This Sunday for faithful Jews marks the beginning of the lighting of the menorah for Hanukkah. Along with that comes the spinning of the dreidel, and the making of many delightful delicacies, including the potato latke.
How did the Jews become latke experts? In the late 1700s Eastern Europe was plagued by repeated crop failures. To stave of massive starvation, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great ordered farmers to plant potatoes instead of grains because potatoes grow faster and are hardier to severe weather conditions. Czar Nicholas I continued to enforce this decree and by 1850, the potato was literally entrenched in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Jewish shtetls. The Jews of Eastern Europe, who were for the most part poor and hungry, became experts in potato cookery, inventing dishes like the potato knish, and the latke, originally known as the kartoffelpfannkuchen – say that 3 times fast. It was originally fried in schmaltz, or chicken fat, which must have been super-delicious. But Proctor & Gamble ruined the schmaltz-fried Jewish cookery when they released kosher Crisco, but I digress.
Now Cincinnati should have the best latkes in the country. In 1889, Cincinnati’s Bloch Publishing (the oldest Jewish Printing house in America) printed the first Jewish American cookbook, Aunt Babette’s Cookbook: Foreign and Domestic Receipts for the American Household, which included a latke recipe. Aunt Babette was sort of a fictional Jewish Betty Crocker. Printing Company owner, Edward Bloch’s sister Theresa, was married to none other than Cincinnati’s Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the greatest pioneer of reform Judaism in America. His papers Die Deborah and the Israelite (the oldest American Jewish newspaper) gave Bloch Publishing more than enough work to fill their presses.
The Bloch’s were Jewish immigrants from Grafenried, in the area of then Pilzen, Bohemia. Along with traditional Jewish recipes, the cookbook also contained several recipes for treif (non-Kosher) ingredients such as pork, oysters, and shellfish. Through this and other ways, the cookbook reflected its roots in the assimilationist tendencies of the 19th-century Reform Jewish movement. It was an effort to diffuse the anti-Semitism of the time by educating curious Christian housewives, who might browse the book, about the connections and similarities between the Jewish and Christian holidays, despite their huge theological differences.
Aunt Babette’s first cookbook was followed in 1893 by Aunt Babette’s Home Confectionery (which sells online now for several thousand dollars). This book included recipes “for popular candies simple enough for even a child to make.” They included marshmallow, butter taffy, tutti frutti candy, and one for cherries in cream, which may be the grandmother of the chocolate cherry cordial. The cherry cordial was introduced in about 1904 in Cincinnati by Jewish owned – Isaac Wienreich – Dolly Varden Chocolates, which was in business from about 1900 to 1926. Did Aunt Babette inspire Herr Weinreich’s cherry cordials? It seems very plausible.
The original Dolly Varden Cherry Cordial recipe from book of employee Rob Kissel, 1904.
There are only a few places in Cincinnati to get a real potato latke. Apparently Kinneret Cafe on Plainfield Road makes the best. Shapiro’s Deli in Blue Ash have gotten bad reviews for their latkes. Many associate Izzy’s with the latke, as they were originally Jewish owned, now owned by a Catholic family who worked for Izzy. But their potato pancakes, which are the size of a catcher’s mitt, can not really be called true latkes. Latkes are much thinner, crisper, and lighter than Izzy’s pancakes – bite-sized and small enough for a dollop of sour cream, a small sliver of smoked salmon and a caper or two. And, they don’t require taking Lipitor.