Before reading Samia Madwar’s recent feature for The Walrus magazine, “Much Ado about Hummus: The Fight for Bragging Rights over a Middle Eastern Dip,” I did not know the full extent of hummus-like abominations.
I’d heard about dessert hummus, mainly from Jews mocking it on Twitter, but had not realized this extended to flavours like “mint-chocolate fudge” and “butterscotch,” off-putting (to me; taste is subjective) even in a more neutral context like ice cream.
Add chickpeas and/or tahini to the mix and you’re in the realm not of fusion cuisine so much as of what John Cleese’s French waiter offers in the 1983 film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, “all mixed up together in a bucket.”
Part of Madwar’s article is about exactly this: the tension between the subjectivity of taste (can you judge a chocolate hummus you haven’t tried?) and the objective fact of certain food experiments being aesthetically ill-advised. That, and the threshold question of how many tweaks a food item can undergo before being a different thing entirely. (See also: the is-a-hot-dog-a-sandwich wars.)
Part of it is also, however, is about “what we’re really fighting about when we fight about hummus.”
Madwar, who grew up in Syria, associates hummus with her childhood. (I grew up in the United States in the 1990s and my madeleine is a Diet Snapple.)
As for what we’re really fighting about—if your guess was, Israel, then you would be correct.
As the author points out, while most Jewish Israelis do not have hummus-eaters in their most recent pre-Israel ancestry, some did: “Jewish immigrants to Israel from the Levant brought their hummus know-how with them, further exposing other citizens to the dish.” This buried fact—buried, that is, as much in this one article as in the wider culinary history—is what allows the cultural appropriation narrative to flourish.
Citing Israeli scholars, Madwar finds that “many Israelis acknowledge that they’ve only adopted hummus and that the best place to get it is Arab-owned hummusiyahs, or restaurants that specialize in hummus.”
“But, for many Arabs, that acknowledgement doesn’t make up for what they see as Israel’s co-opting of the dish. While there are plenty of Arab-owned restaurants and brands selling hummus around the world, Israeli companies, primarily, have profited from its industrialization, including several that played a significant role in promoting it worldwide.”
Hummus is a global business, which I guess is meant to sound sinister, even if it’s an inexpensive, sustainable, vegan food product. Of all the things that are disseminated by multinationals, it has to be the most innocuous. As for why Israel and not any number of other countries in the region brought hummus to the global masses, maybe it has something to do with a country made up of refugees and emigres from other parts of the world?
The power balance between Israelis and Palestinians—yes, that under-discussed topic—doesn’t do much to explain why Jordan or Lebanon didn’t come up with the idea of putting hummus-esque products into plastic tubs and selling them to Western suburbanites in search of a wholesome dip.
But this is about profit. It’s about who controls the means of hummus production.
The thesis of the piece: in a roundabout way, it’s the fault of Israel that a white American lady named Makenzie McPherson invented dessert hummus. A greater war crime was never known.
Hummus, so mushy, so problematic. The who-gets-to-claim-hummus wars flare up every so often, a symbolic representation of war-wars. And these debates, be they in essays and op-eds; on social media; or in the reviews of hummus joints, often land on the supposedly profound question of whether Israeli food is even a thing.
The idea that there’s no such thing as Israeli food is silly, given that it is an identifiable cuisine, as in, you can see a menu where “Israeli” is the only possible explanation. But the persistence of the claim that no such cuisine exists makes me think I have to go there.
So go there I will: the juxtaposition or fusion of Eastern European and Levantine food, with a kosher influence, exists. It exists because Israel does, which is of course the source of the angst. If you will it away, it goes away, is the thinking, re: the food and the country it comes from. What is it, then? Israeli food is—but is not limited to—the thing where you might see matzo ball soup and falafel on the same menu. It’s the food of people who wound up in Israel in the past century, influenced by the available ingredients and yes of course existing cuisine of the region.
What comes up again and again is this idea that Israeli restaurants, cookbooks, etc. need to credit the origins of their recipes. This is something frequently requested of recipe writers these days, ever since that time when then-New York Times food writer Alison Roman came up with a chickpea recipe that seemed a tad more ‘ethnic’ than she did. (A topic that could be its own sinkhole, what with Roman describing herself as half-Jewish.)
And maybe professional food writers should include references to where the recipes come from, if only because readers are often interested. But the idea that one cuisine needs to credit another cuisine seems… I mean I hate to pull the does any other country receive this criticism card but, like, does any other country receive this criticism? Do Italian menus include self-flagellating disclaimers about the Asian origins of noodles?
Joint efforts by Israeli and Palestinian chefs are not unheard-of. Most famously, there’s star British chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi’s collaboration with Sami Tamimi. More locally, there’s The Haifa Room, on the corner of Ossington and Dundas in Toronto, from which yours truly has ordered the occasional takeout baba ganoush.
Such initiatives do not seem to do much to assuage concerns or deflect accusations. Ottolenghi stands accused of being a white chef taking credit for BIPOC cuisine, or something. The hummus purveyors of Ossington inspire musings about how coexistence is an invention of colonialism.
The goal is seemingly not for consumers of hummus to acknowledge that the foodstuff predates the modern-day state of Israel, or that Israelis whose families originate outside the Levant surely ate something different before being expelled from wherever that may have been. No, it’s for Israeli cuisine to be declared an invention, a theft. Its very existence—if it indeed existed in the first place, per certain critics—to cease. Sound familiar?
The Ashkenazi embrace of Israeli food, which extends beyond Israel, and beyond Jews who are rah-rah Israel, is less about cultural appropriation than feelings of cultural inadequacy. It’s culinary self-deprecation, but it’s not entirely about Jewishness. It’s also an extension of the mainstream belief that Mediterranean food is better than Eastern European food, an opinion (a… fact?) it’s difficult to attribute to racism regarding the people from the respective locales. (It’s not about the relative whiteness of Greeks and Poles, but rather what sort of ingredients grow in which climates.)
But it’s also about how things did not entirely work out for us in Eastern Europe. Delicatessen-type food, channeled through a North American vernacular, is ours, but the actual foods of the old country can sometimes feel like they belong to the people who call themselves Polish, rather than the ones who squirm and say something like, my family lived in what is now Poland.
Also worth addressing: Israeli food calling itself “Mediterranean.” Is this, as sometimes claimed, about a failure to credit Palestinians? It is maybe, quite possibly, more about how if a business (or a couscous) calls itself “Israeli,” this leads to a tsunami of one-star Google reviews with political explanations and geniuses online pointing out that actually Arabs are also Semites, so, you know. (We know, we know.)
Israeli food, Palestinian food, euphemistically Mediterranean food, whatever, does not translate particularly well to other, chillier, places. Hummus is replicable, but the rest, which you need for the hummus to have a point, not so much. You can chop cucumbers and tomatoes in Canada but the result, except in maybe one week of summer, will be unimpressive.
You can (and I do!) attempt to recreate iced blended coffee in your home blender, putting cold brew, sugar, and ice, and seeing what results, but it won’t turn Toronto into Tel Aviv. One of the best meals of my life was in Israel, in Mitzpe Ramon, a town with roaming ibex. It is, as I look out the window in Toronto right now, snowing. Why even try?
The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz