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Hanukkah Latkes: Increasing Our Dependence on Oil?

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The fried potato pancakes called latkes are the traditional food of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday which begins this year on the night of December 21. Explanations about the connection between the Eastern European potato pancakes and the commemoration of a battle against the ancient Assyrians generally involve a comparison of cooking oil and lamp fuel. An equally tenuous association between the triangular cookies called hamentashen and the tri-cornered hat of the biblical villain Haman are part of the Purim holiday tradition.

In 1946, Jewish intellectuals at the University of Chicago started what would become an annual event called the Great Latke-Hamantash Debate to explore the meanings of those two holiday foods. Over the years, topics have included historian Hanna Gray's assertion that "Renaissance humanism grew out of the revival of the latke" and Michael Silverstein's linguistic deconstruction--he pointed out that the English translation of the letters on the sides of the Hanukkah dreidl spell out T-U-M-S. Presenters have also included philosopher Martha Nussbaum and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman. At the Harvard debate in 2007, Lawyer Alan Dershowitz accused the fried latke of increasing U.S. dependence on oil.

Over the years, the absurdist event has replicated and spread to numerous campuses including Harvard, Princeton and M.I.T. The latke debates follow in a long tradition of Jewish humor mimicking Talmudic study. In 2005, a book titled The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate which includes a compendium of debate topics was published by the University of Chicago Press.

At this year's 62nd Annual Latke-Hamantash Debate at the University of Chicago, it was noted that the round shape of the latke resembled the letter "O" and could therefore be associated with Barack Obama and a new spirit of diversity. Bumper stickers mimicking Obama's campaign graphics were handed out to attendees promising "Potatoes for Change: Latkes '08."

Julia's Crispy Latkes

Here's Julia Walsh's recipe for basic crispy latkes. If you're more ambitious, you can find recipes for butternut squash latkes and all sorts of gourmet latkes in the December Bon Appetit.

2 large russet potatoes, washed
1 large onion, peeled
1 egg, lightly beaten
Eighth of a cup flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Pepper to taste
Vegetable oil

Shred the potatoes and then pour them into a mixing bowl. Shred the onion, making sure to drain excess liquid before adding to the potatoes in the bowl. Add the egg, flour, salt and pepper and mix well.

Pour oil into a frying pan to the depth of one inch and heat on medium high heat. The oil is hot enough when a small shred of potato bubbles loudly. Take a handful of potato mixture and squeeze out excess moisture, then form it into a patty. Drop into the hot oil and flatten with a metal spatula. Cook for about 7-10 minutes on each side, or until it reaches the preferred shade of brown. Serve hot. Traditional toppings are sour cream and applesauce, but latkes are also excellent with meat and gravy.

Makes 6 to 8.

-- Robb Walsh

Photos by Julia Walsh

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