When is a potato pancake not a potato pancake? When the simple, savory dish is a part of the Hanukkah celebration and becomes known as a latke, infused with great history and rich symbolism.
Regardless of your faith, learning more about others beliefs and history is a unifying experience and, in the case of latkes, delicious, too. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which begins this year at sundown Saturday, lasts for eight days to symbolize not only a miraculous event in Jewish history but also gave important agricultural insight regarding olive oil and the ingredients used for latkes
Around 165 BC the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus army rampaged through Jerusalem destroying or stealing all that they could. Many holy sites of the Jewish people were ruined and the great Temple in Jerusalem was adorned with idols that were serious infractions of Jewish Law. It took a short three years for the Maccabee warriors on the outer perimeters of Jerusalem, led by a priest, Mattathias, and his five sons, to finally liberate Jerusalem.
This story may appear to be an obscure connection to potato pancakes or latkes, and so far it is. The victorious Maccabees set about clearing their temple of all that did not belong and wished to light the gold menorah. Searching for olive oil for the lamp proved difficult and all that could be found was enough to keep the lamp burning for one day. Preparations were made to press olives for more oil but the process of extracting the oil took eight days. As the first day drew to a close the light was not extinguished but kept burning with oil that had not been there the previous day. The lamp burned for one more day, the following day the same amazing thing happened. At the end of the eighth day when it appeared that the oil may run out the people had newly pressed olive oil to begin refilling the menorah lamp.
Called the Miracle of the Oil as has been referred to since, it was one of many confirmations to their blessed faith and the righteousness of their place in Jerusalem. Oil, already held in high esteem as an integral part of the diet, a versatile medicinal and a soothing lotion became a spiritual symbol as well. Long before a Hanukkah latke, there was oil and this is the basis for eight days of special holiday cooking, to remember the miracle of one day of oil supplying eight days of light.
To remind the Jewish people of what took place during that reclamation of Jerusalem, special foods fried in olive oil became steadfast traditions that have continued generation upon generation even today. In Hanukkah’s early history, the missing ingredient of latkes was the potatoes as they had not been introduced from Central and South America yet. Latkes can be made with many different ingredients based on what is available in different regions.
Potatoes entered the latke scene mainly out of necessity by creative cooks desperately seeking alternative meal items. Potato Latkes evolved during crop failures throughout Eastern Europe where grains could not withstand the drought. Potatoes are easy to grow, inexpensive and require less care than the grain crops used to feed dairy animals that produced milk to make cheese for the earliest latke recipes followed much later by buckwheat latkes. Another reason for a change from cheese latkes to potato latkes during Hanukkah took place when the Jewish people moved to Eastern European regions. Olive trees do not grow in these colder climates so an alternative oil was used, typically animal fat. Kosher dietary laws prohibit mixing meat with dairy so the cheese latkes fell out of favor, being replaced by buckwheat and then potatoes.
Whether the potatoes are finely grated or course and onions added or not, keeping the tradition of frying the mixture in oil is what makes Latkes a special holiday treat. Another universal component to Latkes is that the particulars of how they are made stays within families for generations upon generations, mothers teaching children the recipe. This sharing, the passing on of a tradition embodies the Hanukkah message of remembering the past.
For locals like Howard Gelbsman, the latke tradition during Hanukkah is important to pass along to future generations. Gelbsman learned to make latkes from his mother who in turn learned from her mother but Gelbsman takes the family recipe one step further by sharing with others. When he first began making latkes around 1966 or 1967, he taught his children and grandchildren as well as their classmates during school demonstrations and in the Oneonta YMCA. Each year his family recipe is shared even more when Howard makes about 300 latkes for a Hanukkah party.
Gelbsman explained that he loves to make them, but he only makes latkes during Hanukkah typically. Serving the hot and crispy potato dish with things like sour cream or applesauce compliment the pancakes perfectly. These condiments “work well with latkes made from sweet potato or zucchini as well,” Gelbsman said.
Gelbsman’s recipe for latkes is simple, allowing for others to diversify ingredients if they choose to. With all of the possible variations most people prefer recipes that are kept simple and traditional, especially for holidays.
Oil for a frying pan or griddle
4 medium grated potatoes (Howard says that plain white potatoes work fine)
chopped onion (how much depends on whether the cook likes onions or not)
salt and pepper to taste
Matzo meal added (about 1/8 to ¼ cup)
Combine all ingredients, mix well and drop by spoonfuls, like a pancake, into the hot oil. Press to flatten and aid with cooking.
Enjoy latkes during Hanukkah or as potato pancakes any time of year for a side dish or main meal.