I love food. So what?

As a Jew raised vegetarian, with a sprinkling of Italian heritage, I learned life through food.  The kitchen has always been my comfort zone.  For my sisters and I, food was never something that appeared out of nowhere ready to eat.  We were our parents’ kitchen staff- garden assistants and prep cooks- peeling whole heads of garlic, picking green beans, serving soup, stirring the polenta, slicing the pickles for the requisite first course of the epic feasts for Shabbat and every one of the dozens of annual Jewish holidays for which the framework is primarily “they tried to kill us, they didn’t… lets eat!”

I am not a fancy chef. However,I have a passionate relationship with food- a deep reverence for the processes and people that make it happen.  (My partner laughs at me because I am often deeply moved by a recipe or a description of a meal and I can get the chills while reading an article about a chef). I was so emotional this summer when I harvested baskets of tomatoes that I grew from seed for the first time that I had to laugh at myself.

Although I have no professional cooking training, I do have to say that my forced conscription into the Sabbath feast preparations every single week until I left home, instilled in me a useful solid understanding of how to host- how to bring people together with artfully prepared delicious food, how to ritualize a meal, how to set a table with seasonal, conceptual unity between garden flower arrangements and colorful dishware, how to serve and clean up after large numbers of (often demanding) people.

Shabbat Dinner during a parental visit to BK

Brooklyn Shabbat dinner during a parental visit

My brain tends to work like a switchboard. In this way I am an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree; being the daughter of a rabbi and an artist-educator, I grew up directly witnessing my parents’ community organizing skills in action.  I think I just absorbed the understanding that what one does in life is build things- relationships, projects, communities, spaces. In a society where people do not often learn how to effectively communicate, get organized, solve their own problems, express love, connect with others…I was taught that those were the most important parts of being alive. And for me, food is a central part of that- a simultaneously creative and mundane act, an opportunity for gathering and for individual expression and experience.  Cooking is a collaboration with nature- it’s about drawing out the essence of the ingredients you’re working with, capturing them at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, understanding their needs, powers, and particularities, paying close attention, being humble yet confident, balancing age-old wisdom with innovation and discovery…just like effective cooperation amongst people.

There was a period of time during which I was in graduate school, helping produce the film Slingshot Hip Hop, running an after-school program, coordinating a collective of activists & artists doing workshops internationally about the struggle for self-determination in Palestine. I was so busy and so exhausted (while also, for the record, feeling excited and inspired) that the only time I ever felt ok stepping away from working was when I was cooking for the crew. I was never able to justify reading  a book or watching a film- I couldn’t escape the never-ending to-do list running through my mind. But cooking was a creative act and a form of decompression that I didnt feel guilty about because it was necessary in order to live.  I was able to relax into it. To this day, even though I’ve managed to balance out my schedule a bit more, one of the only times I feel completely present and never doubt my choice of place and activity is when Im cooking.

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Along with my gratitude for my food-loving family and the wisdom it has provided me with, I have questions at times about the potential lack of healthy balance in my family’s relationship to food and drink.  Sometimes it seems that we could benefit physically and energetically from letting go and taking a more casual approach every once in a while.  There is a fine line, as it turns out, between intentionality and obsession. Boundaries and balance in terms of food and alcohol can be tricky for us as individuals and collectively. There are times when we need to challenge ourselves to focus on other elements of culture, other ways of being together.

I am trying to learn how to let go sometimes- knowing that my culinary ideas and organizational skills are valuable during my crew’s myriad celebrations but that even benign bossiness ain’t cute for too long 😉 Plus I want to be able to enjoy receiving as much as giving and to trust others to make things happen and teach me things.

