Food Fight

The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate

Edited by Ruth Fredman Cernea

University of Chicago Press, 184 pages, $18

As if we didn’t have enough on our plates, here’s something new to argue about. Not that Jews don’t have a fine history of conflict: Hillel vs. Shammai, Bundists vs. Zionists, Labor vs. Likud. But now, to have to pick between sweet and savory, round and triangular, latke and hamantash. How to choose?

Of course, Purim (hamantash) and Hanukkah (latke) are new holidays, Johnny-come-latelies that turned up after the Bible, so of course they have to fight. You don’t see smack-downs between matzo (Passover) and challah (Sabbath), do you? (Actually, you already know who would win. There’s a reason that Pesach only lasts eight days.) No, the old guys are established. They have their turf. It’s the arrivistes who have to put on the big show.

Thank goodness one of our great universities — Chicago, no less — is on the case. For close to 60 years, it has staged an annual latke-hamantash debate. Big names (such names! Nobel laureates, New York Times best-seller-list writers, presidents from only the top schools) use their fancy-schmancy degrees and expertise to argue about which food is better. They have some learning, let me tell you, and they show it. Apparently a few of them wear costumes, and those who don’t wear their doctoral robes. (Philosopher Martha Nussbaum once declaimed her argument in Grecian dress.) This is one dignified occasion.

You’d think that after almost six decades, there would be a clear winner. But the more than 50 entries in this anthology just argue one another to a standstill. Not that they don’t try. Alan Gewirth shoots the moon with a complicated semantic analysis proving superiority of the latke, while Lawrence Sherman shows the importance of the hamantash in Shakespeare. Did you know that the latke was central to the Renaissance? It was. Did you know that the lyrics to a famous and popular song really should read, “Tears on my Hillel?” They should. You can only imagine the advances that the Superconducting Super Hamalatkatron will bring to science. (It harnesses the strongest force known to man: guilt.)

So the old saying “two Jews, three opinions” still holds. In this book, one feminist argues that women should embrace the latke as the epitome of their struggle, while another shows how the potato pancake is the symbol of women’s oppression: It has banished them to the kitchen while the others — all men, of course — eat.

And some of the contributors make things even worse by throwing in some ringers: Darwin and his voyage on the “Bagel, the discovery of the mysterious Shroud of Purim. There is even an entry that proves (conclusively, in this reviewer’s opinion) that the herring is truly the essential Jewish food.

So, is this book funny? Of course it’s funny, even laugh-out-loud funny. It’s Mickey Katz in academic drag, Borscht Belt with a Ph.D.: “When I want your opinion, as the great Jewish thinker Sam Goldwyn remarked, I will give it to you. This is known as the Socratic method.” Ted Cohen, who now presides over this affair as the emcee, shows why he is an eminent philosopher:

In every possible world, there is a latke. How do we know this? By discovering that it is impossible to imagine a world in which there is no latke. Try it.First imagine a world. Put in everything you need for a world; this is to be a whole world, not a fragment.Now add in a latke.Now take that latke out. It cannot be done, can it?…Consider, “The schlemielhas said in his heart there are no latkes.”The schlemiel can say this, but he cannot think it, for it makes no sense.What sense is there in a nonexistent latke? How can the perfectly edible be absolutely inedible? It makes no sense.

Similarly, French deconstructionist Francoise Meltzer writes with characteristic simplicity:

How, in short, can it be that the latke and the hamantash are mere orts about to merge in triumphant sublation which will neutralize the apparent dialectic? …[T]he answer is that the sublation of the two forms is always already present in the existence of what we (significantly) refer to as — the croissant.

You see what she means. Other participants — and here the social scientists really shine — use the arcane methods of their disciplines to isolate, demystify, recalibrate and interrogate the very meaning of our collective, nay, communal lives that the latke and the hamantash do so much to affirm and, yet, to undermine.

But seriously, folks. Most of the humor here is in-crowd stuff, college professors poking fun at their own pomposity with Yiddish and food and some shared traditions. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate,” because the editor includes a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms (as well as some recipes). But here, as with most parodies, you really do have to know something about the object(s) being pilloried — in this case, the academic fads and fashions of the last half-century. And unfortunately, some of the material is dated. Nothing ages like university gossip.

So maybe the book does get a little long. Though the jokes are broad, the premise wears thin. These guys only do this once a year, so reading the book is like cramming all those years into one sitting. It’s a little hard to digest. And at the end, it’s still hard to decide on which one, latke or hamantash, the smart money should bet.

David Kaufmann cooks for his family nightly in Washington, D.C.

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Food Fight

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