Common Roots

Among all the countless tragedies and losses of this current war is the blow that has been dealt to the already fragile relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel.  Even in the best of times, suspicion and distrust have been the default sentiments among most Israeli citizens about their “other” counterparts.  And it is against this background that I have, for years, been trying to present a more open-hearted alternative.

Crossing the cultural divide and finding a place in the lives of Palestinians, Druze and Bedouins living in Israel has been one of the most important and transformative efforts of my life – that makes me feel like there is some reason why I am living in this problematic country, instead of in the comfort of the United States.

From these acquaintances and friendships, I have come to understand and appreciate how genuinely connected these people are to this place – whose history and culture – particularly their culinary traditions, which stand out most to me – are rooted in this land.  This is where I find our common roots – because as foreign and religiously unaffiliated as I am,  I do feel a tremendous spiritual connection with this land that I can only explain as originating somewhere deep in my genetic makeup.

This common connection to the land, in fact, is what makes me feel, for example,  that my Palestinian friend Balkees and I are like sisters – that our roots are intertwined somewhere deep in ancient history.

The grapes, wheat and olives of this land grow out of earth that has been steeped in blood.  Yet for every pursuer of war, I am convinced that there are a hundred that would embrace peace with both hands if it was offered to them – no matter what side of the divide.  I pray that the day will soon come that that will happen.

cleaning sesame seeds

cleaning locally grown sesame seeds

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

Spring Fodder

How to catch an acute dose of spring fever – open the bedroom window at 4 AM; when the chill, citrus blossom-drenched air surges into the room, inhale deeply until intoxicated. 

Winter is my favorite season here – the magical emergence of new seasonal growth that we experience from December, in other parts of the world is most commonly associated with spring.  So if winter here is like spring, then the real spring is a riot!  By mid-March, the crazy blooming and blossoming of flowers, undergrowth, and trees is simply out of control.

I recently read about spring as it was experienced here about a century ago, in the first volume of Gustav Dalman’s “Work and Culture in Palestine”, written in German in the 1920s, and recently translated into English.  It is an extraordinary work that documents traditional life in this place as it was practiced more or less since antiquity, just before European and global intervention led to its almost total demise.

The first volume (of 8 in all), focuses on the seasons, and it was very exciting to consider Dalman’s account of spring with all its commotion in the background.  He explains that the wild growth in spring, which at this point is almost waist-high (and which I tended to look at only for its culinary qualities) represented a celebration of fodder for the animals of farmers and herders.  From a fellaheen saying that he quotes (and I paraphrase), the shepherd before spring needs to be smart, but when spring arrives, he can sit back and relax.  Fattened up on the bounty of fresh greens, the cows, goats and sheep give rich and abundant milk – a true expression of the fat of the land.

Dalman speaks of the sap rising in the trees during this season – the expression is familiar, of course, and in my more “interconnected” moments, I’ve visualized trees surging with life energy, but I never understood it in such a visceral way.  These days, I feel like I am tapping into these same energies of growth and renewal for my new academic pursuits.  To my great surprise and delight, a proposal I submitted to the prestigious Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was accepted, so I will be talking about the wonderful wheat mill in Nazareth, El Babour, in England this July.

In the meantime, if spring is all around, or just around the corner, I hope you enjoy the rising sap as well!

fodder

fodder cut from my neighbor’s yard

The Other Side of Paradise

On these late winter mornings, surveying each new day I feel like I am living in paradise.  The weather is so temperate, the landscape lush and forthcoming, the wheat fields exude vitality.  Back west, my family and friends are hunkered down in the cold and snow as I gratefully soak up the winter sun.  The flip side of the coin, of course, is the troubling absence of rain, casting its shadow from an ineffectual gray cloud over the pleasure of a clear blue sky.

This weekend we hosted Abu Malek and Um Malek for an afternoon visit – because they are not mobile on their own, their son brought them, accompanied by his wife and two young sons.  We sat out in the yard and chatted while Um Malek collected pecans under the tree and picked luf, and the boys played on the rope swing.  In the relaxed pastoral mood, Abu Malek declared expansively. “this is paradise”.