Surprise Feast for Giovanna's Bday

Cava & Oysters feast in honor of our dear Giovanna’s birthday

I am currently in a period of transition in my life. I am considering shifting away from the community education work I’ve been doing within the Jewish community for a decade.  Although I have always bounced between worlds and woven together interests and communities, I am committing now to focusing in on culinary art/culture/community. BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!! In the current context, in which white 20 & 30-something-year-olds throughout urban centers of the U.S. are r(e)discovering food like Columbus discovered America, what is useful? What is necessary? It is not enough for me to say food makes me happy. I try not to consider my life choices in a void, ignoring the big picture of the country and world I live within.  Happiness is of course a goal (and one we all need to embrace more) but also purposefulness. While brooding over this recently, I found Patti Smith‘s questions in Just Kids resonant. She was speaking of art, I am thinking of the world of food:

“Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.”

“Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

As someone exploring possibilities of jumping more fully into the word of making and serving food and the culture that surrounds it, I too should certainly feel concerned about not just participating in the gluttony that Patti Smith refers to. Otherwise I am just aligning myself with the wealthiest people on the planet- those with the resources and time to indulge in such things while the rest of the population is being pushed off their farmlands, picking fruit covered in poison, losing their olive trees to bulldozers, struggling to hold on to their food traditions, grocery shopping at Walmart, being served processed animal garbage in their schools….

Patti Smith created her boundary-crossing collaborative poetry-music-art as a heartfelt rebellion against the social and economic systems the music of her day was being shaped  by.  Her words, although originally written about rock n roll, provide us with perfect metaphors as we reflect on the “new food movement” we are a part of, wary of, reliant upon, and hopefully making an intervention into:

“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity.”

So where to from here?

No blood money in our food please

We believe that linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to our communities and the planet is a key element of the world we want to help build.

City Harvest collects excess food from all segments of the food industry, including restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms. This food is then delivered free of charge to community food programs throughout New York City using a fleet of trucks and bikes. City Harvest also addresses hunger’s underlying causes by supporting affordable access to nutritious food in low-income communities, education for prevention of diet-related diseases, and channeling a greater amount of local farm food into high-need areas. This is important work and deserves the high level of visibility and support it receives from major chefs, celebrities, and city officials.

The problem is, that one of the big names that is now associated with City Harvest is directly responsible for undermining food sustainable food systems, creating poverty, and destabilizing communities from Palestine to Namibia to Brooklyn. Lev Leviev is a villain out of a Disney movie- it is that black and white. He makes money through exploitation and destruction. And now he is claiming to be a big supporter of City Harvest.

As we continuously articulate, The Big Ceci is committed to the goodness of food on multiples levels- the systems of agriculture, labor, health, and community-building that are involved in the making, serving, and enjoying of food.  We all want there to be more equality in who gets to grow and eat what…right?

Well…Leviev is a billionaire who is directly involved in increasing food insecurity and poverty of Palestinian families by developing Israeli settlements on expropriated Palestinian farmland.

uprooted olive trees

Palestinian olive trees uprooted to make way for Israeli settlement construction, sponsored by Leviev’s company.

And Leviev’s diamond companies are also involved in brutal human rights abuses, unethical business practices and impoverishing communities in Angola and Namibia and possibly now Zimbabwe as well. He has also in the past been involved in shady business in Brooklyn connected to new construction gone terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, City Harvest is now linked to Leviev’s abysmal human rights record through a number of media reports over a two year period, saying that Leviev is hosting fundraisers and donating money to City Harvest. Leviev Diamonds publicly stated its plans to support City Harvest with a portion of its November sales and there has been some buzz about hosting diamond-adorned benefits as well.

Local activists from Adalah-NY have been tracking Leviev’s actions since they first heard his plans to open a jewelry/diamond store in New York in 2007, holding pickets outside his store starting from its opening night. Since then, public pressure (yes, including letter writing campaigns!) and the careful research has compelled a wide variety of groups to officially sever ties with Leviev including UNICEF, Oxfam America, and CARE. In the case of Oxfam America, Leviev was promoting himself as an Oxfam supporter without their knowledge, and they were grateful to be tipped off by true supporters, quick to publicly state that they were disturbed to discover that they had unknowingly been a part of the “deliberate strategy of Leviev Diamonds to connect itself with unwitting charities.” Could it be that Leviev is trying to re-bolster his reputation as a philanthropist by associating with City Harvest now?

