With the help of historians, Sarah Zielinski traces Hannukah's latke tradition to the story of Judith, who beheaded Holofernes, a general of Nebuchadnezzar:
In the original story, Judith brought what Weingarten calls a "doggie bag" of food with her to Holofernes' camp — items like dry fig cake and bread — so that she wouldn't have to eat the food of the enemy king. But in some of the Jewish stories, she shared her food with the general. And there was a salty item guaranteed to make her enemy thirsty enough to get drunk; that was cheese. One version of the story specifies that the cheese was cooked into a pancake.
"By the 14th century, there's quite a strong tradition that people eat cheese on Hanukkah and it's associated with Judith giving cheese to the enemy to make him drunk," Weingarten says. A commentary from that time, by Rabbi Moses Isserles, on the Shulchran Arach, the Jewish Code of Law, even recommends eating cheese on the holiday in honor of Judith.
During the Middle Ages, that cheese would have likely come from a goat or a sheep, as cow's milk cheese was rare, Weingarten says. And it was often cooked into a pancake — which brings us to another potentially shocking revelation: The original latkes were cheese latkes, not potato — which combined the tradition of eating cheese with the tradition of eating foods fried in oil.