It is a myth grounded in reality: if you ask 10 Jews their opinion, you get 11 answers. And it is not all wrong. Oddly though, if you ask 10 Jews what they eat for Chanukah, 10 will tell you “latkes;” maybe 11. They tried to destroy us, we survived, let’s eat latkes.
Most Jews, regardless of denomination, could tell you why we eat latkes on Chanukah, relaying the story of one day’s oil lasting eight days in the Temple’s ner tamid (the Eternal Light). Most know latkes—and other Chanukah foods—are fried in oil in honor of that miracle. And most Jews know the backstory involves a great victory that preserved Jewish independence from the Greeks with the Maccabees triumphing over the forces of Antiochus IV (215 BC–164 BC). A glorious victory.
Chanukah, though, is perceived as one of the least “religious” holidays on the Jewish calendar. It seems to be less theologically oriented and less clearly biblically based than many if not most others of our holidays. That perception, perhaps, laid the groundwork for what was to come and what Chanukah has become in America.
In many ways, its primary importance in this country is as a cultural counterweight to Christmas. The reality is the perception of a tenuous religious basis of Chanukah has given way to a Christmasization, if you will, of our holiday that begins on the 25th (another parallel) of Kislev. The elaborate gift giving that came to characterize Christmas has come to characterize Chanukah too. It has come to the point at which just about the only obvious visual differences are menorahs instead of tannenbaum and the fact gifts are wrapped in blue rather than red paper.
So, for this Chanukah I decided to make a dish that captures a bit more of what the entire holiday is really about, both today and at its core. I started with the “today” part by turning the latkes themselves red, one of the predominate colors of Christmas. To do this I added shredded red beets to the potatoes in my latkes. This has the important added benefit of yielding a rounder flavor profile and making for great caramelization of the exterior of the latkes in the cooking process.
But Chanukah is not, and should never be, just the “Jewish Christmas.” It has been said of Judaism (mostly by us) that nearly all of our holidays can be summed up this way: “they tried to destroy us, we survived, let’s eat!” Yes, it’s a joke. Perhaps it’s not literally true. But there is a very powerful—and religious—core message in there.
At the heart of Chanukah and many of our other holidays is the notion of the “Jewish people” and, more specifically, the fact we are the “Chosen People”—the people with whom God chose to enter into the Covenant.
The notion of our “chosenness” reappears in much of our religious literature from the Book of Deuteronomy to the Mishnah and Liturgy. Our struggles—the ones where they try to kill us but we survive—are perhaps the most powerful evidence of the Covenant. And that is at the very core of Chanukah.
The oil lasting one instead of eight days is, yes, a miracle. But the Jews prevailing over Antiochus’ forces may be more so. Antiochus, to be sure, had tried to destroy us. He killed many and outlawed the practice of our religion, mandating worship of Zeus. The Maccabean Revolt cost many more lives on the way to our miraculous victory.
And that is the point of the salted ash on the plate in this dish: a reminder of the struggle implicit in our chosenness, of the bitterness and the pain. The oil in which the latkes are fried serves the traditional role of symbolizing the miracle of the oil, the red of the beets symbolizes where Chanukah has gone in contemporary America and the salted ash symbolizes the religious core of Chanukah: the notion that we are the Chosen People.
So, once again: they tried to destroy us, we survived, let’s eat! In this case, let’s eat Beet and Potato Latkes.
Beet and Potato Latkes
Crème Fraiche | Chopped Chives | Salted Ash
For the Beet and Potato Latkes:
½ pound red beets, peeled, trimmed, and shredded
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ pound russet potatoes, peeled, trimmed, and shredded on the shredding disk of a food processor
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 large eggs
¼ cup bread crumbs (or matzo meal)
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Grapeseed oil (or canola or other neutral oil, for frying)
For the Salted Ash:
For the Garnish:
Finely chopped chives
- Make the Salted Ash. Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Peel and trim the beets, onions and potatoes, reserving all the peelings. Place the vegetable peelings on baking sheet covered with aluminum foil and cook the vegetable peelings in the oven until they turn almost thoroughly to a black ash, about one hour. When they have ashed over, grind the resulting product in a food processor or coffee grinder. Thoroughly combine the ground ash with Kosher salt at a ration of four parts ground ash to one part kosher salt.
- Prepare the Latkes. Meanwhile, using the shredding disk of a food processor shred the beets, onions and potatoes. Thoroughly mix the three shredded vegetables, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl. Working in batches, wrap the mixture in cheesecloth and wring the cloth until liquid flows out and the vegetables are dry. Mix in eggs and bread crumbs (or matzo meal) until you can form patties that just stick together in your hands; if it is too wet, add more bread crumbs or matzo meal 1 tablespoon at a time.
- Make the Latkes. Heat ¼ inch of oil in a heavy (preferably cast iron) skillet over medium-high heat until a shred of potato immediately sizzles. Form a small amount of latke mixture into a disk and fry on both sides until golden brown to test for seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if needed. Form patties about 1 inches wide and ½ inch thick in the center and slide into pan, cooking no more than 4 at a time. Fry until a golden brown crust forms on bottom, then flip using a slotted spatula and fork and fry until golden brown on other side and cooked through, approximately 3 minutes per side.
- Plate the Dish. Using your fingers (a spoon does not work well), draw a diagonal line of ash salt across each plate from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. Place a latke on either side of the line. Spoon a dollop of crème fraiche on each latke and top with chopped chives.
Thank you for this commentary, as well as a variation on latkes I haven’t yet tried. I love that you included steps to making ash! I purchased ash in order to make a homemade version of Humbolt Fog cheese, but I never realized it could be made at home, as it is simply “ash.” Thanks again!
Thank you for your kind words, Abigail. There is an almost infinite approach to ashes and you can adjust the flavor profile massively just by changing the components of the ash. I learned the technique cooking in a restaurant in Baja, where chile peppers were a crucial component yielding a wonderfully spicy overtone to the ash. It was great on many dishes….not the least of which was popcorn!