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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Maine Magic

Sutton Island is a small island just off the coast of Mount Desert Island in Maine. There are only 22 houses on the island and the only way to get there is by boat. Each time I’ve gone there, I feel as if I’ve slipped through a portal into another dimension.Walking in the forest on Sutton, we were bouncing, stepping on soft glowing green lichen and moss covered mounds, breathing in sweet air perfumed by the most delicate blend of sea salt and pine needles.

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 I spend my time there literally not believing my eyes, charmed and overwhelmed by the combination of elegant old money New England families’ summer mansions and the raw and rustic beauty of the rocks, woods, lobstermen’s boats, open skies, and sparkling ocean. To spend time in this watery world is a gift. Cranberry Isles

A gift that I came to share through the love and generosity of my Detroit family. There is a perhaps surprisingly deep historic connection between this awe-inspiring tranquil island off the coast of Maine and the awe-inspiring intense city in the middle of the country. The Cranberry Isles (of which Sutton Island is a part) were granted (in the grand European tradition of giving people land that didn’t belong to them) to the Sieur de Cadillac back in the mid-1600’s, before Cadillac made his way inland to develop Detroit as a trading post. ConversationsInMaine

Centuries later, Grace Lee Boggs and Jimmy Boggs, started a decades long tradition of spending August on Sutton Island with other visionaries and organizers working to transform society. They published a book sharing the questions and ideas that came out of these gatherings. Since then, our generation has been welcomed there by Shea Howell, the most wise, good-humored, open-hearted, warm, grounded mentor and friend. She shares with us the secrets of the forest, the history of the islands, the stories of the houses. She is our guide to the goodness of this place. Oh Captain, My Captain

After our return to the mainland a few weeks ago, Kymberlie, a dear friend and fierce mama from Maine originally, wrote to all of us who had ventured there together:

“I could not have even imagined what magic that tiny ocean paradise had in store, and I feel like it was such a gift to get to discover it with you.  I’m also really happy about Elliot getting to romp around with all of you awesome grownups.  It’s hard to believe that a week ago we were playing in sea spray at the edge of the continent, eating lobster daily and sunning ourselves with mid-day glasses of rosé in hand.  I’m thinking about how to incorporate a little Sutton Island into my daily life…suggestions?” LittleGilly

Given that we experienced such joy and sense of place through kayaking out to the rock right beyond our shore to gather mussels, boating to the next island over to get lobster directly from the fishermen’s cooperative on their collectively owned dock, walking through the forest foraging chanterelles and cranberries, and strolling through our neighbor’s garden picking herbs, sharing some of the menus and recipes for the meals we made together is one of the most concrete ways we could think of for incorporating the essence of Sutton Island into our daily lives! HarvestingMussels

The reason that we made it all the way out to this dream land on the edge of things, is one of my favorite people on the planet- Mike Medow. He is an infrastructure man, handling the business of pleasure and the work that makes the good work possible.  The entire time we were there, so aware of the precious nourishment we were getting, we were strategizing about how to sustain our connection to this place and widen the circle of people who could come revel in its magic. So we’re beginning by giving everyone a taste. Perhaps in the future, you’ll join us at the table!

The Crew

Here are three recipes for dishes we really enjoyed. I’ve also included the menus for each meal. It’s amazing how much just knowing what we ate and how we ate it can give you a sense of our time on the island! Kymberlie and her brother, Nick, shared some of these photos and Kymberlie helped remember and describe all of the sumptuous feasts.

Fig Manhattan

2 oz Bourbon

1 oz sweet Vermouth

1 teaspoon fig preserves

Shake vigorously with ice in a cocktail shaker (or mason jar if you’re in a rustic cabin like we were). Pour into a rocks glass over a few cubes of ice.

Romesco Sauce

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 roasted red peppers (see below for the process)

2 cloves of garlic

2 tomatoes

2 or 3 tablespoons sherry or white wine vinegar

1/2 cup slivered toasted almonds

a dash of cayenne

1/3 of a baguette or a couple of slices of another kind of bread

fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

I like mine nice and smooth and creamy so I throw all of the ingredients in a strong blender and womp it up. If you want more texture, use a food processor.

To roast the red peppers, place each on the open flame of a gas burner. Use tongs to rotate it until each side is charred and blistering. Then remove them from the heat and place in a tupperware and close the lid to “sweat” them. After about 15 minutes, once cool enough to touch, peel the skin off, slice them open, scrape out the seeds, and then add into the blender.

Wifey Salad

INGREDIENTS

1 bunch of lacinato kale de-stemmed and shredded

3 carrots grated

2 large beets roasted and cubed

2 cups of cooked farro

4 or 5 eggs hardboiled, peeled, and chopped

1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds or pepitas

1 block of feta crumbled

DRESSING

1/4 cup of olive oil

1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt

juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar

2 or 3 tablespoons of tamari sauce

a few dashes of hot sauce

2 cloves of garlic

a big handful of dill

a big handful of parsley

1 or 2 tablespoons of yellow mustard

1 or 2 tablespoons of honey

salt and pepper to taste

To make the dressing, just throw all of the ingredients in a blender! Adjust the flavor according to your taste- if you want more brightness/acidity, add more lemons. If you want it sharper, add another clove of garlic. You want the dill to be a prominent flavor because that’s what makes the salad so refreshing. So add more if it isn’t coming through enough. And of course salt and sweetness always add depth and bind flavors together more so if it needs that, adjust the salt and/or honey.

