Me, defending the Latke….

I took part in the “Great Latke versus Hamentash” debate, held at the JCC in Krakow during the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival.

I defended — of course — the Latke. My opponent was an American-Israeli stand up comic, Benji Lovitt, and the debate was moderated by Benjamin Lorch.

The whole debate was filmed for a documentary film…. see trailer below:

So far I don’t have pictures of the event — but suffice it to say that it got, well, heated! Especially when Benji tried to prove his point by a fabricated email supposedly written by me — Fake News….(I mean, But My Emails….?)

I’ll try to post more, but here, for anyone interested, is the text of my opening statement:

IN DEFENSE OF LATKES

Latke vs Hamentasch Debate, Krakow, June 30, 2018

Ruth Ellen Gruber

“Let them eat cake.”

This is the legendary put down allegedly uttered by a high-ranking princess when she learned that peasants – that is, the mass of the people — had no bread. It has come to represent the height of elitism and insensitivity on the part of, shall we say, the “upper crust” in regard to ordinary folks – that is, in regard to most of us.

The phrase is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but in fact its origins predate her by decades. In the 1760s, when Marie Antoinette was just a child, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau identified the person who made this disparaging remark only as having been a “great princess.”

“Cake” is the usual English rendition of the original French term, “brioche”. And while Rousseau did not give a nationality for this anonymous princess, he did add a footnote. This stated that the original term that she used was not actually brioche, but – “poche” – short for Poche d’Haman.. That’s Frnech for Hamentash.

Yes, hamantasch. Let them eat Hamantashen.

It makes sense. Because, however you look at it, hamentashcen are – cake. Metaphorically, they are the tasty delight of the plutocracy. They’re dessert. Fun food. And given the wacky excesses encouraged at Purim, they are the ultimate party food. Up there today along with chips, dips, candy, and, yes, even orange-colored Cheetos.

They represent frivolity, folks. Entertainment. Abandon. You can’t really take them seriously.

And this, by the way, makes it perfectly fitting that the organizers of this debate have chosen a stand up comic to defend them.

You can’t live on hamentashen. Unless you patronize a Jewish-style café such as those here in Krakow that serve them all year round, you eat hamentashen only at Purim.

And need I remind you that Purim is a party. You’re supposed to get drunk. Act out. Act wild. Do things that you ordinarily would not do.

Even the very act of eating hamentashen with their traditional fillings can give rise to hilarity, if not derision. The poppy seeds always get caught in your teeth and look comically gross. And need I mention the effect of prunes? What other food is associated with garish noisemakers, anyway?

You can’t change the nature of Hamantashen. You can try — but if you fill one with cheese, for example – it becomes, basically, a baked blintz.

Latkes on the other hand, are the staff – or, given their shape, the stepping stones – of life. Think of them laid out, one after the other, crisp on the outside, cloud-like on the inside — charting a course through the tangled terrain of Jewish existence.

They are sustenance. You eat them all year round. They don’t just feed the people, they nourish them — us. Unlike Hamentashen, they can be eaten as any part of a meal, depending on how you serve them: with sour cream or even a meat sauce as a main dish; naked with a little salt and pepper as a side dish; with apple sauce or sugar to sweetly end a repast. As such they are in many ways nature’s perfect cooked food.

Moreover, they are simple to prepare for a people, like the Jews, who have been historically on the move. You don’t need an oven to bake them; you don’t need to wait for dough to rise; just mix them up and fry them in a pan over any type of heat source. Even, it has been reported more than once – but this could be an urban legend — on city pavements in lower Manhattan on scorching hot summer days.

When my own ancestral family members immigrated to Texas from what is now Lithuania, that’s what they did. They started out poor, like most immigrants. Some of them, like my great-uncle Hyman Simon, who died in 1941, started out as peddlers who plied the dusty roads of east Texas with horse and cart. As part of his travel kit Hyman always had a cast iron skillet and an easy to store and carry bag of potatoes, and bottle of oil, or usually, in his case, a chunk of rendered goose fat lovingly packed by his wife, Sarah, my grandmother’s oldest sister, who lived to be 101 years old.

Likewise, my grandfather, Joe Moskowitz, was a surveyor who traipsed through the Texan swamps, oil fields and snake-infested highlands in a Stetson hat and knee-high boots. He often had to camp out at night and prepare dinner in the wild, in his own cast-iron skillet over a campfire.

What did he prepare? Latkes of course. The cowboys he sometimes shared a campfire with would chow down on their beans and bacon. But Joe Moskowitz kept kosher.

When he was really ravenous, out in the wilds, he would tell folks that he was so hungry he could eat a ham sandwich…. But he didn’t. He didn’t have to. He had latkes.

I have my grandfather’s notebook where he kept track of all this. He noted down how many latkes he ate, what they looked like, what topping he ate them with, and how many potatoes he used to make them.

And my brother still uses that same cast iron skillet in his ultra modern kitchen in California.

I don’t think it has ever entered my brother’s mind to bake Hamentaschen. But he cooks with that skillet every day. It is very well seasoned after nearly a century of oily use, and it’s still perfect for making latkes.

So what’s the “perfect” Jewish food?

Frivolous once-a-year party fare? Pastries whose filling gets stuck in your teeth and may have other, ahem, digestive effects?

Or the versatile latke, whose savory fried goodness, dressed up or dressed down, sustains and, more importantly, nourishes the Jewish people, and has done so for generations?

The answer, friends, is clear. Power to the People!

 

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