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4 Defenses of the Hamantash from the Latke-Hamantash Debate

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This weekend is the Jewish holiday of Purim, and families will be headed to the bakery for the hamantashen, the traditional triangular poppy seed or fruit filled pastries. But the hamantash has always had a hard time competing with the latke, the potato pancake eaten at Hanukkah, in the age old latke-hamantash debate.

As we discussed a few months ago during latke season, the University of Chicago has held a formal, academic debate on the merits of the latke versus the hamantash every year since 1946. This year, due to a dispute involving the previous sponsor of the debate, it was held in mid-February, just before Purim, instead of just before Hanukkah, as it had been in past years. Could things be looking up for the hamantash?

The debate still came down on the side of latkes this year, but not unanimously. Law professor Douglas Baird stood up for the hamantash, citing the unhealthiness of the greasy latke. In Slate yesterday, L.V. Anderson writes, "if you’re an unthinking member of Team Latke, you clearly have never had a good hamantasch" and goes on to give the recipe for a good and proper homemade hamantash. In honor of the underappreciated Purim treat, here are 4 classic arguments for the hamantash from the latke-hamantash debate.

1. From "The Latke, the Hamantash, and the Struggle for a Symbol of the American National Character," by historian Hasia Diner.

"After all, what is a hamantash? A three-cornered pastry, it has no single property which characterizes it, but rather like the pluralism Horace Kallen hoped for in a liberalized America, it derives its essence from the distinctiveness of its parts. It is made up of two equal sections—the crust and the filling—neither of which has to give up anything in order to be part of the whole. Unlike latkes, the symbol of the melting pot with its narrow definition of American identity, the hamantash does not require people to subject themselves to meltdown nor does it force them to have their cultures and customs beaten out of them and amalgamated in a bowl or frying pan. Rather, it offers a culinary/cultural metaphor of gently wrapping the dough of America around an almost infinite array of fillings, and thus proving that diversity can be folded into the American system without surrendering integrity and authenticity."

2. From "The Hermeneutics of Hamantash," by Emelie S. Passow, Professor of English Literature.

"Indeed, aesthetically, the hamantash incorporates more elements of a robust creative process than does the lame latke. Simply compare and contrast these elegant steps necessary to mold a hamantash with the messy ones implicated in preparing the latke: to gather (the flour, eggs, water, oil, and sugar), to knead, to shape, and to fill with…to peel, to putter, and to fry.

"Aurally speaking, the hamantash bakes in silence akin to the workings of the mysteries of the universe: light, gravity, consciousness. In other words, the hamantash is no less than an objective correlative for the unbearable lightness of being."

3. From "The Hamantash in Shakespeare," by Lawrence Sherman, Professor of Medicine.

"Shall I compare these to a hot latke?
Thou art less fattening, more digestible,
While heartburn is the latke-eater's lot
(A fatal fact quite incontestable).
Consumed by that which he was nourished by,
The glutton soon cries out in vain, "Surcease,"
And then his appetite and he both die
As martyrs to an overdose of grease.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Immortal poppy seed, O Hamantash:
The gourmet's appetite thou ne'er dost jade
When happily he has thee for a nosh.
Thy taste a taste of heaven must fortell.
While slippery latkes line the road to hell."

4. From "Latke vs Hamentash: A Materialist-Feminist Analysis," by sociologist Robin Leidner.

"Feminist scholars have demonstrated again and again that gender categories are malleable and that variation within genders is virtually always greater than average differences between genders. The hamentash is a perfect representation of this more flexible, culturally variable, view of gender. For while the hamentash begins as a circle (which Shapiro tags female), it becomes a triangle through conscious human intervention, without ever losing its qualities of circularity.  The hamantash is an inspiring demonstration of the possibilities of overcoming essentialist dualisms: without the circle, there could be no triangle, and without the triangle, the circle  would be empty. The hamantash provides a vision of human possibility that similarly integrates the strengths that have been attributed to men and women. I leave you with the hope that some day we all can achieve that blending of circle and triangle, the synthesis of smoothness and  crunch, the simultaneous embodiment of openness and fullness that we find in the hamantash."

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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