On the Jewish food scene: Latke toppings

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Hanukkah before the pandemic, I helped make latkes as part of my chaplaincy work. The staff helping me had never made latkes before and I usually find a way to get my latke-fix during the holiday without actually having to fry any of my own. To my surprise, they were wonderful! Maybe it was because we were eating them right after they left the pan. But what happened next surprised and shocked me.

First of all, you need to know that for most of my life, I took my latkes straight. That’s right, no applesauce and no sour cream. I would eat applesauce separately, but never on or mixed with a latke. However, a few years ago, I was in the mood to experiment and put sour cream on my latke. It was actually good! I now do a mix: I still take most of them straight, but I will put sour cream on a few.

We didn’t have applesauce or sour cream when we made them at my chaplaincy work. That was fine with me. As I said above, they were really good and the person doing the frying made them big. Then one person requested a topping that blew my mind: they wanted ketchup to put on their latke. Horror! Desecration! Of course, I said yes, but it just felt so wrong.

Now, it’s not that I’m against ketchup in general. Anyone who knows me well knows that I love ketchup. For a good portion of my life, the only time I used mustard was on a deli sandwich (those were the days I ate tongue and corned beef), but ketchup on everything else. That meant hotdogs, hamburgers, bologna sandwiches and french fries. I even use ketchup when I eat cold, white meat chicken. So, why did it feel so sacrilegious to put it on latkes?

Someone gave me a good explanation: she thinks of latkes as a variation of a baked potato and therefore sour cream fits. The folks requesting ketchup saw them as a variation of hash browns, something I do put ketchup on. That helped me understand what was happening, but I still can’t imagine ever putting ketchup on my latkes.

Now, I know that it’s fashionable to use a wide variety of toppings on latkes – from smoked salmon to nut butters to fruit chutney to olive tapenade. None of those appeal to me. If I want to fancy up my latkes, I’ll try to convince someone to make sweet potato ones (with nothing on them). Note, please, that I said try to convince someone to make them for me. I love reading and talking about food, but I’m not as fond of making it myself. 

Wishing you a happy Hanukkah no matter what topping you put on your latkes. Just, please, don’t mention any unusual ones to me. I’m still recovering from watching someone eat latkes with ketchup.