Jerusalem: A study in purpose, pleasure, politics, & perspective

Recently I’ve stepped away from the work I was doing as part of the movement for justice in Palestine.  In the meantime, I’ve been nurturing my passion for food- reading, cooking, gardening, organizing cooperative culinary events, and slowly (like really slowly) building this blog.  Thus the publishing of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, provided a provocative opportunity for me to explore the connections on a very real level. And I explore them at great length here. (Reading this in installments might be recommended for those of you who share my short attention span. Sorry. There’s just so much to say).

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I was born in Jerusalem.  I have spoken these words a million times- in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.  It pretty much never fails to elicit a response (raised eyebrows and big smile accompanied by an auditory signal of excitement and/or respect, such as “OOOOOH” or “COOOOL”).  Almost anyone I am speaking to has some dramatic association with Jerusalem.

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I was born in the Israeli hospital Hadassah Ein Karem. It was early March and  my mother loves to tell me that the almond trees were blooming while she made her way to give birth to me.

Several years ago, I met a young person in a refugee camp in Bethlehem who told me his family is originally from the Palestinian village of Ayn Karim to which they have not been allowed to return. When I told him that I was born in the Jewish hospital that now stands on part of his village’s lands, he smiled warmly. I cried and tried not to make a spectacle of it.

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Ten years ago I wrote and performed one spoken word piece over and over again in cities across the country. There was no impressive word play, it was not great poetry- it was just simply true and people needed and wanted to hear it from a young American Jew at that time.  Risking deep embarrassment, I revisited the poem as part of an exercise in thinking about Jerusalem and why I might dare to comment on the most recent gorgeous and impeccably put together cookbook from Ottolenghi and Tamimi. I actually have to admit that I stand by the sentiment of my 22-year-old self still and find it relevant as I insert myself into this conversation.  I voiced my connection to the hills of Jerusalem, the shores of the Mediterranean, the closeness of the desert, the clamor of the shuk. I rejected the need to own this powerful place and instead committed to its preservation. I recognized  Israeli attempts at being Western destroying the aesthetics of ancient cities and the customs of Arab Jews and Palestinians being suppressed and redressed for my pleasure.

I was calling out the destruction and cruelty I was witnessing while acknowledging the deep love and familiarity I felt confusingly close beneath the horror whenever I returned there.  I hadn’t stopped craving the parts of the land and culture that I had loved while living there.  I still can go to town on a falafel sandwich wrapped in large warm laffa bread, with hot red pepper sauce, tahini, and hummus oozing out between chunks of fried eggplant and too many pickles to really fit.  I still can be seduced by a tranquil courtyard at night with jasmine blossoms infusing the warm air and lights casting dramatic shadows on the ancient stone buildings and streets…It is not that I am immune to the magic of being somewhere that is SO OLD and has so many cultures, so many histories, so many layers and languages….No- rather, it is exactly that enchantment that makes my heart break seeing the people, languages, foods, buildings, plants, and traditions that enchant me so much being co opted, destroyed, and displaced.

So I’m no stranger to the complex romance of Jerusalem (in Arabic, Al Quds).  Although I actually haven’t been back there in 4 years and haven’t written or talked about this in a while.  I have to admit I feel disconcerted, although not surprised, by the nagging nostalgia that this writing process has awoken in me for a place where olive oil, lots of lemon, fresh almonds plucked from trees, warm soft flat breads, jasmine, and bougainvillea infuse everyday life…because now undermining and surrounding these are demolition, religious control, ethnic cleansing, and other less romantic forces at play.

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Stuffed Eggplant from Jerusalem

The recipes in Jerusalem are, as usual with Ottolenghi, impeccable.  The meals they produce are full of bright, well balanced flavors and colors in just the right proportions.  The photography is gorgeous. It serves a refreshing combination of poetic passion for the food, a deep respect and understanding of special spices and vegetables, thoroughly researched and organized information, and a delightful playfulness.  My love for their approach is exemplified in their reference to eggplant as a “little local celebrity.”

The main problem is a depoliticized celebration of the richness of the city’s heritage and the diversity of the cuisine.   They simply do not address how seriously the communities, places, and food traditions from which the recipes are drawn, are suffering and disappearing because of government policies.  It is not just a matter of bad attitudes or unfortunate frivolous squabbles between neighbors as their introduction would have you believe.

