Joan Nathan serves up the backstory on latkes at Stanford

Latkes? An age-old Jewish tradition? Think again.

While pancakes have been around for some 12,000 years — millennia before the Maccabees put their stamp on an ancient winter celebration — potato pancakes are a relatively recent phenomenon. So said award-winning Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan, who lectured last week on “The Latke and Civilization” at Hillel at Stanford.

Although the Conquistadors brought potatoes back from South America in the late 1500s, the lowly spuds didn’t hit Eastern European tables until the early 1800s. At first, they were viewed as animal fodder.

“They were a harder sell than tomatoes,” said the Washington, D.C.-based author, addressing some 250 academics and foodies at an event sponsored by several Stanford organizations as well as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. An explorer of regional and global cookery, Nathan already has published 10 cookbooks.

The earliest pancakes, Nathan pointed out, likely were gluten free, thanks to the abundance of chickpeas, a go-to ingredient in ancient Middle Eastern recipes. In fact, while researching her forthcoming book, “King Solomon’s Table,” which explores Jewish cooking from around the world, Nathan came upon some 44 pancake recipes inscribed in cuneiform on tablets from 1700 BCE. She handled the tablets at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, sharing the photographs during her presentation.

 

Joan Nathan (left) shmoozes over latkes after her lecture at Stanford Hillel. photo/janet silver ghent

Peppered with spices and seeds, these pancakes were savory, rather than sweet, she said. But since ancient times, the griddlecake continued to evolve, while taking inspiration from its roots in past civilizations. The potato pancake came of age in the folk cuisines of 19th- and 20th-century Europe, from the Hungarian placki to the German kartoffelpuffer to the Irish boxty. But the Yiddish word “latke,” derived from a Russian word for “little pancake,” didn’t appear in major Jewish cookbooks until the mid-20th century. In fact, the 1906 “Aunt Babette’s Cook Book,” one of the earliest Jewish cookbooks in America, makes no mention of latkes, but does include a recipe for potato pancakes, a breakfast dish served with such sides as tomato preserves.

 

The 1930 and 1946 editions of “The Settlement Cook Book,” which grew out of the Milwaukee settlement house for immigrant Jewish women, eschew the term “latke” in favor of the generic “potato pancake,” Nathan said, pointing to a certain discomfort with Yiddish terms. “It was only in 1952 that the venerable New York Times used the word ‘latke’ to describe ‘a golden brown potato pancake that was served to Jewish troops in Korea.’ ”

But by 1993, when Wolfgang Puck put latkes on a seder menu at Spago in Los Angeles, “Jewish food came of age for foodies,” she said.

Jewish cooking, said Nathan, is all about the cross-pollination of culinary cultures, from the time of Solomon, who reportedly had 700 wives who brought their own traditions to the table, to contemporary America. While the sufganiyot, a jelly doughnut, itself an amalgam of recipes from various countries, became the popular Hanukkah treat in Israel, the latke is the undisputed Hanukkah food in America. It may not rival the rich variety of Christmas goodies, she said, but you can’t beat the aroma. In fact, while Nathan is marketing her cookbooks during the December holidays, she fries up latkes in the bookstores.

These days, she pointed out, latkes have gone gaga, with such un-Jewish adaptations as apple cheddar, pumpkin pie, Brussels sprouts, chile poblano and grilled sweet potato with candied pecans and brown sugar syrup.

“And of course, popular this year, more than ever before, you will see those ancient gluten-free chickpea latkes.”

But Nathan’s favorite remains the traditional potato latke, fried up with onions and served with applesauce (ideally, homemade) and sour cream. That’s what the guests enjoyed after her lecture, the old country aromas amplified by the melodies of the Stanford Klezmer Band.

Nathan wasn’t selling books, as “King Solomon’s Table” won’t be out until April. But if they had been available, they surely would have sold like hotcakes.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].