The merits of potato pancakes over triangle cookies have been discussed for so many years that even philosophy professor and long-term moderator Ted Cohen has lost count.
Cohen presided over Tuesday’s 62nd—or was it 63rd?—annual Latke-Hamantash debate in Mandel Hall, a venerable U of C tradition which is known for bringing together professors from across disciplines to advocate for their favorite Jewish holiday foods.
Newberger Hillel Executive Director Daniel Libenson prefaced the debate with some remarks, in which he tried to decipher the age-old question, latkes or hamantashen, by applying traditional Jewish exegesis to the foods. At first it seemed like latkes were closely aligned with Barack Obama—the round pancakes form the letter O—and thus the winner of the debate. Further analysis revealed, however, that John McCain is closely tied to the biblical Cain, a farmer, and thus to potatoes, giving hamantash supporters hope that latkes would forever be associated with the losing politician.
“Jewish interpretation has failed once again to solve this issue,” Libenson said of the ambiguous results. He announced that the four debaters on stage would settle the issue.
First to speak was Law School professor Tom Ginsburg. Ginsburg took a political view of the issue, grouping the hamanstash with Obama’s message of diversity and hope.
“We need a new kind of politics,” he said. “Consider the diversity of the hamantash, all different flavors on a single plate.”
Ginsburg also diffused a popular pro-latke point.
“One argument is that the latke is so superior because it’s so delicious with sour cream and applesauce. But what isn’t good with applesauce?” Ginsburg said. “Sour cream and applesauce hide flavor; they don’t bring it out.”
Arguing for the Hanukkah treat was recently installed Rockefeller Chapel Dean Elizabeth Davenport, who began with a drastic reinterpretation of Genesis.
“Go back to the Torah. The first name for God is el shaddai, or ‘the breasted one,’” she said.
“Oh, you mean you never heard about this in shul?” she responded to audience laughter, referring to Jewish schools. “This is why we need female clergy.”
Since the word latke can be traced to the Latin word latres, which means “she who lactates,” Davenport said it is clear that God favored the latke.
Next to defend the jam-filled cookie against the potato pancake was South Asian languages professor Gary Tubb, who studies Sanskrit. He used Sanskrit grammar to prove his point, providing an imaginary mini-debate during his speech.
“Latke is a diminutive form of a word that refers to oily things,” he said. “And words for oil or sticky in Sanskrit refer to like and dislike. [Sanskrit grammarian Pānini] assigns affection to the suffix ‘ke,’ so it means ‘dear little fried thing,” so he must have liked them.”
Tubb was quick to rebut his own point, explaining that a later rule of grammar supplanted the affectionate meaning of ‘ke’ with one of disdain. Taken as a whole, he said, the rules were too conflicting to make a definitive judgment, and passed off the decision to the next speaker.
Professor of medicine Roy Weiss, an endocrinologist, was the final debater, using his knowledge of hormones to prove the latke’s dominance in a slide show he titled, “The latke: the edible anti-obesity hormone-evoking disc superior to the hamantash.”
Weiss joked with the audience that Obama’s recent public purchase of latkes at a diner downtown was a testament to the food’s anti-obesity powers.
“Obama is extremely skinny. If he turns sideways, the Secret Service calls a red alert because they can’t find him,” he said.
Weiss presented “conclusive scientific data” to support that latkes help the body produce hormones that decrease appetite, while hamantashen do the opposite. If true, it would mean that hamantashen caused widespread obesity.
“I tried to experiment on primates, but they wouldn’t stop eating the latkes,” he said.
Cohen closed the debate as he does every year.
“As usual, perhaps one side has prevailed, but as always, we don’t care,” he said. “It goes on endlessly, like the study of the Torah.”