Passover seder at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, 1953.
Passover seder at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, 1953. Photo by 'Dining Room'
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'Dining Room'
The dining hall at Kibbutz Yakum. Photo by 'Dining Room'

About a month ago, veteran kibbutzniks from all around the country and their children and grandchildren gathered at the Saloona Art Bar in Jaffa. Elderly women in flowered blouses crowded onto colorful vintage armchairs. On low tables, delicacies were served: kugel with horseradish from Kibbutz Sa'ad; the legendary sausage wrapped in dough called "baby-Moses-in-a-basket" in Hebrew (what's known in English as a "pig in a blanket," if you'll excuse the term ) courtesy of Kibbutz Ein Gev; and charcoal-colored chocolate cake, Rosh Hanikra-style. The Gevatron Israeli Kibbutz Folk Singers performed and the most popular drink was chocolate milk from the Kibbutz Yotvata dairy. The purpose of the gathering was the launch of "Hederochel" ("Dining Rooom"), a collection of nostalgic stories and recipes from the glory days of the kibbutz.

The book was written (and photographed) by two city-dwelling journalists: Ofer Vardi (39, a Be'er Sheva native now living in Tel Aviv) and Assi Haim (40, a native of Netivot residing in Givatayim).

"Neither of us grew up or lived on a kibbutz, hence the curiosity," explains Haim. "At the start we went to Kibbutz Na'an, where they told us how the children would stand in line, waiting for the cook to fry up the patty on Saturday morning and place it on a slice of challah. I had no connection to those stories, but that ignited my imagination."

Of the food prepared on every kibbutz, Vardi says, "It's like how in every home there is a special dish. A kibbutz is a home. A home for a lot of people. And they developed their own homemade specialties that they prepare on holidays, for the Sabbath or for everyday. The people we met are connected to the food not so much from the belly but from the heart. This is the food of their childhood - the food they ate almost all their lives. They don't know anything else. With our hectic pursuit of the next big culinary sensation, we're in danger of forgetting the most basic foods."

Holy trinity

In contrast to its glossier neighbors on the cookbook shelves, in "Dining Room" there is no evident effort to prettify the food or the serving dishes in the photos. The food looks mostly outdated and standard, and it was indeed served for decades over and over again in huge serving dishes. A wealth of recipes - for dumpling soups, fish patties, schnitzels and pashtidot - adhere to the holy trinity of kibbutz seasoning: salt, pepper and chicken soup powder.

Does the uniqueness of this book derive from the fact that it doesn't pretend to offer tasty recipes?

Vardi: "Not at all. Recipes that aren't tasty and stories that aren't interesting didn't make it into the book. We went to more than 100 kibbutzim, and in the editing process we filtered out some of them. Do you remember the [Pixar animation] film 'Ratatouille'? The moral of that film is don't bother us with all the fancy-schmancy food - in the end the tastiest thing in the world is what our mother made for us. Or in this case, what the kibbutz cooks made for us when we were children. This will forever be the tastiest food.

"At Kibbutz Revivim they serve 'Goulash Amidan,' named after one of the members of the kibbutz. It isn't really goulash, but rather a dish of sausages and potatoes cooked together. The story told at the kibbutz is that one of the members once visited the big city, Tel Aviv, and went to a restaurant. When the waiter came over, she asked whether by any chance he had Goulash Amidan."

Haim: "Before we set out on this journey, I asked myself what we could even find on kibbutzim. I had been fed on the stigma of cottage cheese and chopped salad. In the course of the journey I discovered a different kind of food, which I hadn't known. Good food that they specialize in. They asked us, 'Hey, are you really going to put a recipe for baby-Moses-in-the-basket into your book, or rice in milk or French toast? Who doesn't know how to make that?' But when you ask people at Ein Gev, they say baby-Moses-in-the-basket is the food of their childhood. I think it's beautiful. Simple food that people already know to make, but with a kibbutz twist.

"I also felt that glossy paper wasn't suitable here. Nor was the recipe-picture style that you find in most cookbooks - with the fancy pictures that are exaggeratedly styled, in my opinion. We used archive pictures and photos we took at the kibbutzim to get across their atmosphere, both then and now."

Vardi: "The book design is modest - an important word when you're dealing with the kibbutz. The picture of the tray with the utensils and the simple glass, which we photographed at Kibbutz Be'eri, was chosen for the book cover because it's a symbol: This is a kibbutz dining hall, and that's the whole story."

Did you come across any really tasty food?

Haim: "The 'drunks' soup' was excellent - Shlomo Dagan made it for me at Kibbutz Shomrat. He told me about the Purim celebrations they had there in the 1960s. At midnight they would stop the party and bring out jugs of drunks' soup, a kind of Romanian ciorba [sour] soup they'd serve the inebriated volunteers on the kibbutz. According to him, 'It could be that because of the sourness they thought it neutralized intoxication, but even if not - we gained an excellent soup everyone loved.'"

