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Great Debate is Latkes

Of fun for everyone

By Ricarose Roque


Insults were exchanged, nerdy jokes were recited, and puns were intended, as six great minds of top notch MIT professors duked it out last Monday in 6-120 for the Great Latke and Hamentashen Debate.

What are latke and hamentashen? Are they two scientists? Or possibly two controversial theories confounding today’s scientists? Don’t be fooled! A latke is a pancake made of grated potatoes, while a hamentashen is a triangular pastry with fruit filling.

Both pieces of food are culinary symbols for two different Jewish holidays. Latkes are traditionally served during Hanukkah, while hamentashens are served on Purim, which celebrates the victory of the Jews over the evil king Hamen.

Siding with the Latkes, professors Walter H. Lewin of Physics (Course VIII), Jeffery I. Steinfeld of Chemistry (Course V), and William B. Watson of History (Course XXI-H) argued for the potato pancake, defined by the three professors as “anything better than a hamentashen.”

“If you eat a hamentashen, you must be a masochist because you must like to throw up,” Lewin said.

Fighting for the hamentashen were professors Frank M. Fisher of Economics (Course XIV), Donald R. Sadoway of Material Science and Engineering (Course III), and Jeremy M. Wolfe of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (Course IX).

Sponsored by the MIT Hillel group with the support of the Jewish Student Projects for a Greater Boston and funding from the Peter de Florez humor fund, the Great Latke and Hamentashen debate is a not a first for members of academia. Started over 50 years ago in the University of Chicago, the debate has spread through numerous other colleges and now, for the first time at MIT, gathered professors of the Institute to engage in a fun-filled debate over two pieces of food.

“Don’t you like fun?” Lewin said. “Fun is important in life.”

Professors were each given seven minutes to discuss their arguments, with each group granted a 90-second closing statement.

Professors use scientific evidence

Sporting a bagel pin and his “special” hat, Lewin jump started the debate with his passionate address that would set the silly and lighthearted tone for the rest of the evening.

“In Israel, the word hamentaschen can also be translated as Hamen’s ears, in reference to how criminals’ ears were cut off when they were convicted,” Lewin said. “Who the hell wants to eat that? This is a bloodthirsty, cannibalistic food!”

Lewin later attributed the discovery of one of the principles in quantum mechanics to the latke.

“The Heisenberg uncertainty principle would not have been discovered had it not been for the eight-day miracle [of Hannukah],” Lewin said. “Clearly he must have been inspired by the seven-day uncertainty of the oil miracle. Though it’s a rather high uncertainty.”

Both Lewin and Watson also mentioned the variety of latke recipes in existence.

“There are about 140 latke recipes out there,” Watson said. “Hamentashen recipes hardly amount to that.”

Supporting the hamentashen, Fisher followed Lewin, immediately stating the true purpose of the debate.

“There really is no point for us to argue over food,” Fisher said. “Both Hannukah and Purim are quite similar in that they tried to kill us -- we won -- let’s eat!”

Analyzing chemical composition

When it was Steinfeld’s turn, he broke down both the latke and the hamentashen into their raw ingredients, stating that no clear conclusions could be made about both foods unless more scientific data and experimentation is carried out.

“We need to analyze the consumption patterns,” said Steinfeld. “How many latke’s can one person eat?”

Similarly, though in the support of the hamentashen, Sadoway analyzed the molecular structure as well as the bulk properties of both.

“Latkes contain primary covalent bonds,” Sadoway said. “It has too many crosslinks, turning it into an indigestible mass that is known to cause gastrointestinal disturbances.”

“Hamentashens on the other hand have the gentle secondary bonds of Van der Waals forces,” Sadoway said. “Clearly this was designed to be eaten.”

As an ending argument, Sadoway pointed out a similarity between latkes and another word in the dictionary.

“Latke, like loser, both begin with the letter L,” Sadoway concluded.

Social and psychological questions

With a powerpoint presentation behind him, Wolfe took the audience through a study supposedly done by Sigmund Freud on latke-obsessed patient.

“Freud found out that those who ate latkes too frequently failed to properly develop psychologically,” Wolfe said.

In addition, Wolfe presented data from experimentation done on rats with latkes and hamentashen, showing the consequences and the dangers of eating too many latkes.

“I had my 16-year-old help me with my powerpoint presentation,” Wolfe said.

Unresolved debate to continue

The six professors debated in front of a packed crowd in 6-120.

“We’re very pleased with the turnout,” said Jenny A. Lichter ’05, who, along with Mara S. Daniel ’04, organized the debate.

A reception followed the debate. Both students and faculty were treated to the much fought for latke and hamentashen, and MIT Hillel asked attendees to vote for their own favorites. Results will be posted online at the MIT Hillel Web site.

“This is not about which side wins the debate,” Lichter said. “The point of the debate is to have fun.”

Both Daniel and Lichter feel confident that the Great Debate may become a fixture at MIT, as it has already in other universities.

“I can see this debate becoming an annual event,” Daniel said. “I’m surprised this debate has never been done before at MIT.”