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.