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For the Love of Latkes

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The light it lasted for eight nights
Relieving people of their plight…
Yes, fry the latkes in the oil
To celebrate ancestor’s toil…
Chanukah is here at last
Let’s all go and have a blast!

It’s time to pay tribute to the wonderful and tasty latke. This week, latke history, lore and humour.

The Atlantic magazine is known for its penetrating articles about politics, the arts, technology and culture. But who knew that it would turn its investigative eye to a “shocking” story titled, “Everything You Know About Latkes Is Wrong.” As the article states, “Delicious? Yes. Traditional? Not in the slightest.”

FACT: In the scheme of things, potatoes only arrived in eastern Europe in the 16th century. Before that, pancakes were commonly made from buckwheat or rye.

FACT: Frying latkes in oil is a New World phenomenon. Back in the Old World, the common cooking fat was schmaltz. Gulp!

READ: LATKES: OUT OF THE FRYING PAN AND INTO THE CONTROVERSIES

If you are lucky to be in Israel over Chanukah and order a latke, you might be served a blank stare in return. Try ordering a “leviva” instead. But Nathan Jeffay says that even if you do know that Hebrew word, you may still be out of luck, because Israel has become somewhat of a “latke-free zone.” He cites a surprising economic reason. In 1920s Mandate Palestine, the Jewish workers trade union was concerned that Chanukah provided very few commercial opportunities. “Latkes are homemade and so are useless for business,” said food historian Gill Marks. The unions seized on the tradition of sufganyot, Chanukah doughnuts, and encouraged bakeries across the country to sell them. “They can generate weeks of work for bakers, people transporting them, and sellers.”

Who would have imagined that there’s a whole sub-genre of latke-humour lurking on the Web? In the “Ritual Slaughter of the Latke,” Raphael Finkel expounds upon the intricate (and phoney) Jewish laws that ensure that latkes are kosher. For example, just as kosher meat must be salted, we must “Remember to salt the potato and leave it to drain for at least 24 hours. We do this in memory of Lot’s wife, Latke, who was turned to salt. Use a lotta salt, in memory of Lot’s daughter, Lotta.”

Haymishe latke tips from Feed Me Bubbe:

Frying up a latke is a wondrous thing. But having your bubbie do it for you is sublime. Unfortunately, not all of us have a bubbie at our beck and call. If you fall into that category, just remember Bayla Sher of “Feed Me Bubbe“ fame. The late Bayla was the star of a delightful series of Jewish cooking videos, in which she pairs up with her grandson, Avrom Honig. In the latke episode, watch her whip up a batch, and learn how you can fresh freeze them to enjoy later. You can find many more video recipes on YouTube.

There are many sites that share recipes, but I particularly like one that spends more time on how to make a great latke. At the All Recipes site, there are tips about what kind of potatoes to use (russet), how to keep them from turning pinkish-brown (keep them under water) and how to make sure they don’t fall apart when you’re frying them (squeeze the potato mixture in a cheesecloth.)

READ: WHY LATKES? IT’S A TRADITION!

If you ever tire of bubbie’s traditional potato latke, don’t despair. The Jewish Food Latke Archives has 113 varieties to tempt you, including “Drunken Apple, Cauliflower-Cheddar and Sephardic Bunuelos.” Over at the RFCJ Recipe Archive, there are dozens more such as “Chestnut Flour,” “Risotto and Norwegian Lox.” I think I’ll pass on the “Brain Latkes.”

Why eat a latke when you can drink it?
Why eat a latke when you can drink it?

Speaking of the oily pancake, a while back, a bottling company in Seattle put out a series of kosher, holiday-flavoured carbonated beverages. Care to quench your thirst with a bottle of “Latke?” How about some “Apple Sauce” or “Chocolate Coins?” And of course, what would Chanukah be without a swig of “Jelly Doughnut.”

What should you do if you love latkes but not the fat? The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends the no-oil Lean Latke. Coat a skillet with cooking spray and smooth grated potatoes into a large plate-sized pancake. One serving contains 162 calories and less than one gram of fat. And if a latke just isn’t a latke without oil, then go ahead and splurge. Add one tablespoon.

9lbs of Potato Latkes in 8 minutes:

Those calories didn’t scare Pete Czerwinski. He wolfed down 46 potato pancakes in eight minutes to take top spot at the 2008 National Potato Latke Eating Championship. “I’m just a power eater. My brain never signals that I’m full,” said Czerwinski, who had never eaten a latke before. Watch him – if you dare.

Unlike Czerwinski, Jill Fenton had a very different reaction to latkes. She choked. Well, not literally. But when Jill was challenged to spell “latke” during the final day of the National Spelling Bee, the sevent grader from Kidron, Ohio, spelled the food as “lotka.” Deb Friesen, assistant principal at Central Christian Middle School, said she wouldn’t have fared any better. “I had not heard of the word.”