8 Great Arguments from the Latke-Hamentash Debate
By Arika Okrent
Every year around Hanukkah, eminent scholars don their formal academic robes and convene at the University of Chicago (or on Zoom) to present their arguments on the most important question of our time: latke or hamentash?
The hamentash is a triangular pastry with a sweet filling served during the Jewish holiday of Purim. The latke, of course, is the fried potato pancake eaten during Hanukkah. The merits and drawbacks of each have been passionately expounded upon since the first Latke-Hamentash Debate held in 1946. The rules of the debate, according to Ruth Fredman Cernea in the introduction to her book The Great Latke-Hamentash Debate, are that "all participants must hold a Ph.D. or equivalent degree; arguments should be framed according to the theoretical position and jargon of the participant's academic discipline; and each symposium must include someone who is not Jewish—to lend a note of 'gentility.'"
The tradition of the latke-hamentash debate has since spread to other universities. Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur "Genius" fellows alike have held forth on the metaphysical, philosophical, semiotic, sociological, literary, and historical implications of latkeness vs. hamentashness. In celebration of Hanukkah, here are eight great arguments (one for each night) from previous Latke-Hamentash Debates.
1. From "Latkes, Hamentashen, and the History of Science"
"How else was Kepler able to arrive at the ellipsoidal shape of the orbits of the planets around the sun but by contemplation of the appearance of the well-cooked latke? How else to account for the decrease of the vigor of Italian science in the late Renaissance but by the displacement of the latke by pasta and its subsequent degeneration to mere gnocchi? Can one believe that the fall of an apple is sufficiently inspiring to lead Newton to the theory of universal gravitation? But the slither of a latke to the floor as one attempts to cut it: that is thought-provoking in the extreme. Would that Newton could have admitted the truth." —physicist Morrel H. Cohen
2. From "Notes toward a Reinterpretation of American Literature"
"In the famous chapter 43, entitled 'The Whiteness of the Whale,' Melville confronts us with the fundamental and profound duality of the monstrous creature. Is the whiteness a symbol of virtue and goodness, or is it the emblem of terror and evil? Is the whale a three-dimensional latke, wallowing in its gargantuan and blubbery circularity, bodying forth the benign and virtuous aspect of nature? Or is the whale a gigantic hamantash, tapering from its massive triangular head to its tail fins, and incarnating the darkness, the malevolence, the evil in the universe? Ahab takes the whale for a hamantash, and carries his ship and crew with him to destruction." —Marvin Mirsky, professor of humanities
3. From "Freedom, Latkes, and American Letters: An Original Contribution to Knowledge"
"As anyone who has read Fredrick Jackson Turner knows, the seeds of American democratic institutions were planted on the frontier. And as any student of American history knows, the frontier was a place where the simplest and crudest instruments of life had to do double duty. In cookery, the uncomplicated frying pan was the pioneer's first resource; the axe, rifle, and skillet were the weapons in the conquest of the wilderness. And what kind of dish do we make in a frying pan? I assure you, it is not the high-priced confection. That demands an oven—a more complicated piece of engineering—to say nothing of such exotic, un-American, and civilized ingredients as prunes or poppy seeds." —historian Bernard Weisberger
4. From "The Apotheosis of the Latke"
"Let us begin with Plato. It is not generally known that Plato's immortal writings, nowadays called 'dialogues,' were originally called 'dialatkes.' They were so called, of course, because they provided such a well-rounded, succulent intellectual feast. It was Plato's writings of dialatkes that gave his whole philatkophy its rich and yeasty flavor, both spiritual and earthy. It is even less well known that Plato's greatest pupil, nowadays called Aristotle, was originally named 'Aristlatke,' from the Greek word 'aristos,' meaning 'best,' and 'latke.' In other words, Aristlatke was so called because he was the best of all latke-eaters who participated in Plato's dialatkes." —philosopher Alan Gewirth
5. From "The Scientific Method"
"Sadly, the quark structure of latkes and hamantashen has received precious little attention from scientists. This is due, no doubt, to the scandalous state of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy budgets. What I will unveil now is the outline for a sound scientific program to study the latke/hamatash quark structure. This program is courageous in scope, bold in vision, and, I am most proud to say, damned expensive ... This new machine, the Superconducting Super Hamalatkatron, or SSH for short, can be constructed at the modest cost of 8.264 billion dollars, a price which includes tax, tip, and dealer prep ... The food would be accelerated to high energy using the single strongest force known, the force of guilt." —astrophysicist Edward Kolb
6. From "Euripides' The Cooks of Troy: Hecuba's Lament"
"Up, unhappy head, up from the dust.
This is no longer Troy.
And I, Hecuba, was the chief cook of Troy.
Now we are routed by the Greek onslaught
that laid waste the gleaming kitchen of the kings.
—Greeks greedily gorging on my cakes
(both the round cakes and the sweet pointed cakes)
with a gluttony that knew no moderation.
Alas, the battle of the kitchen lost. Alas, my ruined royal garments.
Yield to fortune, yield to spilled dishwater.
Don't hold life's prow against the swelling tide of garbage." —philosopher Martha Nussbaum
7. From "Heartburn as a Cultural System"
"The riddle of the latke and the homntash can never be 'solved' as such, as it were, until these two are viewed as gustemes of a gustemic poetry of music that is full of sound and fury—at least of prune filling—but that signifies nothing if not heard in its textual plenitude, which we must deconstruct before we can digest. With all due respect to my learned colleagues here assembled, arguing over the priority of invention, or using external criteria of worth, are clearly just the most subjective and unconvincing of partisan strategies. No, once you've caught a code, you've seized the germ of the system of symbols, only in terms of which can any symbol's meaning be understood. It is an edible logic of—if you're not careful with the dough—the concrete." —anthropologist Michael Silverstein
8. From "Restoring the Jewish Canon"
"What is bad is not that the economists say that man can live on latkes or hamentashen alone, but that they are vulgar materialists, not understanding the unique Jewish blending of matter and spirit in them which defies economists' categories. They think that consumer preference should determine the value of these sacred objects, repeating Locke's error that labor is the source of value. They think that there are proper terms of comparison between latkes and, say, pizza. Survival, bodily need, is all they know—as though anyone who was interested in health would eat Jewish food ... Practically, the first thing to be done is to remove this debate from the control of the Manischewitz heretics and their agents, the Business School, and return it to the philosopher-kings; for only when wisdom and latke-hamantash coincide will evils cease." —philosopher Allan Bloom
A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2021.