A latke is a kind of potato pancake traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. Fried in oil, latkes serve to commemorate the holiday miracle in which one day’s worth of oil illuminated the temple for eight days. Hamantashen are triangular wheat-flour pastries with a sweet filling which are traditionally eaten on the holiday of Purim.
A debate on their relative merits was first held in the winter of 1946 at the University of Chicago chapter house of the Hillel Foundation, sponsored by Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky. At the time, according to Ruth Fredman Cernea, editor of The Great Latke–Hamantash Debate, "...scholarly life discouraged an open display of Jewish ethnicity. The event provided a rare opportunity for faculty to reveal their hidden Jewish souls and poke fun at the high seriousness of everyday academic life." It has been held annually since then, usually on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with the exception of one year. Both foodstuffs are usually served at a reception afterwards, offering debaters and listeners an opportunity to evaluate primary sources. Several long-standing customs are observed at the University of Chicago; the debaters must have gained a Ph.D. or an equivalent advanced degree, make a formal entry in academic clothing to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, and their number must include at least one non-Jewish participant. The debate is said to have arisen from a tradition of spoofing Talmudic study during Purim. It is also felt to offer a humorous relief valve from the university’s rigorous academic program.
The debaters represent a range of academic disciplines. Some of the entries are described below:
Hanna Gray discusses the silence of Machiavelli on the subject; noting that "The silence of a wise man is always meaningful", she comes to the conclusion that Machiavelli was Jewish, and like all wise people, for the latke.
Isaac Abella, professor of physics, asserts that "Which is Better: the Latke or the Hamantash?" is an invalid question, since it does not exhibit the necessary property of universality, is culturally biased, implies gender specificity, exhibits geographical chauvinism and appeals to special interests.
Michael Silverstein, professor in anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, argues that it is not mere coincidence that the English translation of the letters on the dreidl spells out T-U-M-S. He cites this as evidence that "God may play dice with the universe, but not with Mrs. Schmalowitz’s lukshen kugl, nor especially with her latkes and homntashen."
Professor Wendy Doniger of the divinity school, in a carefully footnoted paper entitled "The Archetypal Hamentasch: A Feminist Mythology", asserts that hamentaschen are a womb equivalent, and were worshipped in early matriarchal societies.
In the debate at MIT, Robert J. Silbey, dean of its School of Science, has cited Google, which returns 380,000 hits on a search for "latke" and only 62,000 for "hamantaschen". Silbey has also claimed that latkes, not hamentashen, are the dark matter thought to make up over 21 percent of the mass of the universe.
Developmental psychologist Kenneth Kaye cited Freud's most important works, Constipation and its Discontents and The Goy and the Yid in proving that a latkedikh or a hamentashenlikh personality is determined by an infant's mother's breastfeeding behavior in the first two weeks of life.
According to literature professor Diana Henderson, "The latke is appropriate for lyric, tragic, and epic forms", but "There is very little poetry in the prune," a common hamentashen filling.
Criminal lawyer and Professor Alan Dershowitz, during a debate at Harvard University, accused the latke of increasing the United States' dependence on oil.
In a memorable debate in the early 1970s at the Clanton Park Synagogue Purim Party in Toronto, Canada, attorneys Aaron Weinstock and Meyer Feldman - debating in their formal legal robes and wigs - debated with much hilarity. The result was a draw.
When he was President of Princeton University, Harold Tafler Shapiro argued the hamentaschen's superiority by pointing out the epicurean significance of the "edible triangle" in light of the literary "Oedipal triangle."
In the 2010 Stanford Law School debate, Constitutional Law Professor Pam Karlan quoted from the majority opinion of Blackmun in the case County of Allegheny v. ACLU, which said: "It is also a custom to serve potato pancakes or other fried foods on Chanukah because the oil in which they are fried is, by tradition, a reminder of the miracle of Chanukah." She noted that the Supreme Court has given no such recognition to the hamantash.
The most recent University of Chicago debate featured Chemistry professor Aaron Dinner, who argued from a standpoint of energy efficiency, pointing out the oil of the Latke must have at least eight times the energy density of traditional fuels.
In the fifth annual Latke Hamentashen Debate at Johns Hopkins University in December, 2010, Professors Jonathan Flombaum and Hollis Robbins made a successful case for the Latke on semiotic and philosophical grounds, drawing upon Baruch Spinoza and Jacques Derrida to emphasize the latke’s Différance and to argue that its joyous heterogeneity made it the better holiday food.
In the 2011 debate at MIT, particle physicist Allan Adams presented preliminary data from the LHC—the Latke Hamantash Collider—providing compelling evidence for Latke Theory.
In Yeshiva University's inaugural Latke-Hamentasch Debate (2011), Team Hamentasch emerged victorious.
MIT mathematics professor Arthur Mattuck discussed the how the latke and hamantaschen inspired Abram Samoilovitch Besicovitch's work on the Kakeya problem; the hamantaschen is a better solution than the latke but there is no minimum.
Hanna Gray has stated for the record that "both the latke and hamentasch are simply wonderful. We welcome them to our diverse, pluralistic and tolerant community of scholars." She has, however, taken a stand with her statement that "Renaissancehumanism grew out of the revival of the latke."