Faculty Debate Jewish Delicacies

Students and members of the MIT community filled 10-250 Monday night to watch six MIT faculty lecturers and professors argue the superiority of one of two Jewish delicacies – the latke, a fried potato pancake, and the hamentash, a triangular fruit-filled cookie.

Contending for the latke were Joseph M. Sussman, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, David I. Kaiser, Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, and History Lecturer Steven E. Ostrow. Mathematics Professor David S. Jerison, Michael Ouellette, Music and Theater Arts senior lecturer, and Jeremy M. Wolfe, Brain and Cognitive Sciences senior lecturer, defended the hamentash. Donald R. Sadoway, professor of Materials Science and Engineering, served as the evening's moderator.

A coin toss prior to the event gave the hamentashen team the opening remarks. In the battle that followed, both sides used contradictory mathematical, historical, literary, and scientific "evidence" to prove their respective claims.

The latke is a total nebbish

Jerison, the first speaker of the evening, prepared a presentation on the "Hamentashen Homotopy: The Superior Form," in which he argued that the hamentash has a "rich relative homotopy," or mapping in space, and is metaphorically likened to a purse with a delicious filling. He went on to incorporate the Hurewicz theorem of algebraic topology, but chose to simplify the math for the audience by focusing on the hamentashen's geometry.

Specifically, Jerison cited a long lost Buddhist Kabbalah secret, appropriately called "The Three-Fold Way," that involves carefully observing the octagonal Baptistery of St. John along certain lines to the vanishing point to produce specific triangles. These triangles, once drawn on a 2-D plane and specially oriented, can be folded inwards to form the hamentashen shape. Jerison finished by explaining that the hamentashen can be closed completely or left partially open to reveal the filling, and that "no matter how you bake it, we have an open and shut case."

What the H stood for

Opening for the Latke side with a "Give Latkes a Chance" presentation, Kaiser examined the hamentash's place in post-WWII US history. He explained that the hamentashen's "menacing topology" was the actual focus of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission, and that although Fermi had initial calculations which suggested the inability of hamentashen ingredients to reach a critical temperature for fusion, Teller and Ulam were eventually able to devise a working H-bomb (Hamentash-bomb) design. Claiming that his "bones shake" every time he sees a picture of hamentashen, Kaiser warned the audience of the "mind-boggling destructive power of hamentashen," as it could easily have the same devastating effects as the atomic bomb.

Catch the appetite of the King

Next to defend the hamentashen was Ouellette, who turned to Elizabethan literature as his main source. He claimed that once he was able to decode a "secret text," he uncovered numerous references to hamentashen. He noted Shakespeare's apparent and previously unheard of appreciation for the hamentashen, as made evident by the food's appearances throughout Hamlet. In fact, because of an early orthographic error, Ouellette explained, the title of the famous Shakespearean play is a mistake and is actually Hamlat, which clearly emphasizes the hamentashen before the latke. Ouellette then rounded out his seven minutes with passionately delivered soliloquies from Hamlat.

But I only ate two, Brute

Ostrow picked up the latke side, taking the audience back to classical Athens and Rome, detailing the histories and respective reputations of both delicacies throughout this time period. Although he admitted that the hamentashen's reputation was initially ranked higher than that of the latke, the hamentashen suffered a fatal decline around the time of ancient Rome, as people began suffering gall stone attacks due to the prune filling.

In addition, the great commander, "Hannibalke," helped spur the latke's rise in the 3rd century BC. Hannibalke, who upon marching into northern Italy after crossing the Pyrenees and Alps, had just "missed the spaghetti harvest but was fortunate enough to have with him fine American spuds to make a new improved latke," said Ostrow. He then closed by refuting Ouellette's claim of Shakespeare's appreciation for the hamentashen: Caesar's famous line actually referred to a fatal consumption of hamentashen.

Driven into the dirt

"It's a tragedy to see a fine scholar make up facts," quipped Wolfe before beginning his presentation on, "The Potato and the Iconography of Evil." Taking a biblical perspective in defending the hamentashen, Wolfe focused on the story of Adam and Eve, since "the apple is a late entry and the real icon of the fall is the potato." He then asserted that the depicted figures in various pieces of historical artwork are picking not from fruit trees, but red bliss and baking potato trees. Although Wolfe conceded that potatoes do not grow on trees anymore, he found recent research by a respected early text scholar that revealed a variant in the Genesis. This, he explained, completely changes a famous line to, "…but from the evil potato tree you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you will die."

Wolfe ended his argument with scientific fact, presenting the results of a 1998 study by Sadoway, Sadderway, and Saddestway which detailed the effects of secondhand latke consumption. Another study revealed that lab rats work much harder for latkes, but that does not necessarily mean latkes are better, Wolfe argued, as cocaine completed the upward trend on the graph.

A reinvention of the wheel

Sussman, the only engineering professor on either panel, defended the latke from an engineering perspective by describing how latkes are compatible with the suffix "-ilities," describing its flexibility, durability, portability, manufacturability, and sustainability. In terms of mobility, "the latke is simply a reinvention of the wheel, and the hamentashen would be only effective for transportation purposes at Harvard," said Sussman.

After a three minute break, Jerison opened the hamentashen rebuttal by arguing that the latke's circular shape is the "enemy of truth," as it represents circular reasoning, whereas the hamentash represents the "del" operator. He then addressed Sussman's argument by defending the hamentashen's commitment to sustainability — the hamentashen is of the same shape as the recycling symbol.

Closing for the latke team, Kaiser pointed to public safety concerns, saying the hamentash was a risk due to high sugar content.

As the debate closed with rebuttals presented by Jerison and Kaiser, Sadoway determined a split-vote from the audience members and declared that the debate will reconvene next year.