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A Rare Intersection of Holidays

November 25, 2013 Archive Insight

This year’s holiday season is definitely special. The first day of Hanukkah (25 Kislev, 5774) overlaps with Thanksgiving Day (November 28, 2013). Call it Chanksgiving; call it Thanksgivukkah; call it what it is: a rare intersection of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. Unless either or both calendars change, 25 Kislev won’t intersect with the fourth Thursday of November until the year 79,811! To commemorate this extraordinary meeting of two holidays closely associated with food traditions, let’s look at a Hanukkah staple: latkes.

Although deep-fried turkey achieved some popularity on American Thanksgiving tables over the past decade*, foods fried in oil are much older and more symbolic traditions for many Jews during Hanukkah.

Hanukkah celebrates a 165 B.C.E. victory over Syrian-Greeks who had seized the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rabbinic tradition the Jewish victors, a rebel army known as the Maccabees, set out to purify and rededicate the defiled temple but could only find one day’s worth of ritual oil. Miraculously, the small amount of purifying oil burned in the temple’s lamp stand, or menorah, for eight days!

Remembering the Miracle of the Oil

Lighting the menorah is another Hanukkah tradition that plainly commemorates the miracle of the oil. Many Jewish families light a branch of this special candelabrum each night of Hanukkah in remembrance of the Temple’s historic rededication.

Left, James Levi, who donated this family heirloom to The Henry Ford, recalled Hanukkah evenings spent admiring the menorah’s candles while enjoying latkes with his family. (2005.121.62, Gift of Constance & James Levi). Right, This box of Manischewitz menorah candles depicts several Hanukkah traditions. The company, America’s largest manufacturer of processed kosher food products, also sells latke mix! (2010.2.176, Gift of Susan Wineberg).

Many foods, especially desserts, are prepared with or fried in oil during Hanukkah to commemorate this miracle. But perhaps no recipe is more closely associated with the holiday than the latke – whose name can be translated to mean “little oily.”

By the mid-19th century, when German immigrants brought latkes to America, the little potato pancakes were a product of centuries of transformation. Hanukkah pancakes probably began in southern and central Europe as dairy treats: cakes of soft cheese fried in butter or oil and accompanied by sour cream. In other areas, where cooking oils were scarce and expensive, fried foods were usually prepared with animal fat. Cheese and butter were also hard to come by in these regions—besides, Jewish dietary laws forbid mixing meat and dairy products. Innovative cooks fried cakes of batter or vegetable patties instead.

Then, slowly, the potato took root in European cuisine. French and German cooks incorporated the starchy South American transplant into existing dishes around the turn of the nineteenth century. Some German Jews fried cakes of grated potato in schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat, to serve alongside a Hanukkah goose.

In the coming decades, as Europe’s population boomed and other crops failed, the inexpensive and abundant potato became an important staple across the continent. Eastern European Jews borrowed potato recipes from their German coreligionists, and the potato latke – along with applesauce, its newest consort – became the most widespread Hanukkah pancake.

Jewish Americans continued the potato latke tradition. In the early 20th century, when vegetable shortening – and, later, vegetable oil – became available, fried latkes with sour cream were once again a kosher dairy option. The versatile latke, already a cornerstone of Hanukkah tradition, only grew more popular in the United States as the holiday transitioned from a modest occasion to an elaborate domestic celebration throughout the 1900s. Not unlike fine olive oil, you’d be hard pressed to find a twentieth-century Jewish cookbook that doesn’t include latkes among its Hanukkah recipes.

Check out The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center for books that help document and preserve the latke’s traditional place on the Hanukkah table. And for more on these storied little pancakes, see Gil MarksEncyclopedia of Jewish Food.

Hanukkah in Postwar America

Holidays numbered among the many changes Americans experienced after World War II. In this “baby boom” era, American families celebrated with new traditions and more decorations, gifts, and parties than ever before. Jewish organizations published books and manuals that suggested ways to maintain centuries-old domestic religious traditions, and the 1950s saw a revived and enhanced American Hanukkah. In addition to preparing special foods, families might light several menorahs, exchange gifts for eight nights, decorate their homes, and host gatherings.

A 1955 edition of "Jewish Home Beautiful," published by the National Women's League of the United Synagogue of America, provided instructions for a Hanukkah dessert supper party. Along with decorations, gifts, and sweets, the author calls for “two large platters of lotkes.” (Object ID 91.352.1) (THF111653)

This 1953 Union of American Hebrew Congregations publication included a recipe for potato latkes served with applesauce.
2005.29.32 (THF111662 and THF111669).

Saige Jedele is a Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford and lover of most things potato.

*Frying has been a popular turkey preparation in areas of the Southern United States since at least the early 20th century.

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