The introduction to Jerusalem states that “the dialogue between Jews and Arabs, and often among Jews themselves, is almost nonexistent. It is sad to note how little daily interaction there is between communities, with people sticking together in closed, homogenous groups.”   They point out that it is a rare occasion that people from different communities there work together. I know that the systems that have been put in place to ensure this segregation have not escaped these native Jerusalemites’ observation so I’m disappointed that they mentioned this reality as if it were just a bewildering cultural phenomenon.  A giant militarized concrete wall literally caging entire communities of Palestinians and more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians in every aspect of life, have created the separation Ottolenghi and Tamimi refer to.  Although they neglect to report these reasons for the segregation, they at least include this small acknowledgement of the power imbalance: “Intolerance and trampling over other people’s basic rights are routine in this city. Currently, the Palestinian minority bears the brunt with no sign of it regaining control over its destiny, while the secular Jews are seeing their way of life being gradually marginalized by a growing Orthodox population.”

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Although Tamimi is listed as an author, the voice of this book reads as predominantly Jewish Israeli.  Albeit a Jewish Israeli perspective that provides much more acknowledgement of Palestinian and Arab culture than the average Jewish publication.  (Which is not saying much given that mainstream Jewish media treats the word “Palestinian” like an evil spell that will magically and immediately erase the state of Israel if uttered). Still, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly, this book articulates a Jewish perspective on the history and current culture of Jerusalem.  This can be most clearly seen in the summary of the history of the city, which presents Jewish mythology as factual history while presenting Palestinian historical experiences as mere “claims”.

Notice the effect of the different word choices here: “When King David founded [Jerusalem] as his capital…David was a warrior and chose his capital for strategic reasons”….versus  “some Palestinians claim that they are descendants of the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, who were deposed by King David.”  The tone of the former is definitive, the tone of the latter is questioning.

If the same treatment was being delivered to Palestinian as well as Jewish viewpoints in this book, the destruction of the second Temple which is referred to as  “painfully etched in Jewish history as the onset of a slow process of decline that would not end until the advent of Zionism,” would have read more like “some Jews claim the decline ended after the advent of Zionism”. This framework would be one within which Israeli Jewish narratives are also acknowledged as fraught and constructed while avoiding the erroneous assumption of a monolithic Jewish view given the broad spectrum of (often troubled) relationships to Zionism and Israel amongst Jews themselves, not to mention Palestinians.

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I find the avoidant attitude assumed towards the question of culinary ownership the most disappointing and frustrating given the careful consideration of the sources and stories behind all of the recipes.  Ottolenghi/Tamimi’s reference to the question of ownership is flippant and dismissive, trying to sidestep an issue that is actually at the heart of any culinary exploration of Jerusalem but that they may fear would affect their large sales if things got too heated perhaps…?

Silwan poster

Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem

Ownership is a real issue in Palestine/Israel- not just a rhetorical question.  Israeli archaeological efforts on historical sites are blatantly aimed at undermining Palestinians’ claim to their own homeland and displacing their communities; and Palestinian farmers are attacked by Israeli settlers while trying to harvest olives from their groves in the fall (while olives and olive branches remain a symbol of peace in Jewish culture)….these are not just silly ego battles, these are life or death struggles for ownership on very serious levels.

It is simply wrong for Ottolenghi and Tamimi to publish a book that begins by saying where these cuisines come from and to whom they belong doesn’t matter. I completely agree with their assertion that the beauty of food is indeed in the “sensuality and pleasure of the moment” but it is also equally found in the stories, wisdom, and customs passed down from generation to generation, connecting us through that sensual moment to all of these past people and times.  Ottolenghi and Tamimi, of all people, should know that.

To say the beauty of food is that it is rooted in the now (which is what they put forth) seems out of line with a true appreciation of culinary art which is, when it comes down to it, about deriving beauty from the balancing relationship between accumulated wisdom and individual innovation.  The thoroughly researched recipes themselves in the pages that follow belie this wishy-washy position they take in the introduction. Throughout the book they acknowledge the impact of history and socioeconomic context on a cuisine. They offer the background on bulgur as a grain that historically has been a rural people’s food while remembering how rice was the affluent urban grain.  They brilliantly observe that the predominance within Jerusalem’s cuisine of laborious preparations involving stuffing things indicates the history of a community that was “time rich and resource poor”.  They acknowledge the influence of Italian cooking on Libyan cuisine via their colonization of that land….and so on and so forth.

Despite this apparent respect for the origins of certain recipes, they oversimplify the debate surrounding hummus.  Attempting to prove that hummus cannot be “owned”, they miss the point entirely. By pointing to the existence of hummus in the traditional cuisine of the Jews of Aleppo they are actually highlighting the core issues on the table- the cooptation of Arab culture (which includes Jews).  Hummus is indeed a longtime staple of Aleppine Jews as well as Palestinians and other Arabs…that is actually not the question.

