NEWS

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December 1, 2009

Protesters call for gefilte fish at Latke-Hamantash Debate

Third parties overran the Latke-Hamantash Debate in Mandel Hall Tuesday, with gefilte fish protesters and a honey-baked ham advocate arguing in favor of a more diverse Debate over the merits of various Jewish foods.

The Debate was more formally held in honor of Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species were celebrated on campus last month. The Newberger Hillel Center presented the Debate, which was moderated by philosophy professor Ted Cohen.

Held annually since 1946, the Debate features professors arguing over whether the Jewish potato pancake or the Jewish cookie is the superior snack through their own fields of research.

In his opening remarks, Newberger Hillel Director Daniel Libenson tried to use a number of Jewish biblical analyses to uncover whether either latkes or hamentashen were superior. He pointed out that the last Darwin celebration, held 50 years ago, fell 13 years after the first Latke-Hamantash Debate, making that year its bar mitzvah. In a parody of rabbinic tradition, Libenson tried to determine whether the confluence of those events was a coincidence, but his analysis proved fruitless.

Libenson brought in Abraham Lincoln, as well, who was born on the same day as Darwin. He argued that Lincoln’s hat looks like a latke when viewed from above, while Darwin’s beard is triangular like a hamantash, but the results of that analysis were inconclusive.

Harris School Professor Ethan Bueno de Mesquita (B.A. ’96) took his speaking time as an opportunity to vent a frustration he said he’s felt over the course of attending the event four times as an undergrad. There is “a dark conspiracy at the heart of the Latke-Hamentash Debate” meant to keep Ashkenazi foods, or items favored in the Northern and Eastern Jewish tradition, in power, he said.

“If there are Jewish conspiracies, they are not about power, they are not about money. At root they are culinary.”

Bueno de Mesquita, a Sephardic, or southern European, Jew, pointed to the similarity between the words kosher, meaning “dietary laws,” and kesher, meaning “connection” or “conspiracy.”

“This system has never been allowed to evolve!” he said.

Bueno de Mesquita advocated for the introduction of Sephardic foods to the Debate, but said that the move start the debate down a slippery slope the organizers didn't want, leading, hypothetically, to the inclusion of the non-kosher honey-baked ham, which he said is “both deliciously sweet and deliciously savory,” combining the best of both latkes and hamantashen, hypothetically satisfying any Jewish eater’s palate—and settling the Debate once-and-for-all.

Bueno de Mesquita’s speech mimicked protestors who railed against the non-representation of gefilte fish while attendees waited in line, and again during the warm-up acts before the Debate. One protester unaffiliated with the University, Max Handelman, said, “There’s a big, wide world out there of Jewish side dishes. Latkes and hamantashen are not the end of the line.”

Richards, one of the world’s foremost experts on Darwin, claimed the biologist ate a latke-like potato pancake on the H.M.S. Beagle to cure his seasickness. Richards claimed a student of his found a new set of correspondences between Darwin and his sister in an English chemist’s drawer that detailed Darwin’s introduction to the “oleaginous” cure by a “lost tribe” in South America. According to the letters, which Richards read aloud, Darwin had a troubled relationship with his father, and the latkes, which he came to rely on, caused him to hallucinate his father’s face on animals he saw.

Richards said Darwin’s seminal work, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was originally entitled, The Origin of the Father Figure by Means of Natural Confection. He said Darwin had changed the name when he thought the public wouldn’t be ready for such a controversial theory.

Peggy Mason, professor and chair of neurobiology, asked, “What Would Darwin Say?” and found that the Beagle stopped at all the world’s potato growing hotspots as it circumnavigated the globe. She also said interneurons look like latkes, and since a high presence of interneurons indicates intelligence, latkes are evolutionarily the better food.

Mason said she intended to test which food would do best when fed to wild animals, as Darwin would have done, but both were “too tasty” to make it to the experimental stage—she and her partner ate them.

Salikoko Mufwene, professor of linguistics, went through the etymology and evolution of both foods with a slide show but could not come up with a conclusive reading of which is preferable. He concluded in his speech, as the Latke-Hamantash Debate invariably does each year, “de gustibus non est disputandum,” or there’s no arguing about taste—and “thank God evolution does not eliminate variation.”