Chanukah began Sunday evening. Even if you hadn’t looked at a calendar recently, you would have known weeks in advance. Walking through town, you would have seen the increasingly large and elaborate displays of doughnuts, the holiday’s symbolic food, at every bakery and grocery store.
Symbols are supposed to remind us something. A symbolic food should should connect us to the history of the holiday it is eaten on and the values it embodies. So what is the connection between doughnuts and Chanukah?
Oil. More specifically, olive oil.
The central miracle of Chanukah is one of oil. After the Maccabees redeemed Jerusalem from the Hellenists, they found only one small jar of pure olive oil in the desecrated Temple. When the Temple was rededicated, the priest poured this oil into the Menorah. The jar contained enough oil to last one day. It miraculously burned for eight full days, until fresh oil could be made and brought to the Temple.
Olives are harvested and gathered from October through the end of December. In the days before refrigeration and cold storage, once the season was over, no more olive oil could be made until the next year. That they could make fresh oil and bring it to Jerusalem is evidence that the Temple rededication did occur at this time of year.
Thus Chanukah’s symbolic food is oil, or, more exactly foods cooked in oil. The Ashkenazi food for the holiday is the latke, a potato pancake fried in oil. Today, most Jewish cookbooks include recipes for latkes made with zucchini, carrots, or beets. Last week I saw a recipe for Indian spiced cauliflower latkes. Our foremothers would surely have rolled their eyes at most of these versions. I know my own mother would have.
Many Eastern European countries have traditions of eating fried sweetened dough. The Russian ponchiki and the Austrian krapfen are two examples. The doughnut, or sufganiya, is the fried food adopted by the linguist Israel. The word, sufganiya, although created by Prof. David Yellin in 1896, has an ancient origin. The Talmud refers to a particular soft spongy food as sfog. Doughnuts are called sufganiyot because they tend to soak up the oil they are cooked in.
Traditional doughnuts, those fried in a deep pot full of hot oil, should not soak up much oil. However, even perfect doughnuts do have a slightly greasy feel.
Almost since Succot ended, six weeks ago, bakeries have been making small batches of doughnuts. But in the last week, they have moved into high gear. It is hard to avoid seeing or smelling doughnuts; next week it will be impossible to do so.
Whereas once sufganiyot were all filled with strawberry jam, today the flavors are limited only by the baker’s imagination. Most stores sell sufganiyot with jam, chocolate, vanilla, and dulce de leche fillings. I’ve also seen sufganiyot with cappucino, blueberry crunch, mocha, halva, pistachio, Bavarian cream, Oreo cheesecake, and creme brulee fillings. But I haven’t tasted all of them. Some fillings, like the marshmallow or banana, don’t even tempt me. Nonetheless, I uphold my share of the seasonal consumption of 18 million sufganiyot.
But in all the doughnut frenzy, we should not forget the essential miracle of the holiday, the miracle of the oil, whose light has lasted for over two millennia.