The Trojan Hammentaschen

A few years ago, I participated in UT-Austin’s first ever Hammentaschen vs. Latke debate. It was, as all good Jewish events are, a rigorous examination of the soul, and in the spirit of this joyous holiday, I share my own contribution (with minor edits) below, for the edification of yours.

We are all familiar with the story of Troy: how Paris stole Helen from her husband and children in Sparta and brought her with him to Troy; how the Greeks launched a great alliance to retrieve her, and lay siege to the city for ten long years. What is less well known is that Troy fell on Purim, when the Greeks, dressed up as a horse, and inebriated enough not to know right from wrong, over-reacted to the historic Trojan refusal to honor the festival and share their hammentaschen. Ten years of war rose and fell on an insufficiency of cookies in that besieged city.

The question of who was the best baker in Troy is fraught. Scholarly consensus awards the title to the Queen, Hecuba, and certainly this was true in the days before the arrival of Greeks. But it was Helen who first introduced to Troy the more exotic filling of the poppy seed, where archaeological records clearly show native Trojan fillings to have been made with prune or date. It is clear also that it was Helen’s affinity with the hammentaschen that attracted Paris to her, rather than her famed beauty, and that the famous thousand ships, as newly discovered vase evidence clearly indicates, were likewise launched in hopes of recovering a taste of her poppy-filled creations.

Not for nothing does Homer specify the return of ‘Helen and all of her recipes’ as a key part of the negotiations that occasionally punctuate the tedium of battle before the walls. Nor were things more peaceful on the inside, since the women of Troy neither wanted nor appreciated Helen’s culinary innovation to their long-beloved recipe, and felt besides that Helen was enjoying her fame a bit too much. Whether this demonstrates the Jewishness of either Helen or the Trojans we cannot tell, as the sources are unfortunately silent.

The quality of Helen’s hammentaschen is confirmed for us not in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey, when young Telemachus, driven from home in search of his father Odysseus, arrives in Sparta — again, coincidentally, on Purim — just in time for the traditional reading of the Book of Esther and subsequent Purim-spiel. Reminiscing over how close the Greeks came to giving up, and how they were miraculously salvaged by the cunning of Odysseus on that blessed Purim, the assorted company refreshed themselves on Helen’s famous hammentacshen, the preparation of whose poppy filling the poem describes in some detail.

Here too is the source of the famous pocket/ears controversy: it was said that, to pass the time inside the horse costume on that fateful Purim night, the Greeks carried Hammentaschen in their pockets. But others say that it was the sound of chewing the Oznei Haman (Haman’s Ears) that plugged the Greeks’ ears to Helen’s attempt to make them break character with a festive impersonation of their wives.

As it happened, in Odysseus we have our earliest recorded non-Trojan devotee of the hammentaschen. He had tasted Helen’s one Purim early in the war, he dressed a beggar, she as the traditional princess, in a meeting that established beyond doubt that the hammentaschen recipe was indeed not only what the Greeks had set out to recover, but in fact — an unexpected twist to the plot — were the holy talisman keeping the city from falling.

When the war was finally over and Helen was whisked off to Sparta by her husband, Odysseus was determined to bring the recipe back with him to his wife Penelope in Ithaca. Towards that noble purpose, he spent the next ten years conducting exhaustive culinary research across the length and breadth of the western Mediterranean, only finally mastering the art after a years-long apprenticeship in the fashionable bakery Island of Circe, whose pastry-chef was said to be a goddess, at least in the kitchen.

But it was the Romans, and not the Greeks, who were the inheritors of the talismanic hammentaschen, saved from the flames by a young man named Aeneas, Rome’s very own Abraham. Only three things did Aeneas bring from Troy with him on that fateful night (and again the ancient evidence is clear): his father, his son, and the last remaining jar of hammentaschen. This legacy would, in the fullness of time, fuel an empire.

Stories differ on what happened next. Vergil, the great poet of the Aeneid, tells us that Aeneas’ son, Iulus, driven by great hunger, ate the last of the hammentaschen just as the Trojan fleet arrived in Italy. What had happened to the rest is sadly unknown. What we do know is that when the city of Rome was finally founded, a circular temple was promptly built to house either what Hammentaschen had survived, or perhaps only the jar in which they traveled, whose shape in any case the temple clearly intends to mimic.

The preservation of these venerable pastries was entrusted to the Vestal Virgins, young women whose chastity ensured the flour-ishing of Rome (Purim happily falling a few weeks before unleavened Passover). Chaste they may have been, but bakers they were not, as the temple was known to burn down repeatedly, presumably from unattended kitchen fires lit in the replenishing of the sacred store of Hammentaschen. That no victims are known in the sources is truly a miracle.

At some point in this endless cycle of destruction and rebuilding, it seems, the Romans lost the secret of the triangular corners, whether because someone didn’t crimp the seams properly or due simply to neglect. In either case, in the latter days of the empire we hear of round Hammentaschen prescribed to patients recovering from long illness, but whether a round bun divided into triangular slices had any therapeutic effect was doubted already by Galen, who was acutely aware of the loss of efficacy inherent in the hammentaschen new latke-like shape.

In any case, the quest for the lost corner without doubt drove the Romans to new heights of invention: both concrete and the arch can be attributed to the desire to hold up the center of the cookie, the better to leave room for the fillings.

In short: a pastry that launched a thousand ships, built an empire and drove innovation — the argument from history, at least, is clear.

I’m grateful to Becky Kahane for inviting me to the debate, and to Colin MacCormack, whose unfailing efforts in the archives uncovered these previously unseen images.

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Reader, Writer, Podcaster, Classicist, Mother of Small People.

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