Sunday, February 6, 2011

7 Species of Deutoronomy (Shivat Hominim)

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land - a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing.     -- Deuteronomy 8:7-8

Anyone know what this fruit is?  I'm thinking it's a fruit because it was near oranges. And its pink: the brightest, most inventive pink I've ever seen on something natural.  Its interior is a deep, beet-like red, and seems thick and pulpy - luscious cousin of the persimmon?  Beets have a gorgeous color, but their exteriors are so cruddy.  This one shines inside and out.  All the food in Israel is glorious.  All of it.  Didn't matter if we were eating in the food court of a mall in the Goland Heights (that's as bleak as the dining atmosphere got - no complaints), or in the lap of luxury at a Moroccan restaurant, or picnicking at Meggiddo (which you might know better as Armageddon, which makes it a funny place to picnic).  It was all glorious.

The secret is many bowls of nibbly things.  This was the spread in a little hole in the wall of the shuk in Acre (and of course now I want to read more closely for what the Crusaders, or Jean Thenaud (my current 16th century pilgrim of interest) thought of the food).  De rigeur: olives, tomatoes, pickled things (pickles, peppers). Pretty much required is the hummus.  There were several days when I was able to have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and Oliver still refers to my "daily intake of hummus."  A dear friend has offered up a recipe and this could make all the difference.  I went shopping this afternoon for foodstuff with which to feed our 25 fellow-travellers students who are coming to dinner tomorrow and tried to be upbeat about my ersatz Israeli options.  Good thing the snow/icestorm of the century is making us feel grateful for everything.  OK - so the hummus won't be homemade, but I can do the multiple bowls of nibbly things.  And one can always warm the pita bread.  What I love about the habit, the arrangement, is that it invites conversation. You settle into a meal as a space - you pass plates, you spill things, you compare and comment.  The whole table is an ever-changing image of color and sounds - and then you taste things.

One of the grand things about traveling with Oliver is his love of food.  Here you see him reacting to the exquisite stuffed sardine that he ordered at Darna, the phenomenal Moroccan restaurant in Jerusalem (the lap of luxury one) that Rebecca and I decided would be our Grand Treat on this trip.  You can see a much more artistic shot of Oliver's sardines on the swank website of the restaurant.  If you're back from the website: See how here, too, last night's post pervades: Yitzhak Rabin was to eat there on the restaurant's inaugural night.  He was assassinated the day before.  This is a phenomenon I was unable to articulate last night: this tremendous pain beneath beauty; a kind of invisibility that is shocking every time it is revealed. So night after night Darna welcomes guests who haven't read their website (like ourselves at the time) oblivious to its almost-history, to its ultimate mission.  Maybe phenomenon is too strong a word: maybe people just have to eat, to keep on being human.

Which is easy to do when the beautiful platter of savories comes.  We ordered a fine bottle of Yarden wine (which I think I can get in the kosher section at the Marsh in Avon, so hoorah there), which is from the Golan Heights region and feasted slowly and delightfully.  There were spices and peppers and every last one of Oliver's sardines disappeared.  I restrained myself from photographing every course (which has been known to happen), but can still remember the lamb shank tagine that Rebecca and I shared and the exquisite crêpes with a kind of heavenly soy milk/evaporated milk (which is or isn't really milk? I never know) combined with honey for dessert.  We were there for three hours and reconstructed the entire mission of the liberal arts, I do believe.

That Deuteronomy quote kept playing through my head as I became aware of the pomegranate motifs on so many things.  Plus, the pomegranate juice sellers in all the markets (would it be so hard to do that on campus?).  Making this land give of its fruits and spices, its vegetables and grains - how triumphant that feels here.  There is a sense of plenty to markets in any case: the displays, the colors, the surprises.  But there's nothing like Mahane Yehuda - the enormous outdoor market that we made sure to visit the first time before Friday afternoon.  Interestingly, that's where the trip went after Yad Vashem - a boisterous affirmation of life; or, as Rebecca put it "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!"  And so before Shabbat begins, there is an ecstatic flurry of people choosing last cuts and morsels, kilos and special orders.  And eggplants the likes of which I've never seen.

Fleur de lys chocolates!  Will that Crusader presence never fade?

And dates and figs and more dates and every kind of nougat and the things it turns out you can do with sesame paste! 

And our new best friend who sold us spice mixes that I now dole out preciously to make our rice prompt stories of markets and eating and plenty.  Deuteronomy is in the Torah (in the Protestant/Catholic Pentateuch) which became codified around the 1st century B.C.E. and I wonder about the promise of that quote from Chapter 8 then - and possibly hundreds of years before then.  Is it the vision that anybody would have after wandering in the desert for 40 years?  Filled with desire and gratitude for this "good land" - for its water which will bring forth its 7 species.  Chapter 8 itself is filled with belonging and memory. It begins with an entreaty to follow the commandments so that "you may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors."  It asks "When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you."  What would it mean to have eaten and be satisfied in 300 B.C.E.? in 700 B.C.E.? When I see this market, I want to say that it would not have been so different from today.  I can see how this idea of land and God and food could be transported to America in the 17th century.  I see it today in the Amish farmers that we buy our produce from in the summer - there are quotes from the Bible about work and land nailed to all the beams of the house.

