Some sports and food groups in the United States are easily associated with one another. Baseball and hot dogs clearly go together, for example. That’s easy.
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But what about football? Tailgating parties, where people hold picnics out of the back of the car before a big game, may be an integral part of the football ritual in the United States (we’re talking about American football, of course) but one wouldn’t say that there is a specific dish that one immediately thinks of as official football food.
But let’s try to imagine such a thing for a moment. You’ve packed up the car, you pull out the picnic cooler to start laying out the pre-football-game spread, and you reach your hand inside and pull out a big container of all-American … hummus?
Sounds bizarre and jarring, but it's now official. The National Football League has signed a deal with Sabra Dipping Co. that will make Sabra brand hummus the “official dip” of the league.
Bloomberg reports that Sabra CEO Ronen Zohar recently approved the company’s first national U.S. hummus television commercials which encourage football fans to “dip life to the fullest” by dunking carrots and chicken wings into the mashed chickpea concoction as a lead-up to the new partnership with the NFL.
In other words, move over salsa.
According to Bloomberg's report, Zohar appears to be planning out his strategy as carefully as a military campaign - or football play in the Superbowl. After growing the company 400 percent over the past five years, mainly through increased sales on the East Coast, he’s ready to conquer Middle America.
The way Zohar figures it, the path to expanding the hummus category, which he estimates at $700 million to $800 million, will come in three stages. First, get people to dip it. Next, get them to spread it, like on toast. The most recent TV commercials show it being spread like mayo on a cold-cut sandwich. The final step: hummus as a side dish, the way it’s eaten in the Middle East.
“We are only now at the first stage,” Zohar said. “It’s only an issue of time.”
He knows he faces a challenge.
“Most of the people in the U.S. never tasted hummus. You have to change their mindset that even if the name is strange and the brown color of the hummus is not as appetizing, it tastes wonderful.”
No self-respecting Israeli would dispute that statement when it comes to Middle Eastern hummus. When it comes to the supermarket brands in America, however, reviews tend to be scathing, and even more so when purist-shocking attempts are made to enhance the spread with “flavors” like roasted red peppers or (yes, I’ve seen it) smoked salmon. Still, if salsa can make the leap from an obscure ethnic condiment to a common dip, why not hummus?
One inevitable obstacle will be politics. The attempt to make hummus mainstream under the brand name “Sabra” a joint venture between PepsiCo and Tel Aviv-based Strauss Group has already exported the Middle Eastern hummus wars to the United States. Hummus wars, to the uninitiated, spring from the claim of Israel’s Arab neighbors of a grand Jewish conspiracy to co-opt and take credit for foods of Arab origin, and Sabra’s Zohar has already been personally charged with culinary imperialism. The fact that the company is co-owned by Israelis (and named Sabra, after all) means that the pro-Palestinian supporters of the BDS movement have called for its boycott, even though Sabra manufacturing takes place in the United States.
But the biggest challenge to the spread of the spread won’t be political. It may affect sales in Berkeley and Cambridge but Middle America could care less about BDS.
The key to mainstream acceptance will be changing popular American perceptions of the brown paste into something that better resembles its image in the Middle East.
You feel the difference in the pronunciation of the word. In the U.S., it’s “HUH-MUSS” In Israel, it’s a heavy guttural “CHOO-MOOS.” CHOO-MOOS is scooped up by blue-collar workers during their lunch breaks. HUH-MUSS is served at Upper West Side dinner parties and Santa Monica vegetarian restaurants.
In short, HUH-MUSS - whether you call it a dip or a spread, is still seen as girly - right up there with quiche as something for health-conscious upscale hoity-toity types. For the hummus domination of Middle America campaign to really succeed, it will have to be able to get Americans to see hummus the way Israelis do - as an earthy, simple, manly, macho food.
In this sense, the NFL tie-in, as incongruous as it seems, is