According to The Jewish Book of Why by Alfred J. Kolatch, Jews eat potato latkes during the eight days of the Hanukkah holiday “because they are fried in oil, and oil symbolizes the miracle of the cruse of oil which lasted for eight days instead of one. Latkes are called fasputshes or pontshkes by some Ashkenazim. In Israel these fried potato pancakes are called levivot.”
I call them delicious.
It’s Hanukkah and time to dig out the three-by-five index card with my mother’s recipe for latkes, make some applesauce (only because it’s so easy), mix a couple of teaspoons of sugar with a dash of cinnamon, and buy sour cream. I have lost track of time, but I have probably been making latkes for several decades now. The way one eats latkes becomes very personal; I usually sprinkle cinnamon-sugar on top and then dive into the applesauce or the sour cream, but never both at the same time.
When my family gathered to celebrate the holiday, complete with giving gifts, lighting candles, singing the blessing with mostly off-key voices, and sitting down to a wonderful dinner, it was my father who was working the stove. He would fry up what seemed to be an endless number of latkes and ceremoniously bring them to the table, probably because he wanted to be on the receiving end of at least some of the praise handed down over the meal. Needless to say, the latkes always took center stage over the brisket. If they came out of the kitchen in batches, we could devour them over time and gratefully lose track of just how many we ate.
Although fried foods of any kind are acceptable to eat for Hanukkah, fried donuts, chicken, tempura, or anything else was verboten in our family because only latkes would do. And forget about sweet potato latkes, latkes with zucchini or summer squash, or anything else. Why mess with a good thing?
4 large potatoes
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of pepper
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon grated onion
½ teaspoon baking powder
Dash of cinnamon
Peel and grate the potatoes. Squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible (there is no elegant way to do this) and place them in a large bowl.
Beat the eggs, and add them to the potatoes along with all other ingredients.
Drop the mixture by the spoonful onto a hot, well-greased frying pan (the oil should completely and generously cover the bottom of the pan). After about five minutes, when the bottoms are browned, flip the latkes and fry for about five more minutes, until brown and crispy on the outside and cooked through the inside.
Drain on paper towels and serve hot with toppings. Repeat.
Arlene Reiniger is the senior program specialist and intern coordinator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She looks forward to making latkes every year during Hanukkah and wonders why they are never eaten any other time of the year.