Our village used to be like this too – he continued – but now that it has grown so big, there is never any quiet – the traffic is noisy on the narrow streets – the houses are densely built and there is no green landscape.  Butheina, the boys’ mother, told me that in their school, there is no playground, and barely even a yard for the children to play in during recess.

Her quiet, personal testament to the discrimination experienced in Israeli Arab communities passed opaquely between us and the warm afternoon sun.  And even now, the chill of that moment sits in my bones – a rumbling reminder of how far from paradise we really are.

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Rest and Refuel

Ron came home the other day, full and contented after an excellent meal at one of our favorite gas-station restaurants – Nimmer, near Golani Junction. You may be raising an eyebrow, like I did when I first moved to Israel, about the prospect of eating in proximity of gas pumps. But as it turns out, gas station restaurants can generally be counted on for fresh, tasty, if not formulaic, “Middle-Eastern” food.

As I delved into the culinary traditions of this region, I came to understand that gas station restaurants came into being in response to an age-old need to sustain travelers en route. From the time that merchants carried goods from points East to points West, resting stops were established at strategic points along their trade routes. Known in Arabic as “khans”, they offered caravan travelers and their pack animals a place to sleep and refuel. Certain khans continued to function through the beginning of the 20th century, and can still be seen today – one of my favorites is now a parking lot in Nazareth, but there are superlative examples in Akko as well.

And as it turns out, just down the road from Nimmer, covered in overgrowth, are the remains of a khan built during the Mameluke period (around the 16th century?), known as Khan el Tujar, or the khan of the vendors. A friend of mine – a food historian who is studying the evolution of local markets – invited me on an expedition to explore it. She explained that it was built near the junction between two Roman roads and that it had, until the early 1900s, hosted a weekly market. The question she was pondering was what led to its sudden decline.

We clambered over the rubble, peered through exquisite vaulted spaces, and discovered the remains of a well and a mosque. She found a piece of Mameluke-era pottery with its distinctive yellow glaze, and I found a chip of carnelian stone – too smooth and shiny to be just a pebble. We ate tiny dark-brown almonds picked off a stunted tree and cracked open with stones, and chewed on wild fennel seeds collected from the starbursts that topped stalks as high as our shoulders. Then we rested on a pile of stones, filling up on the beauty of Mount Tabor and the rolling olive-covered hills.khan 4

khan 2khan 1

Wild to Cultivated to Wild

What a great pleasure it is to have a hakura, or kitchen garden, next to the house – particularly when its yields peak in mid-winter. Yesterday I stripped the hakura of just about all of the swiss chard to make a crispy filo-layered pie.  Washing and trimming the fleshy leaves, I realized how viscerally I love fresh greens – wild or cultivated.  In fact, new sprouts of waxy luf leaves are unfolding all over the yard, beyond the orderly rows of the hakura.  And even if I haven’t mastered the technique of cooking them, I will soon harvest them and bring them to someone who has.  

The changing of the year has been a time of self-examination, and now, almost two years after my book came out, I’ve decided that I need to return to what I feel is my calling – to research and write about how the local foods are grown, processed and prepared in traditional ways in the Palestinian-Israeli and Bedouin communities of the Galilee.  This time, however, I want to do it in an academic context – to structure my work in an orderly fashion, and to join a community of like-minded people documenting traditional foodways around the world.

Looking for a potential home at the University of Haifa, I have spoken to several faculty members from different departments.  With Prof. Guy Bar-Oz in the Archaeology Department, who is a specialist in pre-historic and ancient foodways in this region, I had a particularly fascinating conversation.  When I told him my interest in foraging and the process of domestication of edible wild plants that I observe to be happening in our times, he countered with something that stopped me in my tracks.   How do you know that the wild mallow that you collect wasn’t once domesticated as a crop some time back in history, and just fell out of use over time and reverted back to a wild state?  How do I know indeed!  Clearly, there is so much to learn, and I am eager to dive in.

A few days ago, driving home from an exhausting day at a job that is more draining than I’d bargained for, I saw at the edge of the hills an older Bedouin man walking with three frisky little boys, presumably his grandchildren.  In his hands were two plastic bags full of freshly gathered luf.  My first urge was to pull over on the side of the road and follow him, to ask him about his foraging habits and what he had planned for that luf – his evening meal or perhaps to share with an ailing family member or friend.

But I drove on, more determined than ever that by foraging season next year, I’ll be able to ask those questions not just to satisfy my own curiosity, but to make their answers accessible to anyone who shares an interest in hearing them.  And I know that there are many, indeed.

stripped chard

Stripped Chard

 

jan luf

Wild Cousin Luf

No Rain, No Luf

It is dry here.  So dry.  By this time of year, we could have expected several serious bouts of rain, and at least a stirring of growth in the brown earth.  Instead we get the vaguest of clouds and downpours of thirty seconds that barely darken the sidewalk.

On a walk last weekend in the somnambulant hills, even the asparagus were suspended in barren, bare tangles of thorns.   Crossing the vineyard, Ron searched through the dried leaves to glean clusters of raisins, sweet and chewy – more seeds than fruit.  They are like the black olives* I cured this year, their desiccated bitter flesh barely covering the pits, which I keep only out of sentiment for the loving attention invested in them.

raisins 1

Yesterday I visited Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.  Abu Malek is retired and spends much of his time visiting friends in the village.  Some of them, like Abu Ali, are not well and homebound.  Abu Ali has diabetes and for months he languished, with no appetite, and I heard periodic reports of cures investigated, here and in Jordan.  At this point, Abu Malek told me, his appetite has returned, but there is only one thing he craves – luf.

Luf is that edible wild plant that requires special cooking to neutralize its toxins, and is commonly acknowledged in the Arab communities of the Galilee to have extraordinary medicinal qualities.  Luf is one of the first plants to appear with the winter rains – in an ordinary year, my yard would now be full of them.

Abu Ali asked us if we have any luf in the freezer, Abu Malek told me.  But a few weeks earlier, Um Malek needed room in the freezer and she took out the old luf she had and tossed it.  A pity.  At Abbie’s there’s plenty of luf, Um Malek noted.  But no rain, no luf.

So we have no choice but to wait.  For the rain, for the luf, and for relief from the bone-dryness that has bedeviled countless generations whose livelihood here depended on the benevolent communion of rain, earth and new growth.

***

*In fact, the original plan was to cure green olives (see this post)  When we got to the trees, however, there was barely a green olive to be found.  But plenty of beautiful black ones.  Following the signs can lead down a circuitous path…

Gone Gleaning

Leket (or the verb Likut) is the Biblical Hebrew word for gleaning.   Leket Israel is a non-profit  that collects produce and food that would otherwise go to waste from farms, restaurants, stores and caterers, and distributes it to those in need.

The organization contacted me recently in connection with a new project they have initiated– posting commentaries on each weekly Torah portion, written by food scholars and chefs, and supplemented with recipes.   As a longtime gleaner and food culture observer, they asked me if I would be willing to supply a recipe.

Looking at Leket’s website, I saw they were hosting a morning of gleaning in honor of World Food Day at a farm not far from where I live.   On the spur of the moment, I decided to forego my cherished leisurely Friday morning routine of yoga, errands, coffee and newspaper, to join the gleaners.

What would we be gleaning, I wondered, as I drove past the fields and towns of the Jezreel Valley.  Olives, of course!  What else is being harvested this time of year?  Arriving at the field, I was given a bucket, and joined about a hundred school-kids, families and other locals, picking turnips.

There is plenty of time for rumination when you pick turnips.  As it turned out, we were not technically gleaning, since the entire field was leased and planted by Leket and all of its contents were destined for its distribution.  What was the rationale, I wondered, behind the decision to grow turnips?  Beyond pickling and adding them to soup, what other qualities do they offer?

They are easy to harvest, for one thing.  Pulling them out of the earth requires remarkably little energy – the fat cream and magenta globes yield to the slightest tug – remarkably clean of mud.  For a team of non-professional harvesters, this was certainly an advantage.  And they are hearty and nutritious, and don’t require refrigeration or special handling.  The turnip greens themselves weren’t saved – and the remorse I felt in tossing them aside was lessened by the fact that they were so very raggedy.

