Celebrating First Fruits

The holiday of Shavuoth is fast approaching – a festival which was celebrated in the Old Testament days to mark the wheat harvest.  Specifically, the tribes of Israel were mandated to take the first sheaves of the harvest and bring them as a sacrificial offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The term for this offering in Hebrew is “bikurim”, which roughly means, first born or by extension – first to ripen.

But what happens when a plant has two different stages of ripening?   Take wheat for example.  Wheat can be fully ripe but still green – at which point it can be a very flavorful snack eaten raw (think of Jesus and his disciples in the wheat field), or even more flavorful when roasted (think Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor). 

But what I’m thinking about these days is chickpeas!  The chickpeas are now green and ripe and it’s a celebration in the Arab communities in these parts.  Eating green chickpeas straight from the stalk is a favorite snack – in Kfar Manda this weekend I saw kids who had set up a stand on the side of the street – just like I used to do when I sold lemonade – although they were selling stalks of chickpeas. 

They are lovely raw, but I’ve also heard of them being soaked in salt water, or roasted in olive oil and salt. 

I just came back from the chickpea field below our house and here is what I found.  Within days they will all be brown and dry, and the chickpea inside will be dry and hard – just like they’re sold in the store. 






Have you ever seen a chickpea plant?

The Wheat Harvest

Bucking tradition, I chose Spring to go into hibernation, focusing just about all my energies on my current project, which is researching and writing about wheat as one of the Galilee’s local foods.  And while I was buried in books and traipsing around from one fascinating encounter to another, the culinary landscape made its own dramatic shift.  In the local market in Basmat Tivon, the neighboring Bedouin village, where I purchase all my produce, the winter greens have been replaced by fresh green piles of grape leaves, miniature eggplants and zucchinis for stuffing, and tender baby okra. A pile of long-stemmed malukhiya stands on the counter, the leaves of which the Bedouin women use to make a kind of deep green, mucilaginous dish to dip pita bread in.

In the fields, we’ve enjoyed the ripening chick-pea crop – picking the green pods off the stalks and opening them to reveal perfectly formed blushing-green chick peas that are delicious to munch on.  The sunflowers and corn are pushing skyward at a breathtaking rate, and while I enjoy their vital beauty, they look like interlopers on the landscape…

wheat olives 1

But as I mentioned, it is wheat that consumes my attention this Spring – watching the grain in the fields transform from green to gold – both the cultivated and the wild varieties.  Studying the history of wheat in the Galilee, I’ve learned how fatefully central it was in the lives of the people who lived here since pre-history.  Stone-age men and women collected and ate wild grasses, setting into motion the millennia-long processes that led to their domestication – right here in this part of the Eastern world.  And once wheat could be systematically cultivated in one place, humans were free to shift from wandering gatherers to living  in a settled society.  And the rest is history….

I’ve been clocking countless hours and kilometers, visiting just about every corner of the Galilee to meet people whose lives are in some way connected to wheat.  I’ve been exhilarated by the exquisite beauty of the landscape in the late afternoon light – picking up the gold in the rust colored earth out of which a sea of silvery olive branches wave in the afternoon breeze; by the camel-colored wheat fields, so ripe that they hiss in the wind like rattlesnakes. 

wheat in handThe holiday of Shavuoth, which many people here are observing today, was originally a celebration of the wheat harvest.   My own harvest from this season has been notebooks filled with notes and one very rough draft.  Now I can only wish for the energy, time and inspiration that will leaven this lump of dough into a fine creation.