December 22, 2008
Latkes (potato pancakes) are a traditional Hanukkah food—and while I was growing up, the only “latke debate” that I was aware of was whether it was best to eat them with applesauce or sour cream. (The correct answer: Applesauce. I have supporting documentation…)
But years later, when I was living in Chicago, I became aware of another dispute that has engaged some of the greatest minds of our era: “The Latke-Hamantash Debate.”
It began in 1946, at the University of Chicago. According to anthropologist Ruth Fredman Cernea, who has edited a book on the topic, the debate was the product of a chance, street corner meeting in Hyde Park between Hillel Director Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky and two Jewish faculty members. Morale on campus was low. With few occasions for casual student-faculty get-togethers and high pressure for academic achievement, young Jewish students felt uncomfortable and lonely at the university, especially at Christmas time. (Even today, the University of Chicago, with its intimidating gothic buildings, is a bleak place, especially in winter. The students quip that the campus is “where fun comes to die.”) And Jewish professors often felt compelled to submerge their ethnic identity to gain wider acceptance.
The solution? A satirical debate between Jewish faculty members, attended by students, contesting the merits of two holiday foods: the Latke and the Hamantashen (triangular-shaped cookies traditionally eaten during Purim). As Cernea notes, “The event provided a rare opportunity for faculty to reveal their hidden Jewish souls and poke fun at the high seriousness of everyday academic life.”
The debate also owes its origins to the festive Purim tradition of mocking serious rabbinical studies. (See, for instance, the discussion of whether dinosaurs are kosher, mentioned at Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Tracking blog.)
The rest, as they say, is history. The Latke-Hamantash Debate became an annual event at the University of Chicago, and soon spread to other campuses across the country. The participants have represented a “Who’s Who” of academia, including Robert Sibley, dean of the MIT School of Science, who noted that Google returns 380,000 hits on a search for “latke” and only 62,000 for “hamantashen.” (Sibley has also claimed that latkes, not hamantashen, are the dark matter thought to make up over 21 percent of the mass of the universe.). On the other hand, Robert Tafler Shapiro, when he was president of Princeton University, made the case for the hamantashen’s superiority by pointing out the epicurean significance of the “edible triangle” in light of the literary “Oedipal triangle.”
Other contributions to the great debate have included “Latke vs. Hamantash: A Feminist Critique,” by Judith Shapiro, “Jane Austen’s Love and Latkes,” by Stuart Tave, and “Paired Matter, Edible and Inedible,” by Leon Lederman.
So, after more than 60 years of rigorous academic debate, which is the superior holiday food? Nobody knows, and that’s largely the point. “There is no winning, only the symposium going on endlessly, like the study of the Torah,” said Ted Cohen, a professor of philosophy, who moderated the University of Chicago event in 1991. Or, as the famous Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt once said: “I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become more complicated.”
– guest post written by Smithsonian senior editor Mark Strauss
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