There’s something deeply sinister behind the current mini-latke crisis.
The word “latke” is of Yiddish-Ukrainian origin, and means “a patch” (as in “cabbage patch”). This is rather confusing because, to the untrained ear, the English translation can easily be confused with the Yiddish-Ukrainian word “putch”, which means a smack — though it can also signify a blow to one’s self-esteem.
As a small but somewhat precocious child, I was warned by a Jewish shopkeeper that if I insisted on continuing to reveal to customers the behind-the-counter location of his post-war black-market stock (no questions asked, no ration coupons necessary!) “ich will sie giben a putch — I’ll give you a smack.”
I thought he meant that he was going to treat me to a latke, so naturally I urged him on, but was saved by my maternal grandmother, who told him (in Yiddish phrases so choice I dare not repeat them) that, if he did indeed administer a putch, she would do something that would certainly wound his self-esteem, and much else besides.
A latke is in point of fact a fried cake, which can be made from a variety of vegetables but which, in the Alderman house (and in the houses — my late father once assured me — of the Latvian-based Alderman forebears going back countless generations), has traditionally been made from grated potatoes. Latkes are a delicacy that was once served only during Chanucah — the oil in which they were cooked symbolising the oil with which the lamps were lit in the second temple. They have long since been a staple diet of Ashkenazi Jews, and I have even known Sephardim to eat and enjoy them.
In theory, a latke can be of any size: my mum once fried some that were 16 inches across, though the world record for a latke is held by a kehillah in southern California which, in 2008, baked one 36 inches in diameter. This was clearly a vintage year for latkes because, a month or so later, at the National Potato Latke Eating Championship held in the US, a 23-year-old bodybuilder from Toronto broke the world record for consuming the most latkes in one sitting: he ate 46 standard-sized latkes (weighing in total seven pounds) in eight minutes.
A mini-latke is bite-sized. It is habit-forming. And addicts of the mini-latke will know that, for decades, we in this country were able to feed our addiction courtesy of Messrs Rakusen, whose “Mister Rak’s” range included circular mini-latkes and triangular large latkes. Last year, Rakusen’s announced that it could no longer supply either its mini-latkes or its triangle latkes due to “issues with the manufacturer”. Worse still, managing director Alan Pridmore said it was unlikely that the brand would be resurrected with another manufacturer: “We obviously make decisions with our rabbis and commercially, and for a wealth of reasons it was not possible to continue with the latkes.”
Now I ask you. What could this possibly mean? The manufacturer in this case is McCain Foods of Scarborough, where “every batch of potatoes delivered… comes with its own passport (boasts the McCain website) — allowing us to track exactly when they were harvested, which farmer grew them for us, and even which field they were grown in.” The company used to produce Rakusen’s latke range, but the arrangement ended last year “for commercial reasons”.
I’ve heard this before. Frankly, I’m incredulous. A product as popular as mini-latkes could not possibly have been sold at a loss; in any case, we addicts would have continued buying no matter what the cost.
Many years ago, the supplier of a popular kosher luncheon meat, to which I was likewise addicted, also stopped production. For years, my wife and I enjoyed a stir-fry made with “chicken style” vegetarian ingredients, produced under an impeccable hechsher. The manufacture of this product suddenly came to a halt. Other products that we used to enjoy — but can no longer, because their production has mysteriously ceased — include kosher oat crackers, heat-and-serve flavoured rice, and kosher vegetarian ravioli.
The pattern here is unmistakable. Kosher products that I enjoy are being withdrawn from the market. And they are being withdrawn from the market because I enjoy them.
Need I say more?