The foodie craze has brought about a delicious abundance of latke varieties - sweet potato, beet, turnip, just to name a few. For most, the assumption is that this is a new trend, inspired by a generation that treats food with great interest, as a pretty serious hobby, but that is ultimately represents a betrayal of the traditional latke, made of course from potatoes.
But potatoes are a new world food, brought back to Europe for the first time in the 16th century, and not used commonly until the 18th century; latkes are much older. All of this begs the question, what were the original latkes made of?
If you look beyond the recipe to the spiritual origin, the oil gets yet mirkier. The origin story of the latke is twofold, and is paradigmatic of the Chanukah story itself. On the one hand, they were the fried food brought to the battle lines of the Hasmonean army to give the Jewish patriots nourishment to keep fighting. The Rabbis, though, had a preference for emphasizing the miracle of the Temple oil lasting for eight days rather than just one, de-emphasizing what they viewed as the fraught militarism and monarchy of the Hasmoneans. Famously, Nachmanides sternly criticized the Hasmonean monarchy for usurping the throne from the divinely ordained royal tribe of Judah in his commentary on Genesis, noting that the Hasmonean dynasty was acrimonious and soon ended because of their sin. The Rabbis basically ignored the Hasmonean military victory with no Mishna, limited mention in the Talmud (Shabbat), and a shift of focus to the miracle of the oil So too, the latke has been given dual creation myths.
In terms of ingredients, Rabbi Gil Marks, a James Beard awardee, notes in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food that from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, northern European communities made fried pancakes from buckwheat and rye; latkes were more like classic breakfast pancakes. But do they stem from an earlier time?
The earliest recorded use of latkes is in Italy and other Mediterranean regions, dating back to the fourteenth century. There, though, latkes were fried cheese, likely something like a Haloumi or grilling cheese. As for symbolism, the cheese likely recalls Judith, the femme-fatale and spiritual doppelganger of the biblical Yael. Judith, though not linked explicitly with Chanukah in the Book of Judith, seduces the Greek general Holofernes with wine. Though cheese isn't mentioned in most versions of the story, somehow, wine is linked with cheese. After all, everyone knows that wine and cheese go together. And so the tradition emerged, cited in numerous legal codes, to have dairy on Chanukah.
Back to our favorite friends, the foodies, and their early Mediterranean and Northern European ancestors . . . what are we to make of them. Taking up fine food as a hobby, reveling in the nuance of flavor, all seems a bit Hellenistic for a holiday that commemorates the historical victory against the Greek army and their many Hellenist sympathizers.
Reflecting, it feels as though there's a real choice point here in how to view the foodie moment. On the one hand, the indulgent Hellenist approach, here caricatured and exaggerated, to simply enjoy the physical pleasures of life as a primary or even ultimate pursuit. On the other, the Chasidic approach of avodah begashmiyus, service of the Creator through the physical. A spiritually Jewish foodie, then, might relish and savor fine grilling cheese this Chanukah (if you're blessed to live in Little Rhody, Narragansett Creamery makes a great one, Kosher certified, available at Eastside Marketplace :)), ultimately using it as a springboard to note the joy and pleasure of taste, the elevation of the spirit that comes tied together, and unite with the Source of all joy and gladness. That's what it looks like to raise the spark of an old-fashioned latke. Eat mindfully, enjoy the finest olive oil (the Maccabees didn't settle), and experience the bliss of blessing and connection to the Master of the universe.