A Southern Take on Hanukkah Food Traditions
Plus a recipe for sweet potato latkesBy Debbie Moose
After I married my husband four decades ago, fish began appearing at the breakfast table. This was a shock to a Southern girl who was accustomed to country ham and biscuits in the morning, not slices of smoky-smelling salmon and chewy bagels. It was just the start, because in our case, merging two households also meant blending Jewish and Southern food traditions.
It wasn’t difficult. I learned to love sweet, fruity haroset (an apple relish) at Passover; he embraced coconut cake at Easter (as long as Passover wasn’t going on at the same time). He has never appreciated tomato soup, my childhood sickbed comfort. But I’ve learned how to make gallons of “Jewish penicillin” — hearty chicken broth — for the freezer each winter, for which my husband makes the matzo balls. From the box. He says that’s what everybody does.
Not surprisingly, traditional foods veer wildly away from each other during the December holidays. Fruitcake, eggnog, Moravian spice cookies (I grew up in Winston-Salem) and ham, obviously, are nowhere near the Hanukkah orbit.
Latkes are the stars. Latke is a Slavic-Yiddish name for potato pancakes fried in oil, and when I found that out, well, I know French fries and hash browns, and that they shouldn’t be too greasy. As a devoted new wife, I labored for hours to create grease-free latkes, adjusting the oil temperature, the grating of the potatoes, the amount of flour, and so on.
Until my husband told me the oil is what they’re all about.
The story of Hanukkah goes like this. In the second century BCE, the Greeks had invaded Jerusalem and prevented the Jews from worshipping as they chose. A small army managed to defeat the Greeks, and to rededicate the temple, they lit the nine-branched candelabra known as the menorah. There was only enough oil for one day, but by some miracle, it lasted for eight. The holiday has continued, with families lighting menorahs in their homes and (because it’s a miracle involving oil) eating fried foods. Easy to get behind that idea, especially since I deep-fry my Thanksgiving turkey.
Because I’m a food writer, I can’t resist experimenting and, fortunately, my husband is broad-minded. Besides the traditional white potatoes and onions, I’ve used all kinds of grated root vegetables for latkes, including carrots, beets and turnips, but our favorite is a sweet potato version, which also has a touch of heat (as much or as little as you like). They go very well with the traditional accompaniments of applesauce and sour cream.
This month’s holidays remind us to find hope and light even in the darkest times. May your family feel the season’s warmth.
More food for the holidays