Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Latkes And Applesauce: What's The Deal!?

Ah, latkes, the favorite fried potato treat eaten by Jews all over during the holiday of Chanukah, which we now find ourselves celebrating. Though hashed browns - a latke equivalent typically served at breakfast/brunch - are available to consume all year, Jewish people make the extra effort to grate and fry (or just reheat frozen premade) latkes and serve them during Chanukah meals.

One thing that has always bothered me about how Jews eat latkes is what we have chosen as a condiment - the tafel to the ikkar of the potato pancake: sour cream and applesauce. I've never been a big fan of sour cream, but I can understand its association with potatoes, since many people regularly put sour cream on their baked potato throughout the year. Applesauce, on the other hand, just leaves me scratching my head. Does anyone honestly put applesauce on their baked potato or any other potato related dish (mashed potatoes + applesauce?) at any other time of the year?

Why do we do this!?
I was contemplating this dilemma and came up with a Hebrew vocab related connection that sort of makes sense (at least to me). Perhaps there is something of significance in the linguistic similarity of "Tapuach" = "Tapuach Adama" (or in English "Apple = Potato"). Let me paint a little historical vignette that better explains my theory:

Maybe one year just before Chanukah some local shop keeper in Europe placed his annual order for potatoes to his dry goods provider, which he wrote as "Tapuach Adama." Somehow, that particular item on his list was inadvertently partially erased, and now just read "Tapuach," with the word "Adama" no longer legible. The dry goods supplier read the order and scratched his head, wondering why the shop keeper didn't want potatoes for Chanukah. But, due to the limits of communication back in those days, he couldn't check with him in time, and instead went ahead and filled it out as it was now written, sending a bushel of apples.

Boy, the look on the store keeper's face when he got that crate of apples instead of potatoes must have been fantastically funny. Imagine further the shopkeeper trying to get rid of his surplus stock of apples in the place of the expected potato influx that year - all those creative advertisements and announcements he came up with to grab people's attention and convince potential buyers that this was the thing to buy/eat/make for Chanukah.

Somehow he was able to "sell" his idea to the townspeople, who then made applesauce or whatever instead of latkes. The idea was slow to catch on, but by the end of the chag, everyone was raving about the apples and apple dishes. In the end, everyone had a happy, though ever-so-slightly-different Chanukah seudah experience that fateful year.

I figure that the evolution of the comestible custom continued the following year when the people really enjoyed their apple-based Chanukah treats. They implored the storekeeper to order apples along with the more traditional potatoes, having decided to preserve their new-found minhag along with the established practice of potato latkes. Thus, a strange, yet tasty new Jewish dish was born: latkes with applesauce.

I know, I'm probably totally off my rocker for even contemplating this sort of thing (let alone to the degree which I've fleshed out the fictional historical incident here), but has anyone else ever thought about this?

Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, Potatoes, which are indigenous to South America, were not introduced to Europe (via the Spanish) until the 1500's. Apples, in stark contrast, are actually native to to the region the world near/including Israel (IE Turkey), which predates that by close to 2,000 years.
The culinary minhag for Chanukah generally dictates making some dish using (olive) oil as a reminder of the miracle of the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash remaining lit for 8 days. This explains the custom of Sephardic, Israeli, and Polish (huh?) Jews making fried dough creations with jelly in them (aka sufganiyot), since fried dough and stuffed food items are mentioned in the Gemara.

Latkes, by contrast, would have been a much later development, and seem to be more exclusively associated with Ashkenazi Jews, who possibly got the whole potato frying thing from neighboring gentiles as potatoes and potato recipes began to spread through Europe thanks to the Spanish.

So my crazy theory might be just that: entirely ludicrous. At any rate, enjoy your various oil-fried festive Chanukah foods!

Have a lichtegen, freilechen Chanukah!*

*an illuminated and happy Chanukah


  1. Well, now that Chanukkah is over and I have a chance to catch up on my blog reading, I have to tell you that in my family, we put apple sauce on potato kugel all year round. It's NOT just Chanukkah thing.

  2. Until you can prove otherwise, I'll consider you a da'as yachid, my friend. Maybe you're a descendant of that shop keeper in my theoretical story :-D

  3. Sorry it took me so long to post. Just wanted to tell you in my family we eat potato kugel and apple pie for dessert any time of year.

  4. I'm a little confused, you eat potato kugel for dessert with apple pie on top/mixed with it? That's still not the same thing. At least JH had applesauce.

  5. We take a slice of apple pie and a piece of kugel and we eat it sort of like pie and ice cream, you know a little of each on the spoon at the same time. It's not exactly the same thing, but it's the same idea, apple mush, and potato kugel, and it's really yummy.


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