March 9, 2006

Jewish Foods Square Off

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Over 250 years ago, arguably the most monumental event in all of history took place: the invention of the latke.

Described by most as a potato pancake, the latke is said to have originated in Europe around the late 18th century. Today it is a part of the culinary tradition surrounding the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, but enjoyed by peoples of all faiths or lack thereof.

However, the achieved glory of this acclaimed potato pancake is perpetually threatened by its renowned rival: the hamentash. This triangular shaped cookie enjoyed during Purim offers something the latke cannot: a center pocket containing either fruit or chocolate filling. This delectable pastry has proven to be quite the competitor – the bête noire – of the latke, in other words.

It has been a fierce battle over the years, but yesterday evening, five Cornell professors attempted to bring an end to the showdown by deciding a victor and finally achieving the long-awaited peace.

Mediated by Denice Cassaro, the assistant director for community center programs, the debate consisted of professors on both sides arguing for their respective Jewish food. A rebuttal and an audience challenge followed.

Arguing for Team Latkes were Prof. David I. Schwartz, computer science, Prof. Harry Katz, the Jack Kheinkman Professor in Collective Bargaining and dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Prof. Joe Regenstein, food science.

“I have complete faith in Team Latkes. Latkes are absolutely classic. It might be the added grease and oil,” said Erica Waichman ’08, a food science major.

Arguing for Team Hamentashen were Prof. Jan Katz, management, and Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication.

Team Hamentashen had the support of David Landers ’07, who admitted, “I’m a prune hamentashen man.”

The Great Latke-Hamentashen debate first originated in the University of Chicago about half a century ago and has since spread to universities around the country. Cornell has hosted the debate before, but unfortunately the record of the decided champion has been lost. Since this controversy was too important to let go, Hillel decided to bring the debate back.

Schwartz began the debate, announcing, “Latkes rule! As far as I’m concerned, the debate is over.”

Schwartz, being a computer science lecturer and director of the Game Design Initiative at Cornell, likened the rivalry to a battle game. He titled his game “L v H: Total Devastation,” or to make it more Jewish, “L v H: Total Devastation 5766.” He discussed the superior weapons of latkes, such as hot oil attacks and regeneration powers, over the weapons of hamentashen, such as dough spikes and jelly squirts. He used a storyboard to illustrate that latkes are indeed the masters of the game and therefore, the masters of the Jewish culinary tradition.

Jan Katz fired back with her presentation of “Hamentashen: Spark of Innovation through the Ages.” She traced the impact of hamentashen on material products, such as billiards, the Superman symbol, and even the Brazilian bikini, to show that hamentash is “an important part of the material world in which we live today [and] the clear dominator of this debate”

Regenstein referred to the latke as “the greatest Jewish contribution to the culinary world,” and used a food science basis to prove the eminence of the latke. One of his most notable points was, “You have the opportunity to have heartburn!”

Team Hamentashen’s second speaker, Lewenstein, donned academic robes to the debate, claiming, “The debate demands the respect that our academic robes provide,” demonstrating the importance of the night.

Lewenstein used history and scientific reasoning in arguing for his pastry and asserted hamentashen’s important contribution to knowledge and science. He referred to the New York Times, which revealed the latke to be the frequent winner in these debates, and warned the audience, “We must always be willing to question the prevailing wisdom.”

Lastly, Harry Katz broke the decision down into one simple issue: concern for the worker. He reminded the audience of the Jewish concern for social justice and therefore, concern for the worker: “The case is simple: the potato farmer or the pastry chef? You choose.”

However, during the period of rebuttal, Jan Katz asserted that those who care about the worker should support hamentashen. She pointed out that making latkes often involves splattering oil, resulting in burns. She held a hamentash above her head and declared, “Workers of the World Unite: hamentashen!”

The audience was asked to participate by choosing sides, shown by which side of the room they chose to sit, and asking questions.

Ari Rabkin ’06 pointed out to Team Latkes that the potato is a new world crop and therefore, “authentically less Jewish.” Team Latke did not respond.

Another student accused hamentashen of perpetuating negative social ramifications by excluding those who cannot pronounce the name of the pastry. Lewenstein was shocked that a Cornell student had made this comment and said, “We are an institution. We have to recognize that we can do some things that others can’t do.”

The ultimate champion was decided by applause from the audience: hamentashen. The heated showdown has ended, and the world can finally rest and be at peace.

While some students, like Diana Cohn ’08, who claimed, “Latkes got shafted,” were disappointed with the outcome, others were confident that the right decision had been made.

Lewenstein’s son, 11-year-old Ari, boldly proclaimed, “Look at the Jewish star. What is it? Two hamentashen!”

Archived article by Christie DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer