One reporter heads south onto the home turf of the beloved vegetable - er, fruit - that was inauspiciously pushed into the spotlight.
Oren Sabah made a sweeping gesture at the fields surrounding him. It's all cucumbers, everywhere you look, he said merrily. Sabah was gesturing at Moshav Ahituv and the hundreds of hothouses under whose plastic roofs cucumbers repose by the tons. They grow, are picked and packaged, and eventually end up in our salads.
There are few people who derive as much happiness from cucumbers as Oren Sabah. He periodically picks a cucumber and presents it to me as if it were a bouquet of violets for a beloved. A fresh cucumber is indeed pleasant food, brimming with freshness. But any way you slice it, a cucumber is still a cucumber. I've never eaten so many cucumbers within so short a time. I fear I've had my fill.
Oren Sabah, 41, is a handsome man of average height, married with two children. His close-cropped hair is silvering, he has a pleasant smile, and cucumbers fill his day, from 4:30 A.M. until 9 or 10 at night. He and his family tend to dozens of dunams of hothouses on the moshav.
The cucumber is a solid sort of vegetable (okay, fruit ), an uncharismatic climber from the gourd family. It made inauspicious news after Germany blamed Spanish cucumbers in the deaths of more than 20 people from E. coli. (As of press time, the blame had been redirected at German bean sprouts and then even further. ) The thought that eating cucumbers might be dangerous brought me to Emek Hefer.
Sabah is a senior cucumberist; a third-generation member of a family for whom cucumbers are the be-all and end-all. His grandfather immigrated from Iraq in the early 1950s, and was among the moshav's founders. His father, Yossi, built the first hothouses there in the early 1970s.
Ahituv is a cucumber empire. This is not immediately apparent. Nice country-style houses, an innocent mix of Mediterranean architecture: Greek arches and columns with Alpine red roofs. Tidy yards in front of hothouses wrapped in murky translucent plastic sheeting. These are the cucumber palaces. More than half the cucumbers we eat are grown on Moshav Ahituv. Should we be more careful than ever now? Oren Sabah says there is no chance of a threat here. His cukes are irrigated with well water, treated with controlled pesticide sprays, and undergo stringent examination. Still, he says, you never know.
Israelis consume 120-140 tons of cucumbers annually, and Ahituv supplies around 80 tons of that. Other local growers provide the rest, except for about 10 tons that come from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The latter's origin is vague - there are rumors that they come from Syria, maybe even from Morocco, he says. Their high season is in the winter. Pay attention to what you put in your salad at that time, he says. Are they irrigated with polluted water? He doesn't know. He would like every cucumber to be marked with its country of origin, but the authorities are opposed.
Finicky and green
The cucumber is not an exciting creature. It is solid and to the point. It is not very pretentious. Slice and eat. The Russians sprinkle salt on it and eat it with vodka. The Iraqis forgo the salt and eat it with arak. I consider it a legitimate partner for salad. Online recipe writers advise drowning it with more piquant flavors: submerging it in yogurt, covering it with chopped dill, cooking it with plums, soy sauce, and honey. Just do anything to make its anemic taste disappear.
Oren Sabah treats it as a treat. No, actually, like a disadvantaged child. The cucumber requires constant supervision. It doesn't recognize Shabbats or holidays. You must pick it on time or else it becomes worthless. Twenty-two days after the summer planting (50 days in winter ), it yields its first fruit, which you must pick immediately. Otherwise, terrible suffering is in store: The cucumber will grow fat and elongated beyond what our exacting housewives will accept. If its belly lies prone on the ground for too long, it might turn yellow, or even - heaven forfend - white. These ugly defects are enough to seal its fate: Into the trash!
The world of the cucumber, which may appear to be a simple, boring green tube, is actually rich and passionate. The cucumbers at the market stalls, which for many people symbolize strong masculine virility, are actually delicate and seedless females. There are short, fat-bellied cucumbers, and there are long and skinny ones. There are cucumbers with warts, beloved by Americans, and there are those long cucumbers that the Europeans are crazy about. There are winter cukes and summer cukes. There are people who lament the wonderful taste of the cucumbers they ate 30 years ago, and there are others, Oren Sabah for example, who say that's nonsense - a good cucumber is a fresh cucumber, and that hasn't changed.
There is a difference between the recumbent, rural, vulgar cucumbers that are destined for pickling, and the refined hothouse Cucurbitaceae, which must be wound around a wire and picked every two days, so that they don't pass their peak and die. The cucumber may be muscular and strong, but its life span is as brief as that of a butterfly. After three or four days, it's done, Oren Sabah says. If a tomato wasn't picked today, no big deal, you can pick it tomorrow. But an elderly cucumber is a dead cucumber. The cucumber reaches the supermarket tired and worn out, after a tough journey by truck and a fairly lengthy storage period. My refrigerator contains a few aging cucumbers. Some are already covered in a delicate white down.
Dependent on Thais
In the hothouse, though, they are shiny and tough. I have trouble breathing. The weather this week was moderate, but the air under the plastic sheeting is heavy - solid and wet as a floor rag, clogging every bodily pore. Beads of sweat appear on Sabah's face, dark stains spread on my shirt.
A swathed figure kneels before us, sorting cucumbers in the aisle between the tidy beds. The crooked, the skinny, and the fat: out. The straight: into the crate. The Thai field hand's eyes peek out from between her hat and handkerchief; she faces the heat swaddled from head to toe. She does not lift her eyes from the crate.
Around 1,000 people live on Moshav Ahituv, along with 500 Thai workers. The ratio between masters and field hands is frightening, but Oren Sabah feels differently. Sabah has 27 Thais. The statement "I have 27 Thais" makes an interlocutor feel uncomfortable. But without Thais there can be no cucumbers, he says, it's as simple as that. Only they are willing to wake up at 4:30 A.M. at the call of the cucumber, and work all day for minimum wage. Until when? Until they're done, he replies vaguely, six days a week for five years. It is hard work. You bend down to plant, kneel to pick, straighten up to tie, exert yourself to carry a 15-kilogram bucket. And all this in the heat, already unbearable in late May.
Israelis are not willing to work here even for more than minimum wage, Sabah says. There were soldiers who fled after four hours under the plastic sheeting. The Palestinians also fled, even the Sudanese.
We enter the Thai workers' accommodations at the end of a large warehouse. It's nothing like the Hilton, but apparently it's better than what they left behind in their home villages. They live two to a room, with a small television set, a shared kitchen, showers and bathroom stalls. Clean and spare. They drown their homesickness in booze and gambling.
Lunch is at noon. Tractors haul masked field hands in straw hats to their rooms. Ruthie, Sabah's mother, makes lunch every day for her sons as they return from the hothouses. She serves excellent rice and a vegetable salad with plenty of cucumbers. Her husband, Yossi, also sits down to eat. Like his sons, he works the fields every morning, but his gaze is sober and his words are bitter. They want to kill off agriculture, he says.
Sabah himself has trouble saying whether his own sons will carry on the family dynasty. He has trouble seeing his sons spending their lives in the company of cucumbers, like he did, but after all, he himself was ensnared in the family tradition. He has a solution: They'll run a farm. It will be a cucumber farm, sure, but with workers and modern machines. Yossi protests: Why should they? His own two sons are completely bonkers, he says. What normal guy would willingly sentence himself to a life beneath plastic sheeting in horrific heat? Agriculture is dead, killed off by taxes, water rates, and also the irrational restrictions on the number of Thai workers you can bring in, he says.
Silence descends around the table, but I wish to end my cucumber report on an optimistic note. At the moshav office, I received a document that lifts spirits and inspires hope for its future. It reveals unknown aspects of the cucumber's personality. It turns out that the modest appearance hides a vivacious and spectacular figure with numerous fields of interest: The cucumber is an effective remedy for a hangover, it oils rusty hinges, combats cellulite and headaches, exterminates bugs, makes faucets sparkle and irons out wrinkles.
Even President Shimon Peres was bewitched by the cucumber's charms. A few months ago Peres visited the moshav. He visited the hothouses and there, I imagine, received the title of "honorary cucumber." But he also had a warm recommendation for women everywhere: Leave the perfumes, the president said, rub yourselves with cucumbers.