SO….it’s painfully clear that City Harvest needs to immediately disconnect itself from Leviev and his settlement funding and diamond dealing so that our food systems here are not relying on the exploitation and oppression of people in Africa and the Middle East, and so that destructive forces like Leviev can’t whitewash their dirty business by claiming to be philanthropists. Two letters have already been sent to City Harvest by Adalah-NY, Grassroots International, Brooklyn For Peace, Jews Say No!, and Park Slope Food Coop Members for BDS. But it seems like City Harvest needs to hear that others are concerned as well.

Can you write personal letters? Can you get the restaurant owners/chefs/food writers you know to use their good names to help make sure that good food in New York City isn’t linked with companies that cause major harm to other communities?

Often we feel impossibly bound up in a cruel and destructive system…so concrete opportunities like this to resist it are precious and important.  City Harvest does not need Lev Leviev’s support. This is a simple and direct way for all of us who care about food justice and ending poverty to act in a manner consistent with our values, and to ask our local organizations to be consistent with comprehensive food justice values too. Sometimes it is impossible or difficult to avoid supporting corporations profiting off of the earth’s resources while destroying communities but this is not one of those times! City Harvest and the rest of NYC can indeed avoid Lev Leviev and his blood drenched money, and doing so will make our efforts that much stronger and righteous.

Demonstrators marching in Jayyous

demonstration in the Palestinian village of Jayyous

Palestinians are involved in daily struggle to resist the continuing colonization of their land, but the obstacles they face are that much bigger when the colonization is bankrolled and supported by companies abroad…so it’s on us to push back on these companies (like Leviev) in New York whenever we can!

You can read more about Leviev, diamonds, and settlement building here, and sign a letter to be sent to City Harvest through the Adalah-NY website.

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Lucky Peach: A Delicious Approach to Food Writing

I am obsessed with Lucky Peach.  It is the quarterly journal of food and writing put together by McSweeney’s in collaboration with David Chang, Peter Meehan, Chris Ying and their posse (often including Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Patterson, amongst others) . Lucky Peach

Each issue focuses on a single theme, and explores that theme from often unexpected angles through essays, art, photography, stories, and recipes.
(For example, one might have expected the “Sweet Spot” issue to be about desserts, but it went a more philosophical route and included pieces about the search for the perfect apricot, the achievement of the ephemeral, split second moment of perfection in a dish, meal, or season, and explorations of the career peaks of athletes and chefs). There were also, of course, some genius approaches to dessert offered by Momofuku’s pastry chef Christina Tosi that you pretty much have to be a professional to undertake.

But why devote Big Ceci space to this publication given that it is not exactly an explicitly food justice or transformative community endeavor?

Well…first of all, I find the publication utterly satisfying in every way so I want to share it with my people. Also, I believe in embracing organic and unofficial subversiveness, creativity, critical analysis, respect, and passion found within spaces not (yet) formally aligned with social movements.
The thing is, the dudely bravado emanating from some of the writing and art of Lucky Peach can be easily digested because the overall approach is deliciously queered and hybridized- multiple forms of media, culinary-cultural reflections, thoughtful political and philosophical commentary, recipes integrated into skillful storytelling, a deep and genuine appreciation for food and those who make it, conversations, collaborations, and humor- providing the complexity and holistic context that I crave when reading and eating, and when reading about eating. (I also find the crass shock-and-awe approach to be chilling out as the publication develops and matures. Something that David Chang even articulates in in his message at the beginning of the most recent issue). Also, like all people who truly care about truly good food, the Lucky Peach crew is extremely knowledgeable about the problematic and the inspiring aspects of food production, agriculture, and food service and they share what they know in really digestable ways….

Exposé on the sushi industry in America. Oy.

Exposé on the sushi industry in America. Oy.

