‘Oy Vey!’ Profs spar over Jewish grub

It is a question that has echoed through the ages, transcending the earthly lines of era, nation and designated meal times: latke or hamentashen? Potato pancake or triangular pastry? For me, the answer has always been wrapped up in whether or not sour cream was implicitly included with the former, or if it were supposed to be judged on its merits alone. For while a latke with sour cream is delicious, a latke without is like Batman without Robin or Batman without his fancy gadgets – leaving him nothing more impressive than a lonely rich man in a silly costume. 

But who am I to say? I certainly don’t have the credentials to answer with any sort of authority, a position many of us find ourselves in, I’m sure. Thankfully, the Williams College Jewish Association, in a spectacular use of the College’s intellectual resources, put together a panel of distinguished faculty to address this important issue in their annual event aptly titled “The Latke-Hamentashen Debate.” 

Bill Wagner, dean of the faculty and history professor, started off the debate with an attack on hamentashen, declaring them “the embodiment of Old Regime Europe” in contrast to the latke-like modern self that emerged from the said regime’s disintegration. It was a gutsy claim to make, but Wagner drew convincing parallels between the hamentashen’s triangular shape and medieval power structures. He also drew the concerned audience’s attention to the similarly triangular feathered hats of the conservative European nobility, which seems to be ye olden days’ version of “The Man.” The latke, by contrast, is much more egalitarian and malleable, retaining its latke-ness whatever its shape, bending where the hamentashen would break. 

Thomas Smith of the chemistry department, the next to take to the podium, was unmoved by Wagner’s appeal to morality, and instead turned the cold, hard lens of science on the issue. Smith promised to offer “no opinions, just data,” and with his PowerPoint presentation and white lab coat, I couldn’t help but believe him. Smith pointed out that nutritionally, latkes are about on par with ice cream, a buzzword that was a real crowd pleaser for a small but vocal 12-and-under demographic. However, most of Smith’s evidence for the hamentashen’s superiority rested on the new science of molecular deliciousness, which made up for its shaky methodology with awesome pyrotechnics.

Unfortunately for Smith and hamentashen-enthusists everywhere, Lisa Corrin, director of WCMA, was ready with some visual aids of her own. Corrin presented evidence that it was the latke that inspired Jackson Pollack to create the method of drop painting he became so famous for. Performing formal analysis on both the hamentashen and latke to back up this claim, Corrin explained that, while the hamentashen was the very image of conformity, the latke was “the potato version of Martha Graham.”

Philosopher professor Will Dudley, who closed the debate, countered Corrin by pointing out that “misshapen and imperfect is not the same as liberated,” before beginning his Kantian analysis of hamentashen. Dudley decided to leave the projection screen used by his peers behind and presented his argument solo, as he said, “out of a deep respect for Moses and Charlton Heston, neither of whom used PowerPoint to deliver the Ten Commandments.” His analysis concluded with the point that the hamentashen’s superiority comes from the fact that its ends are morally good – in the battle between good and evil, the latke will only lead us into temptation.

Suffice it to say, the arguments on both sides were good – too good, in fact, so that I left the event less sure than I had been when I arrived. But perhaps that is the true gift of the Latke-Hamentashen Debate – the way it engages our minds and hearts, how it emphasizes the intellectual process over the elusive answer. Then again, perhaps the truer gift is the culinary bounty of the event, so that whichever side we find ourselves on, once a year we can gather and eat whichever we like to our boych’s content.