Fried Potatoes Are Deadly, New York Times Warns as Hanukkah Nears
It may be the most strangely-timed article in the history of moveable type.
The New York Times has chosen the week before Hanukkah to publish a long article warning about the supposed health dangers of eating fried potatoes.
The article, though, doesn’t mention the word “Hanukkah” or the latkes, or potato pancakes, often eaten to celebrate the Jewish holiday.
It’s an article so clumsily timed it seems like a parody. Imagine the Times publishing an article warning about the health risks of turkey or pumpkin pie the week before Thanksgiving — but with no reference whatsoever to the impending holiday.
It’d be one thing to publish such an article out of concern for the health of Jewish readers, in the vein of, “Okay everyone, Hanukkah is coming. Don’t eat too many latkes or you might be spending the fifth through eighth nights in, heaven forbid, the cardiac care unit of the hospital.”
But, at least to judge by the language of the Times article, the newspaper manages to publish a pre-Hanukkah warning about the health risks of fried potatoes without anyone there even realizing that the holiday is coming. A newspaper once edited by Jews such as Abe Rosenthal, Max Frankel, and Joe Lelyveld, and once owned by the Ochs-Sulzberger family that had Jewish origins, now writes about fried potatoes the week before Hanukkah and discusses as possible toppings “ketchup” and “mayonnaise” and “aioli” — without even a nod to time-honored latke accompaniments such as applesauce or sour cream or brisket juice.
I emailed the author of the Times article, Christopher Mele, to ask whether the article had been intentionally published to coincide with Hanukkah. He didn’t respond to my inquiry by the time I filed this story. [Update: An editor at the Times did subsequently reply with a spirited defense of the latke.]
The Times article comes off as either insensitively ignorant or as, maybe even worse, a subtle yet nonetheless unmistakable effort to throw shade at a beloved Jewish delicacy.
Even the science behind it is shaky. For its click-bait claim that fried potatoes are “a weapon of dietary destruction,” the Times relies on a study that, by the Times description, “found that, controlling for other risk factors, participants who ate fried potatoes two to three times a week were at a higher risk of mortality compared with those who ate unfried potatoes.”
But the study the Times cites wasn’t a randomized trial that took the same healthy population and fed one group fried potatoes and the other group spinach, or white bread, or pastrami, or hot fudge sundaes. Instead, it was an observational study that relied on participants to self-report what they ate. That is an exercise that, when French fries or potato chips are involved, is as hazardous and potentially unreliable as polling people about their plans to vote for Donald Trump.
The participants in the study were already in poor health — they were either obese or overweight, had knee pain, or had arthritis. Furthermore, the study acknowledges that the risk of mortality may not be caused by the fried potatoes — correlation, in other words, doesn’t equal causation. The study found, for example, “Many factors could explain these findings. First, French fries and fried potatoes typically contain high amounts of dietary fat (including trans fat) and added salt, which may increase the risk of death.” In other words, it could be the added salt on the French fries, not the latke itself, that is the danger. Or, the study says, “people who consume fried potatoes more frequently might have other unhealthy dietary habits, such as increased consumption of processed red meat, salty foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages, which may increase the risk of death.” In other words, it’s not the French fries that are so dangerous, it’s the Coke and the hot dog that are the rest of the meal.
The press critic of The Algemeiner is not a physician or a nutritionist. However, my own recommendation is that if we do our best to eat healthy during the rest of the year, a latke or two on Hanukkah is not going to kill us. In fact, this year, we may even be especially justified in enjoying them. It will be an opportunity not only to remember the miracle of Hanukkah, but also to demonstrate that no matter how hard The New York Times might try, we just aren’t going to let the newspaper ruin our holiday.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.