The Limitations of Cultural Identity for Food

pat out bread

Baking hubez saj in Fassouta

I recently visited my old friend Ayoub in Fassouta up near the Lebanese border in the Western Galilee – one of the few Arab villages populated almost, if not entirely by Christians. Ayoub’s wife likes to use a certain kind of rennet for making cheese from the goat’s milk from their herd, and I had brought some back for her during my last trip to the US.

One of the formative experiences I had when researching for my book was a morning spent with Ayoub’s sister and sister in law as they baked bread in the baking room next to their house. Working in splendid coordination, the two women baked about 200 “hubez saj“, huge, wafer-thin flatbreads, on a concave metal surface called a saj, heated over a wood fire.

I thought about that morning during a conference I attended last week on Israeli food studies at the University of Haifa. One of the speakers, a professor in the Land of Israel Studies Department, challenged the audience with an Israeli food trivia quiz. A section of the quiz was devoted to “Druze Cuisine” and one of the questions was “what is a saj?”

While my knowledge of Israeli snack foods history was insufficient to answer most of the questions, I do know what a saj is. And I also know that it is not necessarily Druze. Sitting in Ayoub’s living room, sipping herb tea and savoring his sister’s ethereal honey-drenched semolina cake, I asked him if the saj has any particular association with the Druze, whose communities are centered in the Galilee and adjacent Lebanon and Syria.

He answered by way of a story, telling me that his sister’s saj was getting rusty and they wanted to buy a new one. After searching in all the villages and towns in the area, they eventually ended up travelling all the way south to buy one in Hebron, a city that is far from any Druze community and whose Arab population is predominantly Muslim.

Ayoub’s wife then related that their daughter, who is the only Arab employee in a high tech company, once brought some fresh hubez saj to share with her colleagues at work. “Druze pita” they told her, based on their familiarity with the Druze men and women who sell hubez saj baked on portable, gas-heated sajs at fairs and stands in shopping malls. But we’re not Druze, she explained.

Attaching ethnic identities to foods may be convenient, and in certain cases appropriate. But in this little slice of the Middle East, I think it has already caused way too much trouble. Flat breads in their various forms, farike and bulgar, and even hummus and falafel for that matter, are what people who live in a traditional relationship with this Levantine land and its local foods consume, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. The defining relationship, I believe, is between the earth, the farmer, the miller and the cook, not any religious or national orientation.

pile of elrif

Whose flat breads are these?

 

Stand!

sea of hubeisaThere have been several books that have profoundly influenced the way I see the Galilee landscape. One is the Hebrew Bible, and the second is Jarred Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”.

Diamond explains how the confluence of topography, climate and indigenous fauna and flora in the Fertile Crescent gave rise to the transition of hunting and gathering societies to a lifestyle based on agriculture, and a cascade of other developments associated with the rise of Western civilization.

The domestication of wild grains by thousands of years of foragers was central to this process. Anyone who has looked at the kernels of wild wheat can appreciate how much effort must have gone into gathering sufficient grain for human sustenance. But Jarred Diamond points out that these wild grasses tended to grow in vast “stands”, where it was easy to simply wade in and harvest – like dipping a net into a school of fish.

These days, I’ve been thinking about this model of plenty as I walk in the winter countryside. In those few areas where humans haven’t intervened, entire seas of hubeisa (mallow) extend their soft, scalloped leaves up towards the winter sunlight. For the forager, this is the most extraordinarily generous gift from the newly awakened earth – an unending supply of intensely nutritious food.

It will be months before the kernels of grain are developed enough to harvest. But in the interim, thankfully, we are provided for.

Back to the Batof

Last June, and seemingly a decade ago, I visited the cities of Sakhnin and Arrabe, for meetings with two NGOs.  At the time, I learned about the work being done by the Towns Association for Environmental Quality on behalf of the Arab farmers of the Bet Netufa Valley.  I was also treated to the wonderful hospitality of the women of the Afnan AlGalil Association for Social Development and Family Support, and had a very difficult time choosing among the beautiful traditional Palestinian embroidered handcrafts the members produce to raise funds for their organization.

Yesterday I returned to both places, determined that the grief, frustration and despair that hung so heavy in this summer’s air would not prevent me from confirming my commitment to maintaining an open, loving and productive relationship with my neighbors.

