Two Weeks into the Omer

farike making 1We are now almost two weeks into the Omer – the 49 plus one days that are counted between Passover and Shavuoth.  In a region that has basically two seasons – winter and summer, the Omer, which bridges between them, has always been a period of tremendous climatic uncertainty, with drastic implications for agriculture.

So far this has been a textbook Omer – Sweltering days followed by drastic drops in temperature. Thunderstorms, lightning and pounding rain, then dust storms that leave a yellow scrim over every surface.

Yesterday we joined Balkees and went to visit our friends who still practice traditional agriculture outside of Nazareth.  They had told her that, although they wouldn’t be out in the fields, we could go on our own and pick the peas that are now in season.  The matriarch of the family, Um S., whose domain is these fields, was home recovering from a torn cartilage, and her absence was obvious when we searched for the rows of peas.

dead peas

Dead peas in the pod

Amidst the undergrowth, all of the pea plants were dried up and dead, the result, Balkees explained, of the heat, followed by rain, followed by more heat – and of course, no greenhouse protection.  We salvaged a small pile of pods, but the peas inside of them, while still green, were bitter.

chickpeas

not yet mature chickpeas

ful

fava beans

Nearby, rows of chickpeas seemed to have withstood the climatic onslaught unscathed.   Heartiest were the thick-skinned fava beans (ful), and we each filled our bags with them.

Following a plume of smoke, we drove across the rutted dirt roads to the wheat field where a man and woman were in the midst of preparing farike.  As I understood it, they had leased the field from our friends and were making their way through the green wheat, harvesting, drying and roasting the green ears at their own pace.

farike making

roasting farike

charred wheat in field

green wheat field and charred wheat

What had all this late rain signified for them, I asked.  For the wheat that’s still in the ground, no problem, they answered.  But for what was cut and laying on the ground waiting to be roasted, getting wet meant disaster.  They had had to spend 1000 Shekels on plastic sheeting to cover the wheat, just to protect their investment.  “I knew the rain was coming.  I look at the 3-day forecast,” the man explained.

We left the farike-roasters and continued to where our friends keep their cattle and goats out on the rocky open hillside.  Abu S. was milking the goats, by hand, taking over for his wife who usually does this work.  I was struck with wonder at the primacy of this way of life, based on unmediated interaction between indigenous animals and foods and intensive human effort, with only the barest traces of technology.  It was absolutely clear to me that this symbiotic and fraught relationship between humans and the land, maintained for thousands of years on these same hillsides, will not endure much longer.

We followed Abu S. back to their family home, where we sat in the living room, Um S.’s foot wrapped in bandages.  Besides the damage to the peas, what did the rains signify for the rest of her crops, I asked.  They are good for the tomatoes, she told me.  This profound soaking of the earth, I could imagine, boded well for summer vegetables that would rely entirely on groundwater for their growth.

The First, First Fruits of Spring

20150403_114715Early on in Arabic class, we learned the names for the seasons of the year, and one of the topics for discussion was, “what is your favorite season?”   Visiting in Kufar Manda to practice my lessons, I took up this conversation with Abu Malek and Um Malek. I like winter best, I told them. The Arabic name for winter, “shitta“, is a synonym for rain, and I related how I wait all year long for the onset of winter rains that call up a plethora of edible wild plants.

Um Malek got a dreamy look in her eyes and said, “Spring”.  Since she is one of the most energetic wild plant foragers I know, I was interested to hear her choice, and asked her to explain.  Because of the zaatar, she said.

For those of us who associate winter with hibernation and spring with reawakening and new growth, these seasons have a very different significance here in the Galilee.  Winter, with its life-giving rainfall, is the time when local plants emerge, grow and mature. Zaatar has been evident on the hillsides all winter long, but now its soft, hairy leaves are large and suffused with potent essential oil, ready to be gathered, dried, crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and sumac to make dukka.

Other local foods, however, just reach an initial stage of maturity with the coming of spring.  In the market in Nazareth this past weekend, I saw soft green almonds on sale.  And on my walks in the fields, the wheat is tall and robust, loaded with fat, mature kernels of soft green grain.  Green almonds and wheat – as well as the new chick peas that will soon be appearing – are a delight to eat in their fresh, spring state, or in the case of wheat, ready to be harvested and roasted to produce farike, but their main harvest will only come later, when they are dry and more utilitarian.

By Passover, the wheat in the fields and the flowers on the fruit and olive trees give the traditional Galilee farmer an indication of harvests yet to come, assuming they can survive the upcoming, volatile 49 plus one days of the Omer, with their alternating thunderstorms and blistering hamsin (Arabic for “fifty”) winds.

In the meantime, as we retell yet again the Passover story of exile and liberation, we can also recall that this was once a harvest holiday, charged with promise and trepidation, and that first fruits can ripen in successive stages.

Extending my best Spring Holiday wishes!

Abbie

pre pesach wheat field

 

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?

 

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.

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

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!

What You Can Count On and What You Can’t

Let’s start with what you can’t.  Here in the Galilee, you can’t count on the rain.  You know, or at least you hope, that after what feels like an interminable, hot dry summer, eventually, the seasonal rains will make their dramatic appearance.  And usually, by mid-October or early November, they comply.  This year, our faith was challenged.  By the first week of December, my East-Coast American family was bundled up for snow, and we walked around in t-shirts, on edge in the brittle heat.  Then finally, the skies opened in all their splendor – rain, hail and snow – power outages, flooding.

And now to what you can count on.  That monumental soaking, followed by days of brilliant sunshine, has worked its magical re-appearing act.  Now you see brown, dry earth, now you don’t – replaced by rolling hills of tender, brilliant green filaments of wheat.  What a soothing sight that is.  And how unique for us here, that the advent of winter signals the start of our most primal, fertile season.

I can only imagine what it was like during the millennia when farmers of this land had no recourse to a water pipe.  The existential threat of rain that doesn’t come could wipe out entire clans or send them wandering, all the while trying to make sense of what you can count on and what you can’t.

Which brings me to my holiday wishes –new green that in  the year to come, may you  find  balance between the unpredictable and what can be relied upon – the regenerative cycle of the seasons and the transformative power of love, as welcome as  clouds on the horizon.