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NPR Arts & Life

The Traditional Food Debate Rages On: Latkes Or Hamantaschen?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Coke versus Pepsi, French fries versus tater tots, hotdogs versus hamburgers - there are a lot of famous food rivalries, but at the University of Chicago, the real contention is between two traditional Jewish holiday dishes, latkes and hamantaschen. For 70 years, the university has hosted a debate where professors take the stage to argue which is better. Hal Weitzman teaches at Chicago Booth, the business school at the University of Chicago. He moderates the annual latke versus hamantaschen debate. He joins us now. Hal, welcome to our program.

HAL WEITZMAN: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: For those who are unfamiliar, perhaps you should tell us what are latkes? What are hamantaschen?

WEITZMAN: Sure. Well, latke is a fried potato pancake that's traditionally eaten on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. And a hamantasch is a baked cake or cookie filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves that's traditionally eaten on the Jewish holiday of Purim.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in my opinion, one is sweet, and one is fried, so there's no contest.

WEITZMAN: (Laughter) Which one would you go for, Linda?

WERTHEIMER: I'd go for fried, of course - fried.

WEITZMAN: OK. Well, I should tell you that the latke has actually won in 70 of the past 70 latke-hamantasch debates.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

WEITZMAN: So, you know, the vote is somewhat fixed, which is perhaps no great surprise, given we are in Illinois.

WERTHEIMER: What do they argue about? Do they argue about whether they like it or not?

WEITZMAN: Well, you know, I mean, this is the University of Chicago, so it's much more cerebral than a simple matter of taste or opinion. They bring by rigorous arguments based on their fields of expertise.

WERTHEIMER: We have here Wendy Freedman. She's an astrophysicist at the university. She worked on the Hubble telescope.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

WENDY FREEDMAN: Hubble discovered that the universe is filled with billions and billions of galatkes.

(LAUGHTER)

FREEDMAN: These galaxies, as the galatkes are now referred to, are taking part in a global expansion of the entire universe. Even with the powerful Hubble Space Telescope, you don't see gal-hamantaschen (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Here's David Nirenberg. He's a dean at the university.

DAVID NIRENBERG: And I'd also like to offer my apologies to the organizers of the latke-hamantaschen debate because after this definitive demolishing of any alternative opinion, I don't really see how we can have future debates in future years.

WERTHEIMER: In fact, no one spoke up for hamantaschen at this debate - isn't that right? - in the most recent one.

WEITZMAN: They didn't this year, but, I mean, in previous years, we've had a pretty balanced panel. But this is a debate that deserves to rank up there with the disputes between the likes of Einstein and Niels Bohr, Tesla and Edison or Kanye and Taylor Swift. So, you know, the idea that we resolve it in one evening is fanciful thinking.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that after the debate, somebody lays on a spread of food that includes both latkes and hamantaschen. Now, I'm betting that all of these brainy people at the University of Chicago would try both - equal opportunity noshing.

WEITZMAN: Absolutely. And I think this really gets to the heart of it, Linda. As I said at the debate last year, if you take hamantasch, you remove the butter and the sugar, the jam and the baking powder, the vanilla extract and the orange zest, and then you add potatoes and onions and deep fry it, what you get is latke. And that just goes to show how similar we all are at our core.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Thank you very much. Hal Weitzman teaches at the University of Chicago. He is going moderator of the annual latke versus hamantaschen debate. So, Mr. Weitzman, are you going to have one next year?

WEITZMAN: Well, my expectation is we will and probably for the next 70 years, as well.

WERTHEIMER: OK. Well, thank you very much.

WEITZMAN: Happy holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.