Food history is really taking off as a discipline - with many warm and loving jokes about its practitioners.  It's an interesting field to think about in terms of its negotiations of universality and specificity.  We all eat, we all like to gather - here, in a Bedouin tent around a dish comprised of an enormous flatbread cupping a mound of rice surrounded by lamb, chicken, and tomatoes itself surrounded by the satellite dishes of nibbly savories (look at Oliver contemplating the feast that awaits!).  Growing, sharing, eating food is a great universal human trait.  And yet nothing distinguishes us more than what we eat.  Nothing floods us with gladness and belonging like a favorite dish.  Just ask Proust.

Bulgarian Cheese
What connects all of this is, of course, kashrut, and the fine art of keeping kosher.  Memory, ritual, specificity, it's all there.  I learned to love food logic after being scolded in Germany for wanting warm potatoes with herring (the logic is that the potatoes should be cold, I was sternly told).  Kids have no such logic, as Eleanor's curiosity about what "beef with fish sauce" might taste like reveals (ugh!).  Food logic, what makes sense to eat, specifically what combinations make sense to eat, is fascinating because, well, there's actually very little logic involved, and yet the conviction that foods should be eaten just so is absolute. I say bread and cheese and water, you think: aw, how sad. I say bread and cheese and a really good red wine, you think: aah, what time?  Within just a few days in Israel, it no longer made sense to eat dairy with meat - and in fact, I have yet to cook that combination here since being back (which is totally ridiculous considering the Swiss ancestry and the growing up next to Calvin's Auditory in Geneva). Kashrut is an art: it is a consciousness, probably excruciating at times, but it seems to reconnect (a great French word here: "renouer" - re-knot) the eater to that God-land-7 species-gratitude dynamic.  It's not just Genesis and being caretakers of the land, it's Deuteronomy and being caretakers of the food of the land.  It slows you down, it makes you think (sometimes in meticulous detail), perhaps it makes you savor.  Actually, following that link is really worth it (and did you see the author offers a kashrut tour of Mahane Yehuda? sign me up!): it makes you realize the intricacies and the concerns, the fragility and care of the covenant with God being practised in this way.  Why did the early Christians give up on this?  At what point and with what motivation?  Why break this manifestation of a relationship with the divine?  Eucharistic bread and wine seem but a pale echo - but a resonant one.

I have an image of tubs of Bulgarian cheese as my last image for a reason.  It's everywhere in Israel: on menus, at every buffet, on tables.  It's an immediate reminder of Sephardic history and presence, of the earlier modern Israel.  What I didn't know, and yes now savor is the word, is even a little bit of the story of Dimitar Peshev, Bishop Kiril, the Bulgarian Communist Party, and countless other Bulgarians and how they stopped the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews - all of them.  Tragically not the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia - they were sacrificed for Boris III's Axis politics. That I learned from The Lemon Tree by Tolan, but now I want to read Beyond Hitler's Grasp by Michael Bar-Zohar.  Does every ethnic group that emigrated here leave its mark on Israeli cuisine? Probably, if you know how to look and taste.  But there was something I learned about the emigration of Bulgarian Jews, for whom life was only much harder after WWII and so Israel that much more desirable, that makes the innocuous but omnipresent reality of something as simple as cheese stunning: by 1949, there were 52,000 Bulgarian Jews in Israel. And 5,000 in Bulgaria.  That is why there is Bulgarian cheese everywhere.  Because so many came into a good land and lacked for nothing.


  1. Your entire post is simply and totally mouth-watering.... and the fruit in question, since you asked, is called the Dragon Fruit, or pitaya (botanical name: Hylocereus polyrhizus) and is actually the fruit of an epiphytic cactus (one of the night-blooming cereus types) which develop from huge, fragant, white flowers. B'tayavon (bon appétit)!

  2. yum! and thank you - what an incredible idea for a fruit! I love the botanical name: sounds vaguely mythological. Appropriately.

  3. For what it's worth, we always have warm potatoes with our hering. Yum!

  4. mmmm, potatoes and herring.... wish you'd been with me on the train in Germany where this happened! "Das macht man nie" I was told by the restaurant car lady. :-) but actually, there was a happy ending, as the woman came back having consulted with the cook who was from a region where one _did_ apparently eat warm potatoes with their herring. She was totally incredulous, but I got my warm potatoes. Now I wonder if my benevolent train chef might not have been from Hamburg!

  5. Hi, the pink fruit is definitely dragonfruit, one of the fastest growing members of the cactus family. We are growing some from seed in the DPU greenhouse, if you want to have a look sometime. We also have night-blooming cereus, which makes flowers that last only one night, bigger than a dinner plate and as fragrant as jasmine on a summer evening.

  6. Oh Dana, how magnificent!!! How dearly I would love to gather to greet and bid farewell to a night-blooming cereus. Thank you thank you for even knowing of the possibility of such a flower!