It’s Hanukkah this week, and with it comes the temptation of foods fried in oil. The traditional story behind the practice is that the little cruse of oil sufficient for lighting the Temple menorah (candelabra) for only one day miraculously lasted for eight.
We all know about the latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) that are the oil-heavy stars of the Hanukkah menu. They are delicious and, hey, we only eat them once a year, so enjoy yourself.
But there is also a custom of eating cheese on the holiday and it has a feminist, if somewhat grisly, backstory that comes from the biblical Book of Judith.
About 2200 years ago the Syrian-Greek army laid siege to the town of Bethulia, a mountaintop town overlooking the Jezreel Valley. As the siege continued, the townspeople suffered from increasing hunger and, feeling desperate, declared their intention to surrender when the food ran out. But Judith, the beautiful daughter of the High Priest Yochanan, came up with a plan. Using her knowledge that Holofernes desired her, she approached him with a basket of her homemade cheese, bread, and wine. Eating the salty cheese made the general thirsty, so she plied him with the wine. The more wine he drank, the drowsier he became, until he fell asleep. Judith then took his sword and beheaded him. She brought the head back to the town elders in a bag and urged them to attack the enemy, who were sure to panic once they realized that their leader was dead. She was right. The troops fled and the town was liberated.
So, in Judith’s honor, perhaps we should throw a wine and cheese party. (No swords allowed.) Or, combining the two culinary traditions, maybe we should eat fried mozzarella sticks.