Latkes and Lights: Celebrating Hanukkah with Culinary Traditions

As the sun set in Cincinnati, Ohio last week, the sizzle and snap of hot oil could be heard in kitchens all over the city! Latkes galore were frying in pans as the Jewish community celebrated the 8 days and nights of Hanukkah, a holiday not only rich in tradition, but rich in food (both caloric and physical amount)! 

These meals brought us together as we shared in laughter and light with friends and family, lighting the candles of the menorah and singing joyous songs. But in the opinion of many, it is the food itself that is one of the most exciting parts of this holiday, and it is the food that brings us together time and time again. This year, three Jewish organizations got together to host a delicious Hanukkah Cooking Party for the 20s and 30s crowd, and I was there to hear why cooking is so special to the guests (and of course sample some food myself). 

Hosted by the Mayerson JCC, Cincinnati Jewish Experience, and the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, the Kosher menu consisted of a baked salmon, penne a la vodka, fresh green salad, and arguably the best part, lots and lots of latkes. Each of the guests in attendance shared the cooking responsibilities, and as friendships were made, so was the meal. The room was full of smiling faces, all working in tandem to make a sauce or chop some veggies, many attendees learning a new cooking skill in the process. As everyone cooked and enjoyed time together, I sat down with a few of the guests to learn what it is about the holiday of Haunkkah, and the foods we enjoy along with it, that are so special to them. 

“When it comes to the food for Hanukkah it all has symbolism to it,” says Sam Rheins, a local Rabbinical student. “When you eat the food, it is about remembering. If you eat a latke and don’t remember the messages behind it, the story of Hanukkah and being proudly Jewish, then a latke is just a latke. But remembering that symbolism helps to elevate it from a simple food to a special Jewish food.”

The fried foods such as latkes and sufganiyot remind us of the miracle within the story of Hanukkah. While our own oil doesn’t last 8 days and 8 nights, the act of tradition stands the test of time. The feelings of joy and love that we create in our celebrations stay with us, and often create lasting memories that sometimes attach themselves to food. No matter the location, no matter the time of year, a bite of something tasty can transport you to another time entirely. 

For some this evocation of memories helps them stay close to family even when far away. 

“When I’m home our family does a big Hanukkah party with our entire extended family, and latkes are the most favored item,” said Zoe Mosow. “Now, my favorite part of the holiday has become lighting candles every night over FaceTime with everyone so we can still share that core memory and core part of what Hanukkah really is about… so when I eat a latke, it helps me stay close to family as well.”  

Sam Fedor, another guest at the event, had a very different experience, and has largely made her own Hanukkah traditions, cooking included.

“I didn’t grow up with big family traditions in Judaism,” explained Sam. “In college I started to get really into cooking… One thing led to another and now, for years, I have been hosting my friends for a [Hanukkah] meal. None of them are Jewish, but we celebrate Hanukkah at least one of the eight nights. The latkes are definitely what brings the people to the house.” 

Towards the end of the evening I was able to sit down with the hosts, Lulu Gordon, Bella Bryan, and Kayla Soroka, to talk about what spurred them to create this event, and why it, and cooking in general, is so special to our community. 

For LuLu Gordon, the Mayerson JCC’s 20s & 30s Engagement Professional, this event was about keeping family traditions, and helping to bring new experiences to Jewish young adults. 

“I think every year Hanukkah is very exciting for a lot of different reasons. I really love to cook; my mom and I would cook together when I still lived at home, and doing a big cooking event where you can see different people’s cooking styles is really fun. Some people who came tonight admitted they never really cook, and I think that’s really nice! They learned how to make traditional Jewish food, and hopefully they look back at this event and think when they did cook a latke it was a lot of fun!”

“In times like these, with the war going on, it’s especially important to spend time together,” shared Bella Bryan, Network and Engagement Specialist for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. 

For her, using this holiday and event to remember the history of the Jewish people was an important aspect. 

“People think of this time as one about getting together and giving or receiving presents, but there is also this aspect of our history that is so important for us to keep passing on to the next generation, through food and through story,” said Bryan.  

“I see food as the Great Equalizer,” said Kayla Soroka, Outreach Director of Cincinnati Jewish Experience. “I think that there is something really cool about being able to get a bunch of diverse Jews in the room and finding one thing that they are all excited about.” 

This feeling of equality and togetherness, remembering our shared history and roots, could be felt throughout the evening. Every savored bite and every new connection made shed a light on the specialness of this holiday. 

“Right now, everyone is talking about the war in Israel because it is so prevalent,” added Gordon. “But Hanukkah is the holiday of light, so it is nice to bring a little bit of that light to this time. Getting people together to bring a little light to our lives right now is really special.”