It occurred to me recently that Judah Maccabee never ate latkes. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me except that Hanukah, or as it was known, the Festival of Lights, happened almost 2,200 years ago and a lot of traditions get accepted in that time.
Hanukah commemorates a Jewish revolt and the successful capture of the temple in Jerusalem by a group led by Maccabee. The temple’s holy lamp was lit but there was only enough oil in it to last one day; yet it burned for eight days until more oil was found. To honour this miracle, Jews celebrate the eight-day festival of Hanukah, lighting candles each evening. As a Jewish festival, it follows the lunar calendar. This year it starts on the evening of December 8.
Foods fried in oil are traditional for Hanukah. For my family, coming mostly from Eastern Europe, this boiled down to potato latkes. This is a pancake made from freshly grated potato and may include onions, flour, salt and pepper. In our family, a bit of scraped skin off the knuckle of the potato grater may be added for protein. While every Quebecer rightly considers that he or she is an expert in French fries, even great fries don’t hold a candle to a freshly made hot and glistening, mouth-wateringly, heavenly crisp potato latke.
Since potatoes didn’t get introduced to the old world, much less to the Middle East, until the 16th century, the Maccabees never had one.
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I mention this because the problem with traditions is that we take them for granted. Somehow I had assumed that latkes were eaten as soon as someone found there was more than enough oil for the holy lamp and got down to cooking.
Sure, someone may try something new—a new way to make the turkey, a new way to make the latkes, a new way to trim the tree. But then someone says, “well, that’s very nice but I still like the old ways, the old tunes, the (name that dish) the way my mother, grandmother (name that relative) made it.” And we go back to, well, tradition.
Each November, for more than 30 years, a group of us who went to college together have gathered for a communal feast. We went to an American school together, we have seen each other graduate, take a partner, work, watched each other’s children grow, and each year we put down a bottle of port that will make the round at the end of the evening meal 14 years later. Our traditional dishes include Montreal smoked meat for breakfast the following day. This year the main dish at our feast was deep-fried turkey.
A deep-fried turkey takes about 45 minutes to cook. The white meat is moist, the skin crisp. All that is missing is the smell of roast turkey wafting through the house since you really need to make this thing as far from combustible materials as possible. A wide driveway is useful.
Moving up a notch, once finished with the turkey, our host took Twinkies from the freezer, dipped them in batter and deep-fried those, too. Wow, we thought, this could become a tradition!
Unbelievably, the next day, Hostess, maker of Twinkies (which have been around since the 1930s), filed for bankruptcy. A potentially great ritual observance gets quashed before it can get established. Fortunately, Montreal’s long-established snacking cakes can fill the void. One year, I expect that our communal November party will coincide with Hanukah.
Just think: a deep-fried Joe Louis or Mae West with potato latkes on the side. That’s a tradition to look forward to.
With all that oily food, try Celina’s coleslaw for a little balance.
This goes great with latkes and smoked meat. Twinkies, not so much.
Finely slice 1½ pounds (680 grams) of cabbage and mix this with a couple of shredded carrots, a clove of pressed or finely minced garlic, a little caraway seed, and a small amount of chopped onion.
Combine a half cup of white vinegar, 2 tablespoons of sugar, between a half and a third of a cup of oil, and a little ground pepper and bring this to a boil.
Pour the hot marinade over the vegetables, toss well and store in a tightly covered jar in the refrigerator.