In defense of hamantashen

The Week

The three-cornered Purim pastry has long lived in the beloved latke's long shadow

This weekend is the Jewish holiday of Purim, and families will be headed to the bakery for the hamantashen, the traditional triangular poppy seed or fruit filled pastries. But the hamantash has always had a hard time competing with the latke, the potato pancake eaten at Hanukkah, in the age old latke-hamantash debate.

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As we discussed a few months ago during latke season, the University of Chicago has held a formal, academic debate on the merits of the latke versus the hamantash every year since 1946. This year, due to a dispute involving the previous sponsor of the debate, it was held in mid-February, just before Purim, instead of just before Hanukkah, as it had been in past years. Could things be looking up for the hamantash?

The debate still came down on the side of latkes this year, but not unanimously. Law professor Douglas Baird stood up for the hamantash, citing the unhealthiness of the greasy latke. At Slate, L.V. Anderson writes, "if you’re an unthinking member of Team Latke, you clearly have never had a good hamantasch," and goes on to give the recipe for a good and proper homemade hamantash. In honor of the underappreciated Purim treat, here are 4 classic arguments for the hamantash from the latke-hamantash debate.

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FROM THE LATKE, THE HAMANTASH, AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A SYMBOL OF THE AMERICAN NATIONAL CHARACTER, BY HISTORIAN HASIA DINER:

"After all, what is a hamantash? A three-cornered pastry, it has no single property which characterizes it, but rather like the pluralism Horace Kallen hoped for in a liberalized America, it derives its essence from the distinctiveness of its parts. It is made up of two equal sections — the crust and the filling — neither of which has to give up anything in order to be part of the whole. Unlike latkes, the symbol of the melting pot with its narrow definition of American identity, the hamantash does not require people to subject themselves to meltdown nor does it force them to have their cultures and customs beaten out of them and amalgamated in a bowl or frying pan. Rather, it offers a culinary/cultural metaphor of gently wrapping the dough of America around an almost infinite array of fillings, and thus proving that diversity can be folded into the American system without surrendering integrity and authenticity."

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FROM THE HERMENEUTICS OF HAMANTASH, BY EMELIE S. PASSOW, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE:

"Indeed, aesthetically, the hamantash incorporates more elements of a robust creative process than does the lame latke. Simply compare and contrast these elegant steps necessary to mold a hamantash with the messy ones implicated in preparing the latke: to gather (the flour, eggs, water, oil, and sugar), to knead, to shape, and to fill with…to peel, to putter, and to fry.

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"Aurally speaking, the hamantash bakes in silence akin to the workings of the mysteries of the universe: light, gravity, consciousness. In other words, the hamantash is no less than an objective correlative for the unbearable lightness of being."

FROM THE HAMANTASH IN SHAKESPEARE, BY LAWRENCE SHERMAN, PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE:

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"Shall I compare these to a hot latke?
Thou art less fattening, more digestible,
While heartburn is the latke-eater's lot
(A fatal fact quite incontestable).
Consumed by that which he was nourished by,
The glutton soon cries out in vain, "Surcease,"
And then his appetite and he both die
As martyrs to an overdose of grease.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Immortal poppy seed, O Hamantash:
The gourmet's appetite thou ne'er dost jade
When happily he has thee for a nosh.
Thy taste a taste of heaven must fortell.
While slippery latkes line the road to hell."

FROM LATKE VS HAMENTASH: A MATERIALIST-FEMINIST ANALYSIS, BY SOCIOLOGIST ROBIN LEIDNER:

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"Feminist scholars have demonstrated again and again that gender categories are malleable and that variation within genders is virtually always greater than average differences between genders. The hamentash is a perfect representation of this more flexible, culturally variable, view of gender. For while the hamentash begins as a circle (which Shapiro tags female), it becomes a triangle through conscious human intervention, without ever losing its qualities of circularity. The hamantash is an inspiring demonstration of the possibilities of overcoming essentialist dualisms: without the circle, there could be no triangle, and without the triangle, the circle would be empty. The hamantash provides a vision of human possibility that similarly integrates the strengths that have been attributed to men and women. I leave you with the hope that some day we all can achieve that blending of circle and triangle, the synthesis of smoothness and crunch, the simultaneous embodiment of openness and fullness that we find in the hamantash." 

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