Something that really is my bag is collaborative creation and recognition of collective efforts and this Lucky Peach does very well. I commend them for truly coming across as a team. Unlike other publications (or restaurants) with celebrities in the mix, Lucky Peach seems to be a fun and cooperative creative enterprise and through reading it, we get a sense of their crew and the ways they work together, building off each other, inspiring, and challenging each other. It is easy to relate to- it reminds me of my folks and the ways in which we are constructing a shared language, value-system, aesthetic, and vision around food, culture, community, and love.

And although I said above that Lucky Peach is not a “food justice” publication, the articles and their authors always have on-point race and class analysis and articulate these politics in such an unpretentious and dignified way.  Having an “American food” issue is tricky. And they pulled it off really successfully. The key is that they are clever and self-critical and with a positive attitude acknowledge who they are and what they are not.  And, as they always do, they examine many angles. The issue offers a critical analysis of the language of “invasive species” referring to plants and animals and it’s dangerous connections to the lens through which immigrants are represented.  An Ojibwe foodie and writer presents the role of food in the colonization of his tribe while offering a poetic and moving description of traditional wild rice harvesting. Another piece educates the reader about the Khmer Rouge through an unexpected entry point (for those of us who are less familiar with the immigration and labor patterns of Cambodians in the U.S.)- the predominance of Cambodians in the donut shop industry in California.

This literature is using food the way it should be and actually is for many communities- an entry point into a culture, a celebration of special place/time/people, a connection to history, a process of learning, a form of self-expression, an inheritance across generations, a vessel for culture, a way to tell stories….There is also whimsy found in such elements of the issue as the choose your own taco adventure woven between the articles- brilliantly offering a rare nonlinear reading experience.  And don’t even get me started on the poignant critical analysis of food and race representations in cinema articulated by Elvis Mitchell in his piece in this issue and in his conversation with Anthony Bourdaine (who, btw, whether you like his crass politically incorrect straight guy shtick or not, is angry about all the right things and sticks it to elitist dickheads like a pro. See his righteous reading of many problematic food writers, chefs, and restaurants in general in Medium Raw. I’m hyped he’s on our side).

Basically, reading Lucky Peach I learn a lot and am unbelievably entertained. Where else can you find a mainstream fancy food project headed by famous chefs and food writers that has such perspective and actually takes on issues of race, culture, identity, class and combines it all with whimsy, science, film, poetry, and cartoons?

The Miso Cast of Characters. The perfect way to learn about different kinds of miso. Lucky Peach Issue #2

Their fifth issue is The Chinatown Issue. I just started reading it and have already laughed out loud, learned how to make fresh rice wine, and been enlightened by the exploration of the function of Chinatown in the white American imagination…check.it.out.

Storm Love

Waking up in Brooklyn today, still dark, windy, and rainy, we’re so grateful to not have been directly impacted by the power of the storm. However, we are so saddened by the damage done to our beloved city and all of our neighboring communities.

Last night we were looking at the mostly dark Manhattan skyline that normally twinkles in my bedroom window. We were thinking about our fellow traveler, Una, and her family, as they were going through the madness of the storm’s impact on their home just across the river–Stuyvesant Town in Alphabet City. It is one of the most confusing elements of the human experience–the way that one can be so close to and have such dramatically different experiences from others. (The different daily realities between neighborhoods in the same city, the different experiences people have walking down the same street in bodies that are read and responded to differently, the different levels of mobility and freedom people experience at borders and checkpoints and airports, etc.)

For those of us in this part of the Global North, we are accustomed to the damage and difference in experience being separated from us by many more miles and borders. With fires raging in the Rockaways, flooding shutting down lower Manhattan and the edges of Brooklyn, and Staten Island devastated, we are now experiencing the sadness and stress of the kinds of powerful storms we’ve watched hit other communities further away throughout the past several years.

So we were very cognizant of this existential dilemma as we hunkered down in Crown Heights, with wind pounding the building and lights flickering, but us safe and dry inside our cozy home. As we kept track of the storm’s path and the whereabouts of the people we love, we joined our fellow New Yorkers who were able, in gathering our peeps to cook, drink, and take care of each other. It was kind of an organic and surreal celebration of the goodness of life, home, and community borne of necessity. We created so much color and warmth within these walls, countering the scary night outside.