To make the salad, first cook about 1 cup of farro in about 1.5 cups of broth. I make my own vegetable stock but you can use whatever you have. Bring the farro and broth to a boil and then cover and simmer for a while. Check after 10 minutes. You should turn it off when the farro has a nice chewiness but isn’t hard at all. There might be some liquid left- that’s ok! Lightly and briefly massage the shredded kale with a drizzle of olive oil. Add the grated carrots, roasted and cubed beets, and the farro with whatever liquid is left in it (that will help soften the kale a bit and add flavor to the dressing). Add the dressing and toss thoroughly. Then add in the feta, eggs, and seeds and toss lightly- just enough to integrate them.

SuttonSunbeams

Curry Night

Coconut curry with ginger, basil, kale, zucchini, brown rice

Marinated and baked tofu

Stir-fried shiitake mushrooms with garlic scapes

After dinner: Fireplace roasted smores and fig Manhattans

Frittata Breakfast

Cherry tomatoes, cheddar, chard, leek

Lobsterpocalypse

Corn on the cob

Garlic roasted new potatoes with crème fraiche and chives

Green salad

Cozy Afternoon Delight

Orzo, chickpea, spinach soup

Dollop of sour cream

Taco Bonanza

Mussels in coconut basil curry broth

Roasted garlic, tomato, cilantro salsa

Romesco Sauce

Avocado Cream

Chickpeas sautéed in garlic, onion, cumin, lemon

Kale salad with carmelized shallots, feta

Spanish rice

Punch: Bourbon, Campari, Domaine de Canton, Lemon, Soda, Prosecco

Southern Comfort Brunch

Smoked Gouda Grits

Poached Egg

sautéed kale in special sauce

Salsa and romesco

Dockside Happy Hour

Cocktail: Cava, Campari, Gin, Lemon, Vermouth

Snack: Basil, balsamic, garlic marinated and roasted fairytale eggplant with sliced baguette and basil crème fraiche

Farewell Midnight Banquet

linguine with pan roasted chanterelles, parsley, shallots, and parmesan

Garlic roasted new potatoes with crème fraiche and chives

Salad: mixed greens, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers in an herb, yogurt dressing

Baked haddock with lemon, parsley, dill, garlic, and paprika

Blueberry Pie from Little Notch Bakery

Breakfast for the road

Frittatini with zucchini, cheddar, onions, roasted red peppers

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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Food Worker Justice is Food Justice!

Knowing as we do that any true vision of food justice must include justice for food workers, we’ve got two important links for you today on The Big Ceci.

1. We want to send our congratulations to the workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, who finally won their battle with the boss after being fired and locked out of their store for organizing their own independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association. We’re filled with admiration for their courage in the face of tremendous threat, and we send them love and solidarity!

2. In other food worker news: the boycott of grocery store Golden Farm in Kensington, Brooklyn is entering its fourth week. The store spent more than ten years paying employees less than minimum wage and no overtime while they worked 70+ hour weeks (they were earning under $5/hour). Today, a year and a half after filing a lawsuit demanding the back pay they are owed, workers still haven’t seen a dime. They’ve called for a community boycott of the store to put pressure on owner Sonny Kim. We want to voice our solidarity with the workers of Golden Farm, and alert you, fabulous readers, to some ways you can support them.

WHAT YOU CAN DO [modified from the boycott’s campaign page on 99 Pickets]

  • Pledge your support for the boycott.
  • Call Sonny Kim, the owner of Golden Farm, at (718) 871-1009, and tell him you support the workers and the boycott.
  • Sign the petition demanding Sonny Kim pay workers their back wages and sign a fair contract.
  • Donate to support the family of Felix Trinidad (a Golden Farm worker who worked throughout his battle with stomach cancer – afraid to lose his job if he took time off to go to the doctor – and passed away in July 2012).
  • Follow the boycott on Twitter at @BoycottGF.
  • Finally, and perhaps most urgently: visit the picket line! This is a beautiful time of year to be outside, after all, and what better way to do it than showing your support for worker justice. Spend an hour or two gathering signatures and talking to local folks about the importance of basic benefits and fair wages for all workers. A little goes a long way – sign up for a shift here.

We’ll leave you with an awesome cartoon (yay for multimedia information sharing!) by badass cartoonist Ethan Heitner, sharing the story of the Golden Farm boycott:

CULTIVATE: Connecting Community through Meals and Media

Last Wednesday night on one of the hottest days thus far this summer, I took a steamy, crowded subway ride from work in SoHo to South Brooklyn for an evening presented and co-organized by The Big Ceci and SIGNIFIED featuring Just Food, the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and the 718 Collective. The event, held in the basement of the Church of Gethsemane on a tree lined street in Park Slope, was a dinner by the 718 Collective, followed by the premier of SIGNIFIED’s second season episode featuring the 718 collective, an interactive presentation with Just Food and the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and a community recipe exchange.

