The History of the Latke
I hope you are not going to be too angry with me when I tell you that the latke as we know and love, made of grated potatoes fried in olive oil, is a relatively new gastronomic invention. In the iconic Jewish cookbook, The Art of Jewish Cooking by Jennie Grossinger from 1958 (it is still available today—even in the Kindle edition), the author writes that “the latke (pancake), which the wives of the soldiers of the ancient hero Judah Maccabee hurriedly cooked for their men behind the lines, as they united to drive the Syrians out of their land...” The only problem is that the one thing we know for certain about the Hasmoneans of the Chanukah story is that they weren’t eating potatoes. Their decedents will have to wait almost 2,000 years before this vegetable (or starchy food) would make its debut in the area.
In order to tell you about the first latke known to us (which is completely different from what you have in mind) I need first to tell the plot of the Book of Judith. Before you get angry at your Religious School teacher for never mentioning it, hold on, because, despite its Jewish ancient origin, this book never made it to the Jewish Bible. It was included in the Apocrypha (along with the Books of Maccabees and others), a collection of books from the Second Temple period, that for some reason (mainly political) were excluded from our Bible.
The story revolves around Judith, a courageous and beautiful widow, who goes to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night. She seduced him by feeding him and plying him with wine, and while drunk she decapitates him, then takes his head back to her people. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved.
What does this story have to do with Chanukah? Probably not much. But, in the Middle Ages, when the book was rediscovered by the rabbis they made the (historically problematic) connection, partly since Judith is the feminine form of Juda. And what about the latkes? In the Hebrew versions of this story, Judith feeds Holofernes two pancakes, salted and mixed with cheese, and to honor her, the Jews of Italy as early as the 14th century started the custom of serving fried pancakes to celebrate Chanukah. Only, those pancakes were made of cheese. Yes! The original latkes were nothing but deep-fried ricotta.
The next version of the latke was also far from what we eat today, as it was made of grain, most commonly buckwheat or rye, and fried in the Old World’s common cooking fat—schmaltz, that was rendered from chickens, geese, or beef. When the first reference to “latke” appeared in the English language in 1927, the grain was already replaced with potatoes but still fried in schmaltz, until eventually it was swapped for olive oil.
The Latke had a long journey. From cheese to grain to potatoes, fried in schmaltz, shortening and olive oil but it was always crispy and cherished as the special food eaten to celebrate a special festival.
Rabbi Alon Levkovitz