Blessed by a tribe of loved ones too big to fit in one Brooklyn apartment, we had two encampments a few blocks apart. Seeing as food is the most natural and immediate way we know how to connect with each other, we devised a playful process for merging–brunch in our two households became a creative culinary competition judged by the Honorable Judge Miriam of Big Ceci fame.

Each “team” prepared our menus, plated our food, and sent our write up and photographs to Miriam for judging. Here is what ensued:

The Bergen Brunch Boos

Maple bourbon pancakes with apricot peach preserves & maple yogurt
Rosemary purple potato hash
Hurricane harvest garden kale-cheddar-corn scramble

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Bergen Street brought a strong showing to the competition, with careful attention to form and technique in their preparation of maple bourbon pancakes, topped with apricot-peach preserves and maple yogurt; purple and red potato hash w/garlic and rosemary; hurricane harvest garden kale, corn, and cheddar scramble.  The plate demonstrated a sophisticated use of color and texture, and held a strong seasonal resonance.  In essence, this brunch created an idyllic autumn day that was a perfect foil to the apocalyptic demon storm raging outside.  This judge would recommend a slightly more acidic preserve to balance the sweetness of the maple-bourbon pancakes.  The tang of the yogurt helped a bit but a citrus or tart component might add more balance to the plate.  The hurricane harvest kale was an immediate crowd-pleaser, and elevated this traditional egg preparation to an innovative and delicious farm-to-fork level.

Presentation: 9.0 out of 10
Creativity: 9.2 out of 10
Balance: 8.6 out of 10
Concept: 9.8 out of 10

Overall score: 9.15 out of 10

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza 

Spiced-apple pancakes with homemade apple butter
Veggie-sausage nutmeg greens
Zuke-tomato-basil-cheddar scramble
Sweet potato home fries

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza drew an immediate wow-factor with their precarious-crane-in-a-hurricane reminiscent stack of spiced apple pancakes with homemade apple butter.  Accented with sides including veggie-sausage nutmeg greens and a zucchini-basil-tomato scramble, and served with sweet potato home fries, this summer-to-fall harvest feast brought diners a compelling tale of two seasons, where the summery warm sea temperature flavors of zuke/basil/tomato collided with the winter storm system of apples, nutmeg, and sweet potatoes.  A thoughtful eye to color and palate made brunch stand out, and the brilliant marriage of sweet and savory flavor profiles made this a complex and inspired meal.  This plate’s greatest strength may have also swung as its deepest challenge; the heft of this hearty meal could intimidate the carb-sensitive or starchaphobe.  A lighter lifting aioli for the home fries, or a touch of parsley or fresh green salad might help this meal slide more confidently into the clean-plate club, but overall this july-september romance of a plate could convince even the firmest brunch cynic to fall in love again with the meal that knows no bounds – hurricane brunch.

Presentation: 9.6 out of 10
Creativity: 9.1 out of 10
Balance: 9.4 out of 10
Concept: 8.5 out of 10

Overall score:  9.15 out of 10

A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

The Good, The Bad, and The Bubbly

During the last week of April I joyfully drove to Jersey to pick up Ryvka from the airport. She was returning from a 6 month stay in Bethlehem where she was doing research on the tourism industry (stay tuned for more on the political, economic, discursive, and environmental battles Israel wages on Palestinians under the guise of eco-tourism).  I wanted Ryvka to feel good coming back to the holy land of Brooklyn and I knew that a big part of that was going to be assuring her that good, fresh dairy exists here (even if not as prevalent or accessible as in the Middle East).  Luckily, there happened to be that very evening an Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn event entitled “Good Dairy.” After letting her nap for a bit, I escorted her directly to the most appropriate homecoming ever.

Stocking up on some delicious dairy goodies at Edible’s Good Dairy event.

