Sorry for being blunt, but I do not care for most Hanukkah foods. This is understandable, as I have a wildly strong sweet tooth and little lust for oily foods. I simply do not get it when my fellow Jews drool all over the latkes, the potato pancakes, they eagerly await every December. Of course, latkes are not the only Hanukkah treats. Jews throughout the world have their regional twists on the oil theme.
Latkes are the choice of Ashkenazic Jews, who trace their roots back to Eastern Europe, hence the emphasis on potatoes. My own grandmother would work tirelessly, standing in the kitchen, hand grating the potatoes for the latkes. Experts tell me they just do not turn out the same if you use a food processer. Despite being an excellent cook, my grandmother, who probably lost more than a bit of skin to the hand grating, could never convince me to love those oil-fried latkes. Today, there are all sorts of varieties of the traditional latkes my grandmother made. You can easily find recipes for sweet potato, mixed vegetable, parsnip and even curried latkes. Our cholesterol, fat-conscious society has also produced the lighter, less oily, oven-baked version of latkes. None of these do it for me.
Had I been born into another family from another part of the world, I would have encountered other oil-soaked foods to avoid. The second most recognized Hanukkah food in America are Israeli sufganiyot, the jelly-filled, powder sugar-covered doughnuts that have nothing to do with what you buy at Dunkin' Donuts. They are fried dough gone wild. There are all types of theories about their origins. Bimuelos, or Loukoumades, is a Hanukkah dessert of the Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean region, particularly Spain, Greece and Turkey. It is consists of honey-covered, fried balls of dough.
Of course, there are modern variations of these oily treats. I recently saw a recipe for Hanukkah beignets, which are similar to the Bimuelos, but larger and without the honey syrup. The recipe suggests that you serve them with Nutella. I would rather just have the Nutella straight up.
Going a step further in the modern interpretation of the ancient, Rhea Yablon Kennedy offers three types of cupcakes in the Hanukkah spirit: jelly-filled sufganiyot cupcakes; lemon cupcakes with olive oil, sage and sea salt; and deep-fried chocolate cupcakes. Sounds like they could win "Cupcake Wars" or "Chopped," if these shows had Hanukkah episodes. I give her big points for creativity, but please save me a chocolate cupcake before it hits the deep fryer.
So, why all the oily, fried delicacies? Hanukkah is not sponsored by the Canola Council; there is a meaningful reason for this culinary tradition. Hanukkah celebrates the 165 B.C.E. victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenized Syrians who fought under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Their military victory culminated in the re-dedication of the previously desecrated Temple in Jerusalem. After driving out the Syrians, the Maccabees led their people in cleaning up the Temple and purifying it so that it could be used once again for the sacrifices to God (the way the Jewish people then prayed). The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) recalls that no pure oil was available to rekindle the Temple menorah, save for one vial. That was enough for one 24-hour period, and yet, the oil miraculously lasted eight days and nights, giving the priests enough time to produce more oil.
In memory of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, not one, we eat oil-laden foods. While I do not care for this culinary tradition, I love the image of something limited lasting to cover the need. (To be fair, there is a less dominant tradition of eating cheese-based foods, but that story is for another time.) There have been so many times in Jewish history when we have had to find an extra reservoir of strength, bravery, faith, patience or perseverance. Certainly, we can all relate to that. So, while I love Hanukkah and its lessons, hold the oil for me.