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Chanukah Feature Freedom, Latkes and American Letters: an Original Contribution to Knowledge

December 23, 2005
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Each year at the University of Chicago, a well-attended debate draws a speaker panel packed with academic firepower that has included university presidents and Nobel Prize winners. The subject of this learned discourse? The comparative merits of two lofty Jewish contributions to the culinary arts: latkes and hamantashen. An enthusiastic audience then weighs the arguments, which range from punning poetry to pseudo-history to elaborate theorems. At this year’s November debate, according to a JTA news report, the potato pancake outpolled the Purim pastry by nearly a two-to-one margin. In honor of Chanukah, we now offer our readers a sampling of landmark moments from the pro-latke side of the debate, in edited excerpts from the new book “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate.”

I regret that the ridiculously brief time allowed to me does not permit me to do full justice to the noble dish in whose cause I rise to speak. I promise, however, that my remarks will, like latkes, be well-rounded, though not flat. I am sorry that not everyone on this platform can say the same.

I wish to point out to you a close association between the latke and American culture, and specifically, American democracy as expressed in our literature. This linkage has long existed, but the evidence has been suppressed by a conspiracy of the defenders of that other item of food, which I will refer to tonight as “the high-priced confection.”

As anyone who has read Frederick Jackson Turner knows, the seeds of American democratic institutions were planted on the frontier. And as any student of American history knows, the frontier was a place where the simplest and crudest instruments of life had to do double duty. In cookery, the uncomplicated frying pan was the pioneer’s first resource. And what kind of dish do we make in a frying pan? I assure you, it is not the high-priced confection. That demands an oven, to say nothing of such exotic, un-American, and civilized ingredients as prunes or poppy seeds.

No, the simple cornmeal griddle cake — a kind of ur-latke — came first to the hardy sons of the wilderness, but with the coming of the Jews in 1654, and the utilization of the potato — originally native to the Americas, introduced into Europe by the Spaniards, transmitted to the English, and then replanted in the New World — with this juxtaposition of what was indigenous to our soil and a borrowing of European patterns, the latke sprang into being, as an authentically American and libertarian dish.

The latke is originally in the form of batter. Poured into the receptive, passionately heated shmaltz, it spreads freely into its natural circular form. The essence of the high-priced confection is that jam or filling is placed within the rigid limits of a shell of dough. Let the judicious draw their own conclusions as to what kind of personality will eat that kind of food and meanwhile hypocritically pretend to affirm democratic faith.

By the time of national independence, the close identification of the American mission and the latke had already flowed into our literature, and it has been expressed throughout the history of that literature in poems which, regrettably, the authors saw fit to suppress from their published works for fear of retribution by the determined anti-latke and pro-aristocracy Establishment.

For example, an early national literary figure was the poet Joel Barlow. Barlow is known for his poem on “The Rising Glory of America.” But who knows his manuscript poem, the “Latkiad”? Nobody, that’s who! Here, however, is a passage which I have copied from it, in which the poet, in superb pentameters, makes allusions to the allegorical significance of the latke for the young republic:

Within the pan, emitting hissing sounds

The latkes lie, in perfect, golden rounds

Was such a wholesome unity e’er found

As that among th’ingredients here bound?

This junction, at the blissful dinner hour

Of egg, potato, fat and pinch of flour?

Yea! One such union we may ’round us see

The Union of these States, in Liberty!

Then bless the latke, symbol of our great,

Our peaceful, free and hungry Federal state!

Does it come as any surprise to you that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau were both fond of latkes, and that Emerson wrote the following verses, which he read aloud at a latke supper held at Brook Farm?:

The Food Which Is the All

When one has fled the thronging world,

To Nature’s solitude

He craves an earthly nutriment

A simple, soulful food.

The lowly root, potato called,

Such aliment contains.

Consumed, it makes the psyche dance

To wild, bucolic strains.

The flower lies within the bud,

Divinity in all:

Likewise, the latke in the spud

Obeys the cosmic call.

Potato, stripped of skin, then ground

And purified by fire

Forsakes its gross, material form

For one sublimely higher.

And so the soul shall cast aside

Its skin of creeds outworn

And like the latke, in a new

Perfection be reborn!

To quote Abraham Lincoln at this point, “I am loathe to close.” Yet I hope that I have suggested to some extent the richness — the fullness — the broad circumference — of the hidden literature in praise of latkes composed by American patriots and liberals.

So let me close with a verse from a contemporary minnesinger of Barlow’s of whom you may have heard, one Francis Scott Key. It was while dining on his favorite repast that he watched the rockets’ red glare lighting the skies over Fort McHenry, and it is small wonder that he incorporated a souvenir of that experience in the poem which a nation was to adopt as its unforgettable and unsingable anthem. The day may yet come when the sinister forces of censorship permit us to recite aloud the long-forgotten — or rather buried alive — verse which really concludes The Star-Spangled Banner:

May the time soon arrive

When latkes we thrive

And each bite shall delight us in being alive

And each patriot’s heart shall enlarge with his girth

In this haven of latkes and freedom on earth.

Bernard A. Weisberger was on the faculty of the history department at the University of Chicago and is the author of more than a dozen books.

The above essay is a JTA-edited excerpt from the book “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate,” edited by Ruth Fredman Cernea (University of Chicago Press, 2006). Excerpt copyright 2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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