Now one might assume that this is a post about dairy. That would be a fair assumption. However, this is actually about seltzer- a beverage that I’m not very passionate about but is very dear to the hearts of many of my loved ones. How are we making this transition? Well…upon arrival at the Good Dairy event, the first vendors we encountered were the charming gentlemen behind Brooklyn Gin. They were enthusiastic about their small batch locally distilled spirit and so were we. We thoroughly enjoyed the on-the-spot carbonated cocktail they were serving featuring their citrusy liquor. However, Ryvka pointed out to all of us that the origin of the seltzer maker they were using sadly was not such a pure or locally-based process. SodaStream, an Israeli company producing a do-it-yourself, countertop seltzer and soda maker, has been marketing its wares as a “green alternative” to soda cans and bottles. But SodaStream’s main production site is in Mishor Edomim, a settlement and industrial zone in the occupied West Bank, on confiscated Palestinian land. The company is participating in the theft of Palestinian land and exploits Palestinian labor while selling its product with a “Made in Israel” label.

Our new Brooklyn Gin friends were shocked to hear about the oppressive system of production behind their seltzer maker and were really receptive to Ryvka’s suggestion that they find another way to make their cocktails that aligns more with their vision for quality on all levels (taste and process).

Ryvka, being the thorough lady that she is, followed up with an email just the other day. She was excited to discover that there is an alternative to SodaStream that matches the local pride of Brooklyn Gin- Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie, Brooklyn! Gomberg Seltzer Works is the last remaining seltzer factory in NYC and Ronny Beberman is the Brooklyn Seltzer Man. He’s 63 years old and still drives a wooden slatted truck full of vintage glass bottles. You can watch “Seltzer Works,” a documentary film about Gomberg Seltzer, at Rooftop Films on July 17th, and you can read a brief and entertaining write-up of this old school seltzer making and delivering operation here: http://reclaimedhome.com/2010/07/01/brooklyn-seltzer-delivery-how-old-school-is-that/

So…getting into Gomberg Seltzer Works is a way to divest from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and invest in the traditional liquid culture of Brooklyn.

Speaking of tradition, liquid culture, and seltzer…while I was home in Cincinnati celebrating the 20th anniversary of my father being the rabbi of his synagogue, I made up a little summer spritzer cocktail to loosen us up before diving into the 600 person dinner (at which the CEO of SodaStream was a surprise performer, being a dear friend of my family’s and the high holiday cantor of our shul. Oh the complexity of the universe). I don’t remember exact measurements but here’s the gist of it:

The Roaring Twentieth

1 oz Cointreau

1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 generous bar spoon of mixed berry preserves

2-3 oz Sauvignon Blanc (or any available dry-ish white wine)

top off with seltzer

Shake all of the ingredients (except for the seltzer) with ice in a cocktail shaker. Then strain into a chilled wine or champagne glass and top with seltzer. Garnish with a lemon or lime twist. Then clink glasses and toast all to the people fighting the good fight to make food and drink not just delicious but ethical! L’chaim!

A Hummus without People for a People without Hummus

In the fall, I wrote a post about why I support boycotting Israeli goods at the Park Slope Food Coop. Since then, I’ve read many articles about the campaign. Including this one, which refers to the shared passion within the Park Slope Food Coop and the state of Israel, for “hummus and couscous.”  And a blog post in which the author opposes boycott, demanding “more hummus, please” – exhibiting an interest in expanding the cuisine they can consume, and no concern for who it’s being taken from.

This casual reference to such historic and common Arab foods, without acknowledging them as such, relates to a much larger process that I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time- unabashed Israeli and Jewish-American appropriation of Arab foods.

This can also be seen within the description of a class that took place at the Coop last night about Jewish foods from around the world, in which the (unacknowledged) politically charged inclusion of hummus, falafel, and tabbouleh is par for the course in these kinds of multicultural Jewish food programs.  I wrote the chef inviting her to consider the bigger context her class will be taking place in and hoping she will be open to making the connections between good food and good politics:

I am writing to reach out from one social justice conscious cook to another. We know that food is inherently cultural, inherently political. As people who have studied and immersed ourselves in the amazingly rich and diverse range of cuisines developed by Jews living in different parts of the world, we can actually use hummus as an important opportunity to open up dialogue about how Jews live amongst and are influenced by other cultures…that there are foods and lands (i.e. Israel/Palestine) that do not belong exclusively to us, and we can give respect to Arab cultural contributions to the world.

