Latkes with a Louisiana Twist: A Koshersoul Love Story
Latkes are the quintessential Hanukkah staple. Fried potato “pancakes,” cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of eight days of oil for the Temple menorah when only a one-day supply could be mustered, latkes have actually evolved through the centuries. I know one thing: The Maccabees, the Jewish resistance against the Hellenistic Greeks and those Jews who wanted to assimilate, never ate potato latkes (levivot in Hebrew.) It’s highly unlikely they feasted with latkes/levivot of any sort at all. Latkes have had centuries of costume changes, from ricotta pancakes in Italy to buckwheat blini in Eastern Europe, to the potato pancake that emerged in the late 18th century, fried to a golden crisp when grated with onions and dropped in hot goose fat.
It’s really important that people understand that many dishes and traditions that we can’t imagine not going back to antiquity are actually fairly recent in the scale of human time. Frederick the Great encouraged the growth of potatoes when the last ravages of what we now know as the Little Ice Age threatened the crops of Prussia and beyond. Fearing famine would ensue, Frederick — known for being anti-superstition — did not fear the potato, which many saw as poisonous owing to its membership in the nightshade family. He grew the potatoes under guard in his royal gardens, served them to guests and turned a blind eye to those who stole the tubers for seed — peasants hoping to get a mouthful of this new royal delicacy.
Among Eastern European Jews, much like the Irish, the potato caused an uptick in population growth. It was easy to grow in cool climates, having emerged from the Andes region of South America under the care of the Incas and their neighbors. It was versatile, filling and tasty. The population growth also led to the immigration patterns that would eventually bring thousands of Irish and Ashkenazi Jews to the United States and New Orleans itself.
In my book Koshersoul, I trace the melding of African and Jewish diasporas in the Americas — the American South — including but not limited to food. Food plays an enormous role in the celebration of identity and healing of community in both cultures; when those cultures come together, even more so. Years ago I had the blessing of meeting Mildred Covert, co-author with Sylvia Gerson of three beloved kosher Louisiana cookbooks. Meeting her and devouring her work, and being guided by my friend, Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris, I sought out more Southern Jewish recipes often crafted by African American women working for or adjacent to Ashkenazi Jewish women in the South, and recipes by African American Jews searching to demonstrate our culinary improvisation and resilience through our food.
What’s so cool about these Louisiana latkes is that they use the trinity, the pope (I do get the irony), a bit of spice and a deep fry to bring a time-honored dish and tradition into the orbit of Creole cooking and other traditions that have serious roots in the African tradition. In my many travels in West Africa these same staple ingredients — onion, bell pepper, scallion, garlic and hot pepper, along with ginger and turmeric — find their way into most of the signature dishes of the region. Add to that several deep-fried fritters, both sweet and savory, that have been near and dear to many African-influenced traditions including that of Louisiana, and you might just call these latkes Hanukkah calas! They would be welcome in Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti or any bustling marketplace in Nigeria, Ghana or Senegal!
There is room for innovation, variety and improvisation with this treat from the spices you use to the fat you fry them in. Yet, as you prepare them, think about the incredible merger of Black and Eastern European Jewish foodways and the heroic stories of the people who made these Louisiana latkes possible. Add your own spin and pass it down, L’dor v’dor, generation to generation.
Michael W. Twitty is the winner of two James Beard Awards for The Cooking Gene, as well as Rice by UNC Press. His latest book, Koshersoul: The Food and Faith Journey of an African American Jew, won the Jewish National Council’s National Jewish Book Award for the 2022 book of the year.