I think most people in America today would agree that when they think Chanukah, they think potatoes. Even if you are making an exciting alternative butternut latke or enjoying some homemade sufganiyot for the big Chanukah party, they are probably sharing the table with the ubiquitous potato latke.
While the tradition has its roots in the Ashkenazic fare of old, in the Mid-Atlantic it just makes sense to eat potatoes in the early winter. Most crops require some technology to get them to last past the growing season and into the cold months, but potatoes lend themselves naturally to storage life.
They weren’t always humble, however; at various times over the course of human history, the Solanum Tuberosum has played daring, cathartic and even tragic roles in the ongoing saga of the human condition.
Originally a wild, toxic plant of the Andes, the potato was first domesticated by the Inca around 8000 BC. In 1536, the Spanish conquistadores came to Peru, and after decimating the native population with disease and warfare, they brought the potato back to Spain, and from there, it proceeded to spread across Europe. In 1621, someone sent a case of potatoes over the pond to the colonies in the ”new” world, and the potato then spread back across the continent westward, completing its loop of global conquest.
When people in Europe first discovered just how nutritious the potato was and how many calories could be produced on an acre (potatoes are packed with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and potassium), it became a staple crop across Europe, particularly in Ireland and Scotland where the cool weather favored its production.
It was so popular that by the time the potato blight made its way to the area in the 1840s and annihilated the crop, so many people were dependent upon that single crop that over a million starved to death, and a million more emigrated to America and Canada. (Let that be a lesson in biodiversity—don’t ever plant just one variety of anything!)
Today, potatoes are one of my favorite crops to grow and almost always rewarding. You sow actual chunks of seed potato in the early spring, planting them deep in the still cool soil. They grow quickly into towering green plants soon sending up stalks with little purple, pink or white flowers (which were once worn by nobility as a status symbol), followed by small green fruits. Don’t be misled—like their sibling plants in the Solanacaea family, all parts of the plant (except for the potato, of course) are deadly poisonous.
We pile soil around the base of the plant during the growing season and lay straw mulch on top of that to encourage more tubers and wait until the late summer when the greenery starts to die back. At this stage, the fun begins, and we pull the plant out and dig carefully around the roots. This part is always a great project for kids, and much joy and excitement ensues as little hands discover nests of red, blue and yellow gems just below the surface of the soil.
Potatoes are the perfect food to eat around Chanukah, our holiday of growing light. While we are lighting an ever-expanding collection of candles, sowing seeds of light during the darkest time of the year, our tables are graced with tubers, which grew and took form in perfect darkness.
Potatoes go well with lots of things, but cheese and oil are two of the best. Luckily these two ingredients also fit well with Chanukah, which can also be seen as the final harvest celebration of the Jewish year, celebrating the completion of the olive-pressing season in Israel. Additionally, medieval commentator Nissim HaGaon explains that the Jewish heroine Judith (Yehudit), who is associated with the holiday of Chanukah, used her own salty cheese to dupe the Syrian general Holofernes into drinking too much strong wine and hence giving her the chance to cut off his head and save the Jews.
This year, while grating or slicing our potatoes, let’s think of ways we can draw on our traditions to push back the darkness and bring more light into the world.