What hummus is NOT, is a dish that belongs to the modern state of Israel claiming it as its national food while historically marginalizing both the Arab Jews and the Palestinian Arabs who introduced it to the European immigrants who hold most of the positions of power in Israeli society and who dominate the construction of its national identity. The cooptation of hummus and other Arab foods is not really surprising or different than how things go down in any other settler-colonial country.  The recipe: take the desirable music, food, clothing and mix together, discard as many of the undesirable people as possible.

Thinking about all of this right now from my position in Brooklyn, I am interested to see how the current Mediterranean food trend amongst the popular restaurants of New York City plays out.

(delicious!) brunch at Glasserie in Brooklyn, including Middle Eastern ingredients such as merguez, bulghur, za’atar, “flakey bread”, and labneh

In this anti-Arab and Islamaphobic society obsessed with the horror of al Qaeda and making movies about the war against jihadists, apparently shwarma, zaatar, and grilled lamb are allowed past the borders. As long as they are served by white people. But then again, that’s how this country likes its hip hop, ramen, tacos, and Harlem Shake. So its par for the course.

Frame from “Planet of the Arabs” by Jacqueline Reem Salloum

Without discussing the real issues in the place from which these recipes are being adapted, what Ottolenghi and Tamimi are doing is familiarizing Western audiences with these Middle Eastern delights without mobilizing people to preserve the origins of this cuisine they’re celebrating (and making a living off of).  Soleil Ho’s break down of #foodgentrification is powerfully relevant here, as Ho focuses on the issues experienced by the marginalized communities whose foods come into the spotlight of the industry:  “fear of being unable to feed one’s family, of losing access to traditional foods, of being priced out of toxin-free produce, of one’s food being alternately shamed and fetishized depending on commercial whims, of having one’s history repackaged and sold.

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Jerusalem successfully delivers a romanticized image of a place in which the mixing and coexisting that it refers to as such a treasure and obviously generative of amazing food, amongst other cultural creations, is actually under attack by the Israeli government through its relentless ethnic cleansing policies.  Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed and populations criminalized and displaced- Arab Jews and Palestinian Arabs at different times and in different ways.

As we Westerners all enjoy reading the rich recipes and cooking festive meals from the Jerusalem cookbook, this is what is happening in that much romanticized city:

Tayma lives in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s Old City. Israeli authorities issued many of the Palestinian families living in Silwan with demolition orders for their homes to clear the area for a national park.

Israeli authorities also approved a large tourism center in the heart of the neighborhood, which will include parking, an event hall, a cafeteria, and stores. They’ve handed development of the area to Elad, an Israeli settlement organization.

“All the houses here are under threat of demolition [by Israel] so that the settlers can build a park for their children,” says Tayma. “They want to throw Palestinian families on the streets so that they can build parks for their own children.”

Israeli settlers have moved into Silwan. With the aid of Israeli security forces, they subject the longtime Palestinian residents to daily violent harassment and intimidation.

From Electronic Intifada

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In an interview for Haaretz in January, Ottolenghi and Tamimi acknowledged some of the inequities in their creative/culinary partnership- the underbelly of their beautiful team.  While they were working on the cookbook, Ottolenghi and Tamimi were asked to take part in a BBC documentary to be shot while they visited their shared hometown. Tamimi’s passport had expired during the 9 years he did not return because he was too traumatized by his treatment entering and leaving the country. He experienced humiliating and frustrating bureaucratic discrimination throughout the renewal process and ended up unable to return to his birthplace.

Ottolenghi went without Tamimi and the BBC cameras followed only Ottolenghi around Jerusalem. The fact that Ottolenghi went without Tamimi confuses me, as he articulates in the Haaretz interview a perfect understanding of the underlying issues: “We were born in the same city and in the same year, and our parallel existence is the background to the emergence of our friendship and partnership, and to the book about Jerusalem. A blow like this reminds us that even if everything looks good on the surface, the fact is there is one law for me and another for him”.

It’s actually a crystal clear example of the more meta issues of who gets to transcend boundaries and tell the stories- through whose eyes do we see the city of Jerusalem and the land it is a part of? I have no doubt that Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s partnership has been incredibly fulfilling (and lucrative) for both of them and it is not my place to question the strong bond they represent themselves as having. I have no idea what the decision-making process was for this trip but I do wonder why Ottolenghi didn’t say “NO- I am not going without my co-author and partner in this”. I wonder about how powerful that could have been- for this very high profile Jewish Israeli to take a principled stand against the unequal treatment he and his Palestinian partner were receiving and refuse to cash in on his privilege. This is the kind of action and relatively small sacrifice that we need those who are as secure in their finances and career as Ottolenghi is to make. People with less security and resources make those kinds of sacrifices all of the time.

