Food is central to making a moment special. Every holiday in our Jewish calendar has a special food connection. From the three meals of Shabbat, to the seder of Passover, it is difficult to underestimate how powerful a role food plays in the celebration, memories and power of the holiday.
For Chanukah, latkes are the key food for those of us whose ancestors hailed from Eastern Europe. More recently, the stuffed pastries, sufganiot from Israel, have become a standard treat for the holiday. The word sufganiot comes from the Hebrew word sfog, meaning sponge, referring to the pastries’ ability to soak up oil. The reference to oil is often cited as the connection between both latkes and sufganiot and Chanukah. The central miracle of Chanukah has to do with one day’s supply of oil lasting eight days. The Chanukah story and its key symbol, the menorah, have oil at their core. And so it makes sense that the core foods of Chanukah be all about oil, too.
Together, latkes and sufganiot also present a core challenge to our approach to eating – the role of sugar, oil, and excess.
To begin, a distinction must be made between the exceptional meal and the average meal. The dire effects of items we eat have their biggest impact as a function of our average eating. It is the average number of calories we eat that really determine how much we weigh, and the average intake of sugar and fats that determine just what these parts of our diet will do to various parts of our body. So a piece of birthday cake once a year, for example, has little impact on our health. But a half a pound of cake every day will likely have a dramatic impact on our health. It’s not a particular meal, so much as our pattern of eating that dictates how we will look and do over time.