November 26, 2018

Platonists for Latkes, Economists for Hamantashen

UChicago Hillel hosted the 72nd Annual Latke-Hamantash Debate in Mandel Hall last Monday. Three University professors argued either in favor of the latke, a fried potato pancake, or the hamantash, a triangular cookie with a pocket in the middle for filling. 

“This evening, we will frame our question through the lens of the cosmos,” Hillel Rabbi Anna Levin Rosen said before the debate began. “Which of these Jewish holiday foods is the most out of this world?” 

Philosophy lecturer Ben Callard took the stage first, framing the question as a metaphysical one. He based his argument on the observations of Plato, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jerry Seinfeld.  

He argued that the hole is the closest a human can come to comprehending nothingness, even though the hole itself is not nothing, but merely an imitation of it. The hamantash is a pocket, he argued, and a pocket is nothing more than an imitation of a hole. 

“Holes are made of nothing, but this does not mean that they are nothing. You can make something out of nothing, as I am doing tonight,” Callard said. “Hamantashen sort of are simulation of a simulation of nothingness. What better proof that hamantashen are out of this world?” 

Hamantash, he concluded, belong to the realm of Platonic forms, while the latke is more Aristotelian in nature. 

“The only question that remains is this: ‘Should food be out of this world? Is it a virtue in food to be otherworldly?’ And the answer of course is no. Who wants some abstract coffee or ethereal ice cream cone?” Callard said in his conclusion. “The very fact that hamantashen are out of this world entails, I think, that latkes win the contest.” 

After Callard, Leslie Kay, a psychology professor, also argued in favor of the latke. 

She claimed to have discovered a previously unknown dialogue of Plato in which Socrates discusses the merits of both dishes. Her argument, she said, was a summary of Socrates’s argument. 

Citing the book of Genesis, she said that the sense of smell is the only sense uncorrupted by the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. 

“Eve heard the serpent, she saw the fruit, she touched the fruit, and she tasted it. Nowhere is smell mentioned.” 

“All neural stimuli except for odors are processed in thalamus before being distributed to the cortex,” she said. “We can now assign the thalamus as the origin of sin and the distribution of sinful thoughts.” 

Since the sense of smell bypasses the thalamus, she argued that smell should be the most significant factor in determining the superiority of the latke. 

She continued to cite examples from the Hebrew Bible in which God asks for burnt offerings and incense. Drawing upon these texts, she concluded that the latke smells most similar to the ancient incense and is thus the superior dish. 

Harris senior lecturer Paula Worthington conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the two foods and was the only debater to favor the hamantash. 

She analyzed the prices of a serving of each good and came to the conclusion that latkes are not only more expensive, but also carry significant shadow costs due to complements like applesauce and cottage cheese. However, she argued that since one cannot eat just one latke, the true price was four times that of a hamantash. 

After applying the Cobb–Douglas utility function to the two goods, she concluded that consumers still prefer latkes. 

“On a per serving basis, the enjoyment per latke is $20, while the enjoyment per hamantash is only $5,” she said.  

She went on to examine various shadow costs and externalities associated with both goods, including health impacts, odors, and pollution. She concluded that, societally, the hamantash was preferable to the latke. 

After the debate, members of the audience voted on their preferred dish. Hillel held a reception in which they served both latkes and hamantash. On Wednesday, the latke was announced as the winner of the 2018 debate on Hillel’s Facebook page.