Hanukkah 2014 kicks off Tuesday at sundown, and all around the world, chefs are preparing their skillets to fry up batches of golden brown potato pancakes known as latkes. But it wasn’t always this way. On Wednesday evening, Harvard historian Yoni Appelbaum took to Twitter to explain the early and occasionally disgusting origins of what is now arguably the Jewish culture’s most delicious culinary treat.
Appelbaum tells Fast Company that this history lesson is “based on a variety of sources, including some medieval compilations of Jewish laws and recent scholarship on the Book of Judith, but drew most heavily on Gil Marks’s superb Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
Many Jewish children learn that latkes, which are deeply fried in oil, are prepared during Hanukkah to symbolize how, more than 21 centuries ago, a single day’s worth of oil for the Holy Temple’s menorah lasted a full eight days. (And now, seemingly, Jews spend Hanukkah commemorating that event by eating eight days’ worth of oil.) But Appelbaum’s explanation effectively debunks this origin story, which prompted one Twitter user to ask if he was “trying to be the grinch who steals Hanukkah?”
Appelbaum is no grinch, though. He just feels it’s important for us to know the truth about where our customs come from. “I’ve always felt that understanding the origins of treats and traditions, and seeing how they’ve changed over time, simply heightens our enjoyment of them,” he says. “Latkes are delicious on their own, but even more delectable when served up with a side of history.”