She didn’t respond.

This issue goes way back, of course- before Chickpea, Mimi’s Hummus, or The Hummus Place all popped up in NYC…

A large part of the creation of a Jewish state was the rejection of the “weak” culture of Jews living in exile and the attempt to create a native Israeli culture, a culture that was not European. This project has involved the expropriation of many aspects of Palestinian culture as well as Mizrahi (Arab Jewish) cultures. Traditional Middle Eastern foods like falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, and cucumber-tomato salad have been appropriated and presented as typically Israeli foods, with no acknowledgement of the origins of these foods.(much like the state itself and the treatment of the towns and buildings Israelis now reside in).

Student Exhibit at University of Maryland Global Communities

The fascination that the early Jewish settlers in Palestine had with the native Arab population’s agriculture, clothing, and food is apparent in the literary and artistic representations of these Zionist settlers- wearing kuffiyehs, eating olives and Arabic bread- associating themselves with agricultural work and Mediterranean ways of life far from the shtetl back in Europe.

Yael Raviv has analyzed how the falafel became a perfect icon of Israeli national culture because it came to represent a proud, ethnically mixed society rooted in that area of the world. Claiming a traditional and common food of the Middle East was a part of claiming the historic connection and ownership of that land that Israel asserts for itself.  

Political scientist Ahmad Sa’di nails this process for what it is. He observes how the local herbs Palestinians use for cooking and healing, such as Za’atar, have “become a part of an Israeli ‘nativist’ approach…Palestinian culture has thus become a pool from which Israelis pick and choose in order to build an ‘authentic’ Israeli culture.”

In thinking about this piece, I solicited the opinion of my dear friend and fellow Big Ceci contributor, Zein El-Amine, who was born and raised in Lebanon.  I wanted to hear what he has to say as someone whose culture is being breached by this culinary cooptation.

Here is what Zein shared with me:

Many years ago I noticed an increase of the acquisition of unquestionably Arab foods by Israelis and American Zionists.  I noticed this in restaurants where foods such as Fattoush and tabbouleh, distinctly Arab salads, were being referred to as Israeli Salads. In the same period a comedic short film was released mocking the falafel wars between Israelis and Palestinians.  American liberals thought it was funny how something as “silly” as Falafel would be a point of contention. This is consistent with the liberal “balanced” view that gives equates the morality of the cultural domination of an occupier with that of the Arab resistance to the acquisition of its culture.

In the case of Hummus, a food with a long, well documented history of being part of Arab culture, Zionists have not even bothered to change its Arab name to claim as their own.  The word Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic. The actual name for Hummus in most Arab countries is Hummus Bi Tahini which means chickpeas with tahini, to distinguish it from plain chickpeas (note to the colonizers: tahini comes from the Arabic word Tahana, “that which is ground,” because it is made from ground sesame seed.)

Israel has gone to great lengths to claim hummus, at one point breaking the world record for the biggest batch of hummus.  The Lebanese were disgusted at this brazen incursion on Arab culture and answered by breaking the Israeli record and in turn breaking record batches for several Arab and Lebanese dishes that were being claimed by Israel.

To any Arab and any person of conscience, this attempt to occupy Arab food is the same as the occupation of land and displacement of people. Just as there was the Zionist claim that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land,” Israel is trying to now claim a food without people for a people without food.  I do not say this to denigrate the rich Jewish culture that can be tapped to establish an identity, on the contrary, the question becomes: if you have such a rich culture then why are you taking such desperate measures to claim foreign foods (Palestinian in this case) as your own?  And the answer is quite simply that the folks who are engaged in such a project know that in order to complete the colonial project of ethnic cleansing, you need to dilute the identity of the people that you are displacing.