The Bet Netufa Valley – Sahel Batof in Arabic – is the grandest natural monument in the agricultural landscape of the Galilee.  An aerial map in the Towns Association offices shows the vast expanse of the Valley, demarcated into hundreds of small, rectangular and odd-shaped plots – the majority of them privately owned. On this land,  local Arab fellaheen and part-time farmers practice small-scale agriculture, growing wheat, vegetables, olives – the same crops have been cultivated in this intensely fertile land for thousands of years.  For me, this quiet, historic narrative of local subsistence is the most compelling story around.

One of the goals of the Towns Association is to provide professional and environmental guidance to the Valley farmers, while helping them preserve the traditional relationship between the land, climate and local plants – both cultivated and wild.  Hopefully, I will be able to contribute to this effort.

*****

See the article from Haaretz about my presentation on El Babour at Oxford

In Hebrew

embroidery

What I brought home from Afnan Al Galil. Thanks to Nabila Naamneh for the lovely visit.

Back from Oxford

I just returned from my first time participating in the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery – an annual conference of food historians and other professionals and non-professionals who are engaged in food inquiry.  It was an extraordinary experience to be in the company of so many like-minded individuals from all over the globe, in a setting that was edifying, convivial, and simply lovely.

I presented a talk on the El Babour Mill in Nazareth, illustrating that an unmediated, entirely local and personal relationship between the land, the farmer, the miller and the consumer still exists in the Arab communities in the Galilee.  Speaking to an audience that appreciates the value of local and traditional foodways in historical and social contexts, and having the opportunity to hear such a range of fascinating presentations, was a gift.

And now I am back, to my pastoral Galilee setting which is, in its own way, as beautiful as the refined and manicured gardens of Oxford.  From there, the conflict here seemed remote, but from here, it is geographically and personally much closer to home, and the consciousness of it is almost paralyzing.  Trying to make sense of what is going on, I consider this narrative and that one, finally discarding them all in recognition of a complexity that defies individual understanding, and the broad appeal of that lowest common denominator of an eye for an eye.

For respite, I dip into the fascinating book I bought at the Symposium, “Tastes of Byzantium”, written by the eminent food scholar Andrew Dalby, one of the longstanding Symposium participants.  But even through the heady descriptions of the spice trade and markets of Constantinople, the subtext of battle, intrigue and power struggles wafts through, and I am reminded of how tragically little human nature has changed over the millennia.

talk

Thanks to Pamela Sheldon Johns for photo

st catz

Beautiful St. Catz

When the scales will tip

These are grim times here, where a disproportionate number of innocent people are enduring great suffering because of the actions of a few.  Nothing new about that, and yet it is heartrending every time.  In the pastoral Palestinian town of Arrabe in the Galilee near the Bet Netufa Valley, they are mourning a 14 year old who happened to be too close to the Syrian border as he accompanied his father to work on the first day of school vacation.  Another victim, another family’s tragedy.

I was just in Arrabe and neighboring Sakhnin last week, tagging along with a small delegation of bakers from France who are seeking local farmers to grow ancient varieties of wheat for them.  As we opened the day at the Towns Association for Environmental Quality, an NGO  in Sakhnin doing education and research on sustainable agriculture, the challenges of communication across the cultural divide were fascinating to observe.  The idea that these visitors actually wanted to grow wheat which produces significantly lower yields than the usual varieties was counter-intuitive, in spite of their assurances that they were prepared to pay significantly more than the market value in recognition of the quality of the product.

examining wheat varieties

examining wheat varieties

One of the bakers pulled out his Ipad to show the farmers photos of the artisanal breads he bakes, unaware that the elegant loaves on the screen did not correspond at all to the local perception of what bread even looks like.  But good will, courtesy and respect go a long way in overcoming these obstacles, and the groundwork was established for future cooperation.

After visiting the epic expanse of the Bet Netufa valley for a close-up look at the wheat fields, we came back to Arrabe, to the restored stone building that houses Afnan AlGalil, a non-profit for empowering local women.  Our hostesses served us a lunch prepared entirely from products grown in and around the Valley – bulgar in mejadre (with lentils) and shulbata (with vegetables and tomato sauce), farike, okra in tomato sauce, labaneh, stuffed grape leaves and zucchini and fresh, whole wheat pita.   The room was suffused with pride, dignity, generosity and hospitality – and we came away uplifted in body and spirit.

