There is nearly no record of people celebrating Hanukkah just a couple of centuries ago. But it began to be an important Jewish holiday in the second half of the 19th century when two rabbis in Cincinnati noticed their Jewish children didn't have much connection to the synagogue.
This story from NPR talks about the 19th-century American roots of large Hanukkah celebrations, featuring the religious studies scholar Diane Ashton, and connects the rise of the holiday to the development of elaborate home-based holiday celebrations in Victorian America. It's the time of the year when it's good to pull down Leigh Schmidt's Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton U. Press, 1997 paperback), which shows how "commercial appropriations" of the holidays, especially Christmas, were tied into religion, becoming times of "devout consumption."
South of Cincy, Jewish southerners have developed their own traditions around Hanukkah and food, discussed further by Marci Cohen Ferris in her fun book Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. Read/hear more about it here, and also more here. A brief taste:
Oh, sure, this is a great holiday for Jewish Southerners because it celebrates oil, perfect, 'cause we use a lot of it. You know, there's a strong tradition of frying here. And anything with a cast iron pan you got to love, if you're a Southerner. But I'll tell you what we have, and this is actually a traditional menu that my mother always made. Very traditional to have brisket for Hanukah. It's a winter meal. And not everybody barbecued their brisket and served it in kind of that style, but that's how we made ours.