“It’s like having cold water poured on you,” Tamimi said. “We recently returned from a book-promotion tour in North America. Many of the events were with Jewish communities. We spoke endlessly about Israel, about Jerusalem and about coexistence − and then you get a slap in the face like this.” Exactly! The truth is that you can have a couple of handsome men speaking in English, one Israeli and one Palestinian, serve the colorful cuisine in sexy white linen dining rooms in London and multicultural events in the U.S., and even Jewish communities who are very defensive in the face of any mention of Palestine or Palestinians can digest it because it’s not connected to any real conversation about what’s really happening in Jerusalem. So how do Ottolenghi and Tamimi feel satisfied with their cookbook? No matter how delicious the recipes are when I make them, and no matter how compelling their descriptions are of the ingredients and the stories of the recipes, I am left feeling like there are major ingredients missing. And yes Ottolenghi and Tamimi successfully deliver amazing and delicious food that unfamiliar cooks and eaters will learn from, be inspired by, and develop a love for…but what does the cookbook do to preserve the original cooks and eaters of this cuisine? As such passionate and wise gourmands as Ottolenghi and Tamimi are, they must care more about preserving the original community food traditions than their cookbook implies.

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I’ve come to realize that the passion and depth of emotion I feel connected to food flows from the power of its intersectionality. I believe that Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s excitement about cooking is rooted in a similar awareness of the power of food to connect people- to their own bodies, to creativity, to each other, to history, to the land, the seasons, animals and plants, family stories….Food is the only concrete connection between urban and rural worlds, between city dwelling cooks and eaters and the farmers producing their ingredients.  Cuisine is often the only interaction people have with cultures outside of their own.  Restaurants are the intersection where wealthy people who have the means to eat out, sit under the same roof as some of the poorest laborers working 14 hour days in the kitchens serving them.

SO…we need to respect and channel that power of food and allow the recipes in Jerusalem to be keys in our hands. They can help us connect to the communities from which these bright and bold flavors come- we can SEE the people, not just eat their food. Let the recipes be our guides to learning about what’s actually going on right now in the very real city of Jerusalem.  If we value what the traditions and cultures of that place have brought into the world, let’s support their efforts to preserve themselves.

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To learn about the spices, produce, meats, and meals of the same place in different contexts, I strongly suggest people pick up these two other fellow travelers’ cookbooks:

The Gaza Kitchen: A Culinary Journey Through the Gaza Strip

OLIVES, LEMONS & ZA’ATAR: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking

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jerusalem sunday

by Suheir Hammad

jeru

salem

sun

day

three muezzins call idan

where one’s allah begins another’s

akbar ends inviting the last

to witness mohammad’s prophecies

church bells ring the sky

an ocean shade of blue above

christ’s tomb and the stones

of this city witness man’s weakness

boys run by the torah

strapped to their third eye

ready to rock their prayers

the roofs of this city busy as the streets

the gods of this city crowded and proud

two blind and graying

arab men lead each other through

the old city surer of step than sight

tourists pick olives from the cracks

in the faces of young and graying

women selling mint onions and this

year’s oil slicking the ground

this city is wind

breathe it

sharp

this history is blood

swallow it

warm

this sunday is holy

be it

god

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Let it Pour: Meditations on Liquid Ritual & Culture, Part 1

This is the beginning of a series of posts pondering the almost totally universal centrality of beverages and the rituals that have been developed around drinking them in so many societies across time and geography. In fact, the passion for many of these liquids and the plants, spices, land, and processes required to produce them, have motivated and facilitated connection between different cultures- with varying degrees of mutual influence, total exploitation, cooperation, and cooptation.  Image

To start us off, an excerpt about the power and poetry of drinking tea taken from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, a novel set in Paris.

Photographs by the lovely Prachi Patankar.

I pour the tea and we sip in silence.  We have never had our tea together in the morning, and this break with our usual protocol imbues the ritual with a strange flavor.

Yes, this sudden transmutation in the order of things seems to enhance our pleasure, as if consecrating the unchanging nature of a ritual established over our afternoons together, a ritual that has ripened into a solid and meaningful reality.  Today, because it has been transgressed, our ritual suddenly acquires all its power; we are tasting the splendid gift of this unexpected morning as if it were some precious nectar; ordinary gestures have an extraordinary resonance, as we breathe in the fragrance of the tea, savor it, lower our cups, serve more, and sip again: every gesture has the bright aura of rebirth. At moments like this the web of life is revealed by the power of ritual, and each time we renew our ceremony, the pleasure will be all the greater for our having violated one of its principles.  Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time.  Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn—and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb.

So, let us drink a cup of tea.

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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?

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.