I just wonder when the scales will tip, and the forces of universal tolerance, respect and love will set the regional agenda.  IMG_3441afnan algalil

batof

The “Batof”

Wheat, and Zaatar, to the Mill

I’ve started to research in earnest for the paper I’m going to present at the Oxford Symposium this summer.  The subject of the symposium is markets, and I will talk about the market in Nazareth as a site of pilgrimage, not just for Christians visiting the site(s) where the Annunciation is believed to have taken place, but also for the local fellaheen and their descendants, who brought, and still bring, their wheat to be ground at the El Babour mill*.

The cavernous rooms of El Babour’s Ottoman-era stone building, that once housed massive flour milling machinery, are now filled with orderly sacks and shelves of grains, pulses and local dry goods.  The milling machines that still operate are relegated to the building’s stone-cobbled back courtyard, where villagers and their pack animals once waited for their turn at the mill.  Yet for all the modern adaptations, this place continues to function as a living mill and I am fascinated by its enduring place in Galilee Arab society in our times.

In the past few weeks I have spent many hours at El Babour, where the kind and gracious owners, Tony and Jarjoura Kanaza, patiently answer my questions and reminisce about the mill around which their family’s history has revolved for several generations.  I waited to interview people who are bringing bulgar or farike to be milled, to document a ritual that has been practiced in this part of the world for millennia. But one after the other, the customers who came for milling services brought bags of zaatar,  not wheat.   This is the season for zaatar, and instead of crushing the dried leaves through a sieve to achieve the consistency needed for the eponymous spice mixture, a machine at El Babour does the job in seconds.  This concession to time-saving is not the only adaptation to the eminently local and politically loaded practice of producing zaatar that I have seen (for more on this subject, see the chapter on zaatar in my book, Breaking Bread in Galilee).

For the second year, now, an enterprising Palestinian-Israeli farmer has leased a field on which he cultivates rows of zaatar, where you can “pick your own” without risking a fine (wild zaatar is now a protected plant, and illegal to pick).  The field’s many patrons attest to a desire for control over every step of the zaatar-making process, starting at its roots, that has not been entirely eclipsed by (among others) the ready availability of commercial zaatar mixtures.

Back at the Haifa University library, delving into the literature on food anthropology, a reference to a “short food chain” struck me as a precise, if not laconic, summary of traditional Galilee Arab foodways.  And remarkably, with all the pressures and diversions of modern life, these traditions adapt and endure.

* More on the fascinating history of milling in Nazareth in a future post…

milling zaatar at El Babour

Milling zaatar at El Babour  

Pick your own zaatar

Pick your own zaatar

Relating to Wheat

These spring days, the roaring of combines rumbles in the background – rending thick fields of wheat into neat rows of shorn stalks.  In the pre-industrial order of local agriculture, not only would this method of harvesting be unfathomable to a farmer watching from the side, but also the timing.  Why would anyone cut down their good wheat almost two months ahead of time, just as the grains in the ears were maturing (unless they were planning to roast it, but such a large portion of the crop?).

The reason, of course, is that all this wheat is being cut as hay, destined to feed the thousands of cows whose milk supplies Israel’s burgeoning dairy industry.  It may be hard to imagine, but until the German Templers came to Palestine in the late 19th century, there was no cow-based dairy industry here, let alone any practice of growing a food crop as fodder.

Yet now, we feed wheat to the cows, and at the same time, more and more people are developing allergies to the ubiquitous gluten-heavy grain which has been bred specifically to meet the needs of industrial food processing.

The relationship between wheat and human subsistence – once so elegantly straightforward – has become complicated in our times.   I find this to be especially perplexing here in the western curve of the Fertile Crescent, where the symbiosis between humans and their staple grain is so deeply and locally rooted.

During Passover, when the “luxury” of leavened products is set aside, it is worthwhile considering the price we pay for soft, air-filled bread, and if we are truly and healthfully sustained by foods produced using methods that are environmentally and humanely questionable.

pesach 2014

From my Galilee home, during this season steeped with spiritual significance, I extend best wishes to you all for the spring holidays!

Making Hay

When I first started researching for my book, I had a conversation with a very distinguished food historian.  As I enthused about the marvels of wheat, she warned me that people who begin to immerse themselves in the history of grain tend to bore everyone around them, as inevitably, no-one finds the subject as fascinating as they do.  How right she was.