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As a recent resident of Brooklyn (I moved here just a little under two years ago from Boston via Mexico City), the idea of cultivating community in a city as varied and expansive as New York can sometimes seem like a daunting task. I have tried to foster relationships with people who share common interests, and have worked to become invested in certain elements of my local community. For example I joined a social-justice focused CSA and take an active role in working towards making the CSA accessible to lower-income families. And I am pleased to find that through my efforts I have been able to feel that I not only live in Brooklyn, but that I have found a space to give back and invest in my community.

The feeling of having a distinct community where I have laid down my roots has always been an important element in finding happiness in my daily life. Finding that community here in Brooklyn has been difficult, but ultimately very rewarding. While I do feel secure and rewarded by the space I have made for myself here, I am aware of the general demographic of those with whom I spend the majority of my time. While I actively try to be open to meeting new people and work to interact with those from different backgrounds, it can be easy to slip into a space of 20-something artists, writers, and activists who live in Brooklyn, ride their bikes, brew kombucha, volunteer for various causes, and care to know who grows their food. While my friends and neighbors are rich in creativity, experience, and understanding, rarely do I feel that I truly step into the shoes of those with very different lifestyles from my own. But cultivating a varied community just to feel that I have a diversified friend group can also be problematic. So how does one truly work to connect with a community different from their own, without it feeling strained or disconnected?

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During the CULTIVATE dinner I had a great conversation explaining quinoa and kale to the man sitting to my left who had never seen the foods before, and who, in turn, regaled me with tales of his fledging rap career. After a screening of SIGNIFIED’s episode, everyone at the event joined together for an exercise by the Brooklyn Food Coalition about the school food program.  The children of Brooklyn are a community that surrounds me, but with whom I rarely interact. While I live across the street from a public school, I rarely find myself in conversation with anyone under the age of 18 for longer than a few sentences.

The exercise entailed a woman from the BFC who would give out a word or fact that everyone in the room was then asked to free-associate and to write down the first word that came to mind. We then walked around showing off our answers and briefly talking to each other about the phrases that we were inspired to put down. Terms like “school food” brought out negative association words like “yuck,” “fatty,” “heavy,” and  “too expensive.” The fact “The NYC public school system buys the second largest amount of food in the United States, after the U.S. Military” brought out thoughts like “capitalism,”  “schools, prisons, military,” and “buying power.” It was unfortunate that many of the associations she threw out  with school food terms were negative and depressing. When the fact was read— “One parent working in the school food system has the opportunity to affect hundreds of children,” more positive words began cropping up — “possibility,” “opportunity,” and “stand up.” Because children are a community that, by and large, do not have the ability to stand up and advocate for themselves, it is up to those who are older to support, educate, and advocate. So while there can be negative associations related to advocating for communities that may seem disparate from our own, and while I do not yet have children of my own, it is up to us who have have a voice and an understanding of the injustices of our food system to take a stand for them.

While the community of children in Brooklyn may seem far away from my daily life, in reality, they are just down the block. They are a part of my community and as a fortunate child who benefited from healthy school lunches in Oregon, and from the tireless work of my mother, it is my job to help cultivate positive associations with the school food system for this new community of mine.

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See more photos from the event here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nora_chovanec/sets/72157630259177140/detail/

Presenting CULTIVATE: Connecting Communities Through Meals and Media.

Hey people – Naomi here, and I’m writing with some exciting news. It’s been a little over a year since we started The Big Ceci, hoping to create a space on the blogosphere where we could bring together our love for food and our commitment to justice. It’s been a beautiful year, and I’ve been excited and inspired by how many people have contributed to this blog – it’s truly been a community effort.

So, yes, blogging has been good to us, and we look forward to continuing in our second year and beyond. But the one thing you can’t do on a food blog is…you guessed it, folks – EAT!

That’s why this week, The Big Ceci is making moves – stepping out of the Internet and into the neighborhood – to present our first-ever event: a dinner-discussion-screening-salon-experience called CULTIVATE: connecting communities through meals and media.

Get ready, y’all…because this is gonna be a fun one.

CULTIVATE is a collaboration with the fabulous queer documentary project SIGNIFIED (please do the Internet equivalent of running-not-walking to their website if you haven’t already seen it…you need to). During this interactive evening of food and media, we’ll eat a delicious meal prepared by the talented chefs of 718 Collective, discuss food justice work in Brooklyn with Just Food and The Brooklyn Food Coalition, swap stories and recipes across the table, and get to see the premiere of the latest SIGNIFIED episode.

If you’re not catching my drift, people, let me put it to you this way: if you care in any way about alternative media, food justice, Brooklyn, hot queer chefs, or just really delicious food, you will want to find a way to get your butt to our table on Wednesday, June 20.

Space is limited, so we strongly encourage you to buy tickets in advance here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/252443

And of course, for more info, check out the Facebook event here and the Tumblr here.

We’ll see you at the table!