Sunday is the first night of Hanukkah, and that means Jews around the country will be frying up potato latkes, celebrating the ancient miracle of the oil that burned for eight nights.
In a lot of ways, this deliciously greasy treat hasn't changed that much over time. Pull up a recipe from 80 years ago, and you'll find pretty much the same ingredients — grated potatoes with a sprinkling of flour or matzo meal, maybe some onions for flavor and eggs to bind, fried in fat until nicely browned. But there is one thing you may find in an early 20th-century cookbook that would surprise today's latke-makers: Crisco. Yes, that Crisco.
To be clear, Crisco is not the fat of choice of the ancient Maccabees. And Eastern European Jews, who didn't have much access to oil, would have fried in schmaltz — rendered poultry fat (usually chicken, though goose was a holiday favorite if you had the means). But in the new world, that changed.
Kerri Steinberg wrote about the history of advertising and graphic design in her book Jewish Mad Men. And, she grew up with her mother's latkes fried in Crisco. Steinberg says the hydrogenated cottonseed oil in her mother's frypan was likely there thanks to Joseph Jacobs. He was an ad man who set up an agency on the Lower East Side nearly 100 years ago, which is still around today.
"He specialized in mixed marriages," Steinberg jokes. "Which is to say that he introduced American mainstream manufacturers and products to the Jewish market."
With the wave of European Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, this was a sizable market, and companies from Procter & Gamble (P&G) to General Foods hired Jacobs to learn about these potential customers. And these interest went in both directions, as new immigrants were eager to Americanize.
"Once Jews are living in a world of nation-states, they're trying to figure out how to be German and Jewish, or French and Jewish; [Here,] they're trying to figure out how to be American and Jewish," explains Rachel Gross, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University.