Bear with me. I am simply enthralled by the shaggy green-gold grain, thick on the fields and hills around my home.  It is the purest expression of this land in its prime, at the height of spring.

Over the past few weeks, the wheat harvest has been unfolding, as it has year after year for millennia.  Yet unlike in the past, the vast majority of the wheat grown in this part of the Galilee is destined to become animal feed.

Fields of tender green wheat have already been cut for making silage during the Passover holiday. And now, in other fields, wheat shorn by a combine and deposited in long strips lies drying in the sun.  Why is that wheat cut now, I asked Ron, the former dairyman, and left out for days on end?  To make hay, he answered.  It must dry before being collected into bales. Nutritious and easy to store and keep over time, wheat for cows offers many of the same advantages as it does for humans.

The danger, Ron went on, is rain. If the drying grain gets soaked, fermentation and rot can set in, ruining the entire crop. The gathering gray clouds suddenly seemed more ominous.  This, I realized, is the unspoken imperative of why one should make hay while the sun shines.

wheat for hay

Green Anew

How does one mark the arrival of spring when the entire winter is full of flowers?  With more flowers for one thing, and the late-night fragrance of citrus blossoms teasing into my bedroom window.  But there are other reminders that, over the thousands of years when survival for the people living in the Galilee was linked to agriculture, the advent of spring had more compelling developments.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond explains how the Mediterranean climate in the Fertile Crescent, in whose gracious curve the Galilee is set, created the conditions for the development of its indigenous plants.  Adapting for survival in the short, unreliably rainy winters and long, reliably hot, dry summers, these plants invested their energies into producing robust seeds encased in durable coverings that would protect them for as long as necessary until a sufficient rainfall called them into action.  The prehistoric hunters and gatherers of the area learned to pluck the nutritious kernels that were hidden in ears of grain, starting a millennia-long process of cultivation with ramifications far beyond this blog-scope.

Spring is the time when the seeds of many of these indigenous plants come into their own.  In the fields, the grains of wheat are fully developed, yet still green and soft – ready to be harvested to produce farike.  And the almond trees, whose blossoms settled like snowflakes just a few weeks ago, are showing their tender, fuzzy green seeds, which can be eaten whole, sour and refreshing.

In the months to come, the grains and the almonds will dry and harden, to re-enter the cycle in whatever form is their destiny.  But for now, we can savor their vibrant, green potential – encapsulating the miracle of rebirth in yet another spring.

Please accept my warmest wishes for a wonderful Passover, Easter and/or Spring.

green almonds

Forgetting the Bulgar

Learning Arabic is confoundingly difficult.  I have learned languages in my life – Spanish, French and Hebrew – but Arabic is something completely different.   I have never invested so much time and effort, with such meager results, as in my study of Arabic.

The rules of grammar, the vocabulary, the accent – each of them stubbornly elude my grasp.  The other students in my Arabic class, all native Israeli Jews, don’t seem to be progressing any faster, albeit having the advantage of a Semitic mother tongue.  The Tower of Babel comes to mind again and again.

The bright side of Arabic class is the homework – which provides a very good reason to visit my friend Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.   Abu Malek is a retired high school language teacher, and over the years he has patiently worked through my lessons with me, spicing them up with proverbs and tales.

Today we sat on the rooftop porch in the warm winter sun and crafted sentences from my list of vocabulary words – under, over, inside, outside, this far and no more.  Just as we finished our last sentence, Um Malek brought up a tray with lunch – a platter of bright green tabouleh.

tabouleh

I love the way tabouleh is made here, with its overwhelming emphasis on fresh parsley.   Um Malek doesn’t speak Hebrew or English, and I asked Abu Malek to explain to her that in the States, tabouleh is made with more bulgar than parsley. Here, I told her, there is so much green that the bulgar is barely perceptible.  She burst into laughter, and explained that she’d forgotten to add the bulgar.

And we all laughed together because each of us has forgotten the bulgar at some point, and more than once.  On that rooftop this afternoon, we modestly scaled our own Tower of Babel , celebrating what we have in common over what separates us, reaching out to each other through friendship, laughter and a meal lovingly prepared and shared.

Abu Malek

   *** 

  Two auspicious developments regarding my book  “Breaking Bread in Galilee”:

  1.  A review recently appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, putting me in very distinguished company:

http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com

2.  The legendary Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in New York City just re-ordered copies of my book.  I am so pleased.