it seems to me a bit precious). If at all possible, the potatoes should be hand grated; only hand grating can create the chunky texture that defines the genuine potato latke.

Still, as we have seen, latkes were made for a long time without potatoes, and now they are being so once again, thanks to a new wave of latkes made by modern chefs. In these latkes, the potatoes have been replaced — or sometimes supplemented — with sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, celery root, cauliflower and almost every other form of gratable vegetable. To my mind there is no improving on perfection, but even I don't want to eat potato latkes (as Sholom Aleichem's schoolchildren did) for eight straight days, so I'm happy for a good alternative — such as, for instance, beet latkes. These pancakes, vegetally sweet, are made just as one would the potato variety (though you should use more flour, as beets are less starchy than potatoes, and it's also nice to add some grated orange zest). In this case, I recommend replacing the traditional sour cream topping with goat cheese, because its salty creaminess goes astonishingly well with beets, and never more so than when the beets are piping hot from the frying pan, causing the goat cheese to melt lusciously into them. It is, as Wallace Markfield might say, a mechaiah.

* * *

Latkes de Patata (Mexican Potato Pancakes with Carrots and Corn)
This is the classic Chanukah dish as made by Talma Scheerson's family in Mexico City. Said Ms. Scheerson: "They're a hit every time. Often there are none left to bring to the table, because everyone comes into the kitchen to try 'just one.'" I love them: the latkes come out a vibrant orange-yellow, and taste like a cross between potato pancakes and corn fritters.

2 pounds Russet potatoes
1 red onion
1 carrot
1/2 cup canned or thawed frozen corn kernels
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup matzo meal
1 tsp. salt, plus more for sprinkling
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying

1. Preheat oven to 200 F. Peel and grate the potatoes by hand or in a food processor. Place the grated potatoes in a colander with a plate beneath it. Sprinkle salt on the potatoes, cover them with a layer of paper towels, and then place a heavy object (such as a heavy bowl or can) on top. Allow the potatoes to drain for 10 minutes.

2. While the potatoes are draining, peel and grate the onion and carrot. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, onion, carrot, corn, eggs and matzo meal and season with salt and pepper. Mix well.

4. In a large, heavy skillet, add oil to a depth of a quarter inch and heat over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Drop a heaping 14 cup of the potato mixture into the hot oil, flattening with a spatula. Fry the latkes until deep brown on both sides.

5. Drain the latkes on paper towels (pat them with the towels on both sides) and keep them warm in a single layer on a baking sheet in the oven until all of them have been made. Serve hot, with applesauce and sour cream.

Makes about 15.

reprinted from FORWARD

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