But I was also happy to see plenty of mallow and the first wild spinach of the season – getting an opportunistic head start thanks to the field’s irrigation.  Interesting that these edible wild plants grow only on the outside borders of the harvested field – the traditional area sanctioned for gleaners.  And how gracious is the land here, that even these “weeds” that appear unbidden offer up such a generous supply of sustenance.

We picked and loaded our buckets, depositing their contents into large containers, as a forklift busily made the rounds, collecting and replacing them.   It was hard, physical work, crouching down to pick, then standing up to lift that heavy bucket, tromp across the muddy field littered with greens and hoist the bucket to the rim of the container.  I came home exhausted, aching, crusted in mud – and ready for the next Leket gleaning.

turnip2

* Because of a technical screwup, my turnip photos didn’t come out.  So thanks to Ann at piercewholenutrition.blogspot.com for her photo of  turnips.

 

House Blend Herb Tea

On these roasting summer days, one can never drink enough, and I try to keep a pitcher of chilled herb tea in the fridge at all times.   Very auspiciously, the path leading to my front door is lined with herbs – starting with rosemary, followed by zaatar (Syrian marjoram), lemon verbena, thyme, zuta  levana (white savoury), lemon grass, sage and tarragon.

Making the tea is simple enough – just put a bunch of fresh herbs in a tea pot and cover with boiling water.  I leave the pot to steep on the counter until the tea is tepid – then pour it into the pitcher and put it in the refrigerator.  The teapot is constantly being replenished with my daily harvests.

Typically, I start with the lemon verbena, breaking off four tender branches of new growth just where they generously yield without pulling.  After that, I select two long sprigs of zuta and then reach down into the depths of the lemon grass to tear off one scratchy leaf.  Finally I look for two large and handsome sage leaves, eponymously green and furry, and pluck them as well.  This carefully assembled combination, I just realized, composes my house blend.

I recently read a book by Elliot Cowan called Plant Spirit Medicine.  The author describes how he communicates with particular plant spirits, and how they guide him in his work as a healer.  Since then, I have begun to approach each of my herb plants with new respect.   I whisper thanks to its spirit for so generously sharing its growth for my refreshment, and I run my hands over its leaves in appreciation.

For the time being, the only response I’ve received is the continued blessing of my delightful cold tea.  And that, believe me, is recognition enough.

herb garden

 

Fig Season

Again, the figs are here.  It seems like I’ve been waiting so long.  To squeeze and rend their skins, gauge the sweetness in the filaments of flesh, and pop the delicate seeds between my teeth.  They will consume my attention throughout their brief season.

Ron has draped netting over our fig trees – the birds will get their share, but only after we’ve had our fill.  A neighbor sends a basket of pale green figs from her tree.  Here in the Galilee, who doesn’t have a fig tree in their yard?  Even more fortunate are those in the Western Galilee, where wild fig trees offer the finest flavored fruit.

During fig season, one doesn’t need to bake bread – goes a traditional Arabic saying from these parts.  In a similar version, during watermelon season, there’s no need to cook.  I’ve been pondering the sense behind these wholehearted expressions of seasonal eating.  How healthy is it to subsist for weeks only on figs?

Gary Paul Nabhan, in his book “The Desert Smells Like Rain” asked the same question, as he looked at the traditional diet of the Tohono O’odham people of Northern Mexico/Southern Arizona, which once relied entirely on the seasonal plants of the Sonora Desert (see my previous post).

“…it is difficult to imagine an (O’odham) with a vitamin C deficiency while living in a saguaro-harvesting camp, or lacking calcium for the weeks following a cholla bud pit roast.  The same person, however, may show deficiency symptoms during the ‘lean months’ of late winter before desert fruits reappear.”

The geometry of square meals and nutritional pyramids ensures that all our daily dietary needs are more than covered.  And yet, isn’t there place for a more longitudinal approach to nutrition?  To trust that, over a cycle of seasons, the figs will be back when we need them?

figs