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 have, in the abstract, no disrespect for the hamantash, and I have over the years eaten one on the proper occasions, combining duty with pleasure, but even as I say this it reveals the moral as well as the aesthetic problem. It leaves me uneasy.
The eating of the hamantash is, in every sense, too sweet. You’ve eaten one, you’ve eaten them all. The very shape of the thing is antihumanistic, mathematical, limited, bounded. There have got to be higher and more complex joys in God’s world.
Now a latke is different, more liberating to a scholar of the humanities. It has a free form, not definable by any geometrical preconception or even description. Like the flakes from heaven, or the leaves of the trees, no two latkes are exactly alike. They are in that sense, without end. Who would ever eat one latke and think he had performed an intelligent or fulfilling act? You eat them to the extent of your capacity. Whatever space God has given you, you occupy. It is a holy thought. It is a complicated synthesis of divine contraries — latkes are real, even greasy, and they are infinite. One stops eating them not because the spirit is ever satisfied, but because one might burst and pass over into a higher form of existence, latkes forever.
The remarkable thing about all this union of opposites, and its validation, is that there is no guilt in stuffing yourself with latkes — think of that! No guilt! — a unique experience in a specific culture.
Now that last point, of cultural specificity is, I think, not a small one. The form, and the correspondent function, of the latke are distinctly different from the hamantash, and this difference has a widely resonant significance. Matthew Arnold recognized that, when he said that the hamantash was Hellenic, while the latke, Hebraic. He did not, however, understand fully the consequences of this insight, and in his preference for Hellenism he absurdly missed the point by rejecting the latkes because they were not sweet and light. I really think my grandmother was quite right when she would say, whenever the subject came up, “Matthew Arnold — what does he know from latkes?”
That imaginative freedom of form in the latke was better understood, as one would expect, by someone like Shakespeare, when he said, “The lover, the lunatic, and the latke are of imagination all compact.”
I don’t want to press this too far, but one should not dismiss lightly the importance of these alliterative linkages, since they have always been one sign of the ways in which the latke lends itself readily to poetic expression. Could you put “hamantash” in a poem? Only in grotesque parody, whereas we know how magnificently Swinburne succeeded in his “Lyric of the Latke,” in which, characteristically, he drives both the alliteration and the love to an extreme of shocking sensuality, as in that memorable line, “Lavish me with latkes, lingering lasciviously, labial, lingual, laryngeal; leave me not languishing for the lumpy lamellate latke I lust….”
And so on, for a total of twenty-six lines. He even finds, brilliantly, a rhyme for “latke,” which I forget at the moment.
But I want to conclude by citing an example of more classic sobriety, from a great author, an example that ties together several of the points I have been making on the interconnections of the alliteration and the love, the specific and the universal, and the guiltless indulgence.
There is an unpublished and little known piece by Jane Austen, which I finally tracked down a few years ago at her home, in the back of a secret cabinet.
Actually, it was in the kitchen. It is a sequel to “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” entitled, “Love and Latkes,” in which the sprightly young heroine comes to discover that love lies heavy at her heart, and the rather less witty hero finds out that latkes don’t sit so light in the stomach either.
The turning point of the action, so to speak, comes as the heroine is mixing a batch. While preparing the potatoes, she skins her knuckles on the grater. Leah — for that is her name — nearly falls lifeless to the floor, but Louis — for that is his — fearful that she will not finish with the cooking, catches her up and bears her to the sofa. This advance to happiness is delayed, in the succeeding chapter, when he begins to eat the latkes, eagerly and rapidly, in such immoderate quantities that, in Jane Austen’s proper words, he allows imperfectly articulated and indigested sounds of satisfaction to rise from his waistcoat and escape his lips. “Had you behaved more like a gentleman, Sir,” she cries, “you would have apologized for this shocking indelicacy. Are not you sorry?” But Louis replies, as well as he can with his mouth full, “Latkes is never having to say you’re sorry.” And she knows she loves him. There was perfect happiness in their union, because he loved her too, for the intelligence, the beauty, and the tested virtue he had found in her. As he delighted to explain in after years, “Could she make latkes!”
Stuart Tave is a professor emeritus in the English department at the University of Chicago.
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.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.