Hanukkah, one of my very favorite holidays, begins at sundown tonight.
It is an eight day celebration of light that comes in early winter, just as the darkness of shorter days is enveloping us along with the first significant bouts of cold.
A menorah — a nine-branch candelabra — will be lit tonight; it includes one candle for each night plus the one that’s used to light the others. Each night, the brightness increases as first one, then two, then finally all nine candles shine in the evening.
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of having one day’s worth of consecrated oil last for eight days once the temple in Jerusalem was rededicated in 165 B.C. after the Maccabean Revolt against the oppressive regime of Antiochus.
Those who know something about the holiday know that latkes are the requisite food. These are a variety of potato pancake, though thinner and crunchier than the standard version; ideally, fine shreds of potato around the edges crisp up when fried in the oil. In the never-ending debate over whether to serve plain potato latkes with sour cream or with applesauce, I always maintain neutrality: I like both.
I always like to try different flavorings, such as adding curry spices, taco seasonings, or the toppings of an everything bagel into the batter. I like latkes that have chopped spinach and crumbles of feta stirred into them, and I once made some Reuben-style with tidbits of corned beef and sauerkraut mixed in. Another favorite was a version of the popular potato skins appetizer in which I used cheese, green onions, and vegetarian bacon (which, after being fried in the latke, was as smoky and sultry as real bacon). I might make an Irish-inspired batch with leeks and chives, or a Peruvian one using aji amarillo hot pepper paste.
In Israel, though, the popular holiday treats are sufganiyot (pronounced soof-GAHN-yote): jam-filled doughnuts. Yes, Hanukkah grants you permission to eat doughnuts — as though you really needed it. What’s not to love?
Many people don’t know that, in addition to all of this, there is a dairy tradition at Hanukkah, in honor of Judith. She brought cheese to Holofernes, the leader of the enemy, when he invited her to dine with him. And as he ate the salty food, he subsequently drank too much. Once he’d passed out, she cut off his head. He had asked her to visit because he’d been quite smitten with her; little did he realize that would become a literal smiting.
In 2016, we had Christmukkah, when the first day of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Day. I gleefully spent weeks planning last year’s story about it, devising a menu that offered cranberry-orange brisket, eggnog-infused challah rolls, and gingerbread rugelach that swirled around a pecan pie-like filling. Each dish honored both Jewish and Christian traditions at once.
In 2013, we had Thanksgivukkah, when Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah overlapped. I served latkes with my turkey, rather than mashed potatoes. And anyone who deep-fried the bird was celebrating with extra flair.
Not having extra festivities doesn’t lessen my enjoyment this year, though. Hanukkah still involves food, family, fun, and, of course, more food.
There’s a saying about many of the Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” It’s a remembrance of the occasion coupled with an appreciation for life and its many joys, such as candlelight, loved ones, and latkes.
And so, you know what I’ll be eating for dinner tonight. Please pass both the applesauce and the sour cream.
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