THE LITTLE LATKA WITH A BIG HISTORY
Most of our memories at Chanukah revolved around making latkas with our families. Whether in the kitchen with grandparents, parents or other relatives, the smell of latkas cooking in hot oil permeated the home. You knew, “its Chanukah time!” As the oil spattered in the pan, relatives or friends spoke of the “miracle” that took place long ago, and we all waited for that golden delight to make it to the plate.
But, has one really stopped and thought “how did this little potato make such a big impact on our holiday?” As your intrepid history freak, I did some research and there are as many stories about latkas as there are recipes for them.
The name itself has ancient roots according to Wikipedia: “The word comes from the Yiddish latka, itself from the East Slavic oladka, a diminutive of oladya ‘small fried pancake’, which in turn is from Hellenistic Greek ἐλάδιον ‘(olive) oil’, diminutive of Ancient Greek ἔλαιον ‘oil’. Its Modern Hebrew name, levivah (לביבה ,(is a revival of a word used in the Book of Samuel to describe a dumpling made from kneaded dough, part of the story of Amnon and Tamar. Some interpreters have noted that the homonym levav ( לבב (means “heart,” and the verbal form of l-v-v occurs in the Song of Songs as well. In the lexicon of Ashkenazi Jews from Udmurtia and Tatarstan there are recorded versions of the kosher-style appellation of latkas during the eight-day Hanukkah holiday.”
Historically, many trace it to the fearless woman, Judith, who fed the Assyrian king a ricotta cheese pancake, got him drunk, and killed him. This gave the Israelites the upper hand to defeat the Assyrians. She came before the time of the Maccabees. But this pancake was already a popular celebrated delicacy by the time the Maccabees came to power. Although, after the Maccabees victory, it is not known if they really ate the cheese pancake. However, the modern latka became synonymous with Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil.
During the 18th century, crop failures caused the Polish and Ukrainians to plant potatoes. It was decreed by Katherine the Great as people were starving.
The potato became a big hit in the “shtetl.” There was even a children’s ditty that went as follows: “Sunday, potatoes; Monday, potatoes; Tuesday, potatoes . . . Shabbos, potato kugel.”
It was easier to make the latkas with potato, as it was more in abundance then cheese and went well with dietary restriction. It is here where the potato replaced the cheese pancake. With the migration of Jews coming to the United States it was the Eastern European Jews who brought this recipe to the United States.
So, this Chanukah as you continue the tradition of making latkas, take a moment to think of how far this recipe has come: from a fearless woman named Judith, to our victories, to saving starving people. And, as we gather around the table to celebrate with family and friends another generation can partake in the miracle of the season. No matter how you say it or cook it, it IS the star of the Chanukah table. It has a big history for such a little potato! Bon Appetit!