Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Latkes Controversy

I have a list of other things/recipes I want to blog about, but I wanted to write quickly about a post that turned up in yesterday's Well health blog at the NY Times written by Tara Parker-Pope. Her post was called "Rethinking the Latke," and she offers up some alternatives to the traditional latkes--using zucchini, baking them in the oven and that sort of thing. I'm not opposed at all to trying to make things healthier, esp. things I make and eat often, but man, this column bugged me. It didn't start well, given that her second sentence is, "But for people who are health-conscious year round, it’s hard to imagine ingesting fried potatoes, no matter what the occasion." Um, no, that's not actually true. It's not hard for me to imagine ingesting fried potatoes. It's not even hard for me to actually ingest fried potatoes. From reading the (many) comments, this isn't true for many of her other readers either.

Parker-Pope responded to many of the comments, gamely initially, then seemingly more defensively, then resignedly. She argued that eating fried food bothers her stomach, so she wants a lighter version, which is fine, but she also tried to say that eating even one meal like latkes A YEAR could harm you. (Apparently, she's going to blog more about this.) I'm sorry, but I find this ridiculous, even if there is a scientific study to back it up.

Just last week, I was having a long conversation with my friend Andy (with whom I am going to India in exactly a week!), and we were talking about all the Indian snacks we're going to eat when we're there. He was talking about chaat (a delicious mixture of potatoes, chickpeas, little fried things, tamarind, yogurt sauce and other tasty morsels), and I was talking about chole bhatura, which is a plate of spicy chick peas with fried bread. I told him how whenever I'm in Delhi, I make a special trip to the Bengali Sweet House in Bengali Market to eat their chole bhatura, washed down by a large glass of freshly made pineapple-pomegranite juice. (I've been doing this now for 14 years.) And how whenever I tell this to my friends in Delhi who I stay with--2 thin, yoga-doing fellows--they both start to moan. "Oh, it's so heavy," one of them will groan. "It gives me the burn," the other will chime in. And I will have to point out that it is a meal I eat once a year, at most, and I haven't suffered from it yet. And if I'm feeling mean, I will remind Sunil of how he came with me to the Bengali Sweet House a few years back and attempted to order only juice. He lasted until my plate of chole bhatura arrived, and then his resolve weakened, and he took a bite, and then he gave in entirely and ordered his own. It may have given him "the burn," but he certainly seemed to enjoy it. (Last time I was there, I realized a side benefit of a large chole bhatura lunch, in addition to its deliciousness--I decided to walk off my fullness, so I walked from Bengali Market up to the New Delhi Railway Station, where I had to buy a ticket, and back to, and then around, Connaught Place. I felt quite energetic, and I didn't need a snack (a rare occurrence). Sometimes the fact that Indians often don't eat dinner til 10 p.m. (or later) leaves me feeling like I might have to gnaw my arm off, but that day, I was just fine. Chole Bhatura as energy food! There's a new angle.)

Back to Tara Parker-Pope. I think she was surprised by how strongly her commenters felt. She thought she was offering up healthy alternatives, while many readers took it as sacrilege. (Given that the point of Chanukah is to celebrate the miracle of the oil, it seems ironic to try to take the oil away from latkes.) I cut the amounts of butter and oil down in nearly everything I make with no problem, so that's not really the issue, but I guess her tone is what bothered me. I've had too many experiences with self-righteous eaters over the years, and my patience for it is minimal at this point.

My favorite comment came almost at the very end of the long list of comments: "I am kind of thinking people didn’t want to rethink the latke." Nicely stated.

Meanwhile, in happier news, Deb at Smitten Kitchen has updated her post on latkes here. There is no mention of lighter latkes or using less oil for health reasons, though she does point out that using cast iron meant that she could, in fact, use less oil. She also writes a sentence that might make Tara Parker-Pope have to lie down with a cold compress on her forehead: "Finally, if you think that latkes are just for Hanukkah, with all due respect, you’re totally missing out. I have yet to see a better “bed” to rest your poached or fried egg upon; home fries, latkes distant, black sheep of a cousin, just weep with jealousy in their presence."

I made Deb's latkes over Thanksgiving, and we ate them with Melissa Clark's fish cakes for some all around fried goodness. Her new post makes me want to make them again. I even bought some cheesecloth yesterday in preparation.

Of course, this means that I will be eating latkes more than once a year. But I have to say that latkes followed by chole bhatura seems like some pretty good winter eating to me. I'll report back on how my arteries feel about it.


Robin Aronson said...

I'm totally with you. I bet Parker Pope would argue that you have to be careful year-round because she wrote a column a few years back about research that showed gaining a few pounds over the holidays is not such a big deal but Not Losing those pounds adds up. Melissa (Clark) and I wrote about this (in The Skinny, in which there are many excellent recipes from Melissa), we called it the creep. And still, I know we each would advocate for traditional latkes in our own way. Granted, Melissa would do so more strongly than me because I believe a really good latke is hard to find. Melissa being Melissa finds those latkes every year. (Her father makes them, too.) It's pointless not to eat (or make) the things you love -- especially something that you only have once a year, or when you're in India. (How could you not eat all that delicious food!?!) Maybe being a health columnist has overwhelmed Parker Pope's common sense -- whatever it is, I'm glad I didn't read about rethinking the latke maybe I missed it because I was spending time reading about creme anglaise. Now there's a healthy snack!

Have a wonderful trip!!

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