On Kibbutz Givat Brenner, the noodle-and-cheese pashtida was served every Friday afternoon for decades. One Friday, someone forgot to make it and confused the whole kibbutz, to the point that some of the members got up and went to work on Saturday morning, thinking it was a weekday. Since then, the dish has been known as "Sabbath Queen Pashtida."

On the tombstone of Yankele Topper, the veteran baker of Kibbutz Na'an, his legendary recipe for yeast cake is engraved. And there is also the story of the dismantling of 1,800 matza balls one Passover seder night at Kibbutz Gadot, in search of comrade Haya Schwartz's wedding ring, which was lost inside one of them.

The journalists' acquired their yarns and tales systematically. Initially, they launched a website and uploaded a number of stories they had found. For example, the one about the "flood buns" that teenagers on Kibbutz Ein Gedi baked in the winter of 1989, when the place was cut off from outside supplies. Later, Vardi and Haim made use of social networks and food sites, contacted former kibbutz members, the kibbutz movements and secretariats, and asked to be referred to cooks, kibbutz "economists" and archivists.

"After I'd introduce myself and the aim of the project, the secretary would refer me to Rivkaleh, who'd refer me to Hayaleh, the cook," says Haim. "I sought out the special dish at every kibbutz. There were cases when they would say to me, 'Definitely! Here we have the magkiki [peanut candies], or the teigelach [honey cookies].' But then we had to try to find the source - the person who remembered the recipe. That was the tricky part. In many cases, the only ones who knew how to prepare the dish were old people, which presented us us with problems. I tried to make appointments with them, but between 2 and 4 P.M. they sleep, and their mobile phone is only turned on for five minutes a day. Also, they didn't think there was a story behind the food. They didn't see our aim, the book, before their eyes. It was necessary to jolly them along, to make them enthusiastic."

Why did you organize the launch party for the book in Jaffa? Didn't you have locations in kibbutzim that you'd visited?

Vardi: "The Tel Aviv people wouldn't have come had we done it at a kibbutz. You wouldn't have come. You know Tel Aviv people - it's hard to get them out of Tel Aviv."

I would have been there with bells on. How did you manage to persuade the Gevatron folk singers to perform?

Haim: "We had a wonderful connection with the Gevatron. Noa Yadin from Kibbutz Geva was wonderful to me - she gave me their legendary recipe for cheese dough triangles, and I sat with her for two hours hearing all the stories from life in the kitchen. At the end of our conversation, I invited her to sing at the book launch and she promised to recruit everyone."

Vardi: "I adore the Gevatron. We grew up on them. I have their records at home. I was so excited that they came. They are my childhood heroes."

Haim: "I also love them, even though I didn't know a single one of the songs at the event. I was pretty annoyed they didn't sing their hits."

Vardi: "They sang food songs because it was the launch of a food book."

At the launch, Yadin told me: "Over the years, most of the girls who had been in the Gevatron found their way to the kitchen. It was vibrant there: we loved to sing and we loved to cook. Both then and now, there is extraordinary kibbutz food. Our team was very innovative in cooking and brought in all the new seasonings - thyme, cumin, curry. Sometimes we used them irresponsibly. We'd put the new seasoning into everything, until we realized what it was good for and what it was less good for."

A great hunger

In 2009, Vardi founded an independent publishing company called LunchBox and released his first book, "Goulash Lagolesh" ("Going Paprikash" ), with recipes on refrigerator magnets. Since then, he has been playing around with different formats to attract customers, experimenting with applications for the international market and looking for the right formula to earn money from cookbooks.

The best seller "Ashtidak," which Vardi published on Iraqi cooking, was written by Loren Ravid and Shoshi Oren - whose origins are actually Hungarian. "There's a Place in the Lower City," a (Hebrew ) book about Haifa restaurants, was written by Hila Alpert, who comes from a kibbutz. The next book to roll off Vardi's press, "Reva Off" ("Quarter of a Chicken" ), about food served at weddings, is a project on which two single people (Vardi and Naomi Abeliovich ) are working.

"What's the problem? If you look from the outside you see the truth, and in that way it's unbiased," says Vardi, laconically. "We come to it completely clean, with a huge curiosity and with great hunger."

"These are anthropological books," adds Haim. "It was in fact kibbutzniks who, when I told them I was working on the book, said that kibbutz food didn't interest anyone. They didn't get it that there is a story behind it."

Vardi: "In the end, we created this project in honor of all kibbutzniks everywhere. We very much hope that people who aren't kibbutzniks will also find it interesting. At my press, we try to do special things. I'm not interested in doing something everyone is doing. People always ask me why I publish books about food when all the recipes are on the Internet. So here - there aren't recipes like these. And therefore people buy our books. The first edition of this book sold out in a week and a half."

The journalist-publisher says there were many emotional moments while writing the book. "We met sad people," he says. "There were kibbutzim we visited that were kind of heartbreaking. The memories rose to the surface and brought tears to the eye. The cooks of yesteryear weren't necessarily people who wanted to cook, but rather people who had to do it. Incidentally, most of them were women. We hardly encountered any men. With all the socialism and the equality between men and women - in the end women went to the kitchen and men went to the fields."

Haim: "Women did everything on the kibbutz and they also ran the kitchens. The issue came up in a number of conversations, but I didn't hear any complaints."

Collective nourishment

The dining hall is also considered a central element of kibbutz life in other books and academic articles about the communal settlements. A book by Zvika Dror documents Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot's "Requiem for the Dining Hall," which was shut down in 1970 in a ceremony full of pathos, just before the opening of a modern dining hall: "Farewell to thee dining hall! Farewell to thee kitchen! Farewell to the bleach, the pots, the frying pans, the kerosene stoves, the dripping faucets, the fly tracks on the walls, the limping bread slicer, the big rats that will be miserable (until they find their way to the new dining hall ). What, what, didn't we do here? Here we spoke in Yiddish at general meetings. Here we sang, until daybreak, songs of the Jewish Agency, songs of the illegal immigration, songs of the Palmach and songs of 'comrades going' in pure Russian, not to mention the (few ) Polish songs. Here we gathered when the bell rang."

In the 1980s, Emanuel Tal published a research study of the kibbutz dining hall. In the article "Chapters in the Emergence and Shaping of the Kibbutz Dining Hall" (Cathedra ), he relates how, in the early 1920s, as every new kibbutz took its place on the land, they would first erect the dining hall tent. "The changes in the kibbutz way of life were reflected throughout its course in the form of the dining hall and in the arrangements that were followed there," he writes.

The dining hall nourished the collective with socialist ideology and chicken soup. It was planned as a building that would express the spirit of the kibbutz and was situated at the center of public life. In addition to being a place for eating and food preparation, it also served a variety of other functions: the place for celebrating holidays and greeting the Sabbath; the place where people quarreled and reconciled, caught up on the news and whispered gossip. Today, the abandoned dining halls, the cash registers and caterers, the cooking and eating in private kitchens and dining nooks, are clear markers of the change that has taken place in the evolving kibbutz. Artist Michal Shachnai Yaakobi left Kibbutz Yifat 20 years ago. She returned to the abandoned dining hall at the heart of that kibbutz in 2009 to set up an exhibition entitled "The Dining Hall as Allegory," with the participation of 40 artists.

"The dining room is a very fraught place for kibbutz members - and certainly for ex-members," she tells me. "It arouses many emotions, both positive and negative, and it isn't easy to enter it. There are those who are sad to see it closed, who miss it a lot, and for others it is quite a traumatic place. I was one of those but while working on the exhibition I was flooded with many memories of the holidays and the togetherness."

The exhibition also featured photographs of contemporary kibbutz dining halls, a few of them active, a few abandoned and others serving various purposes - as centers for occupational therapy and rehearsal rooms, among other things.

"The moment the kibbutz changes its goal and is no longer a kibbutz, the large dining rooms - around which all the community life had been centered - lose their role," Shachnai Yaakobi says. "Every privatized community needs to think long and hard about how to use this building, so it will not stand empty and abandoned like a white elephant in the middle of the kibbutz. So it will serve the community and not impede everyday life."

Haim: "The kibbutzim in the worst shape are the ones where the dining hall isn't active. They are finished as a kibbutz. The people no longer get together, and everything that united them - the heart of the kibbutz - has stopped beating. Everyone shuts himself in to his own corner, and that's very sad.

"There is tremendous longing for the food, as a symbol for a community that used to exist and doesn't any more," he adds. "At many kibbutzim, they insist on keeping the dining hall because they understand that, without it, it wouldn't be a kibbutz. Sometimes this whole edifice is maintained only in order for it to be opened on holidays or for Friday night dinner - the main thing is to continue to function as a community around food."

With all the talk about dining rooms generally taking place in the past tense, Haim and Vardi were in for a surprise when they visited Kibbutz Sasa. There, in a splendidly equipped kitchen, they met an Italian chef - and kibbutz member - who had his picture taken for the book in starched whites embroidered with his name: Cesare. "I arrived there and I was in shock," Haim recalls. "I'd been to 50 kibbutzim before then. I'd seen the kitchens and the dining halls. Only there did I feel as though I had entered a five-star restaurant.

"At Sasa, where the income comes from the Plasan factory that makes armored protection solutions for vehicles for the American military, they invested millions building the dining hall. Everyone in the kitchen is dressed tip-top; everything is the height of luxury and technology. We discovered that when there is money, there is no problem in maintaining the collective ideology. They serve three meals a day there free to everyone - something that hardly exists at any other kibbutz. Cesare Funaro is not a cook. He is a chef, who went to study and returned to the kibbutz.

"Incidentally, when he came back with his ideas, the women who were the cooks shushed him and said: 'Sit on the side, kid, don't pester us.' He waited and gradually he took his place, until he had control of the kitchen and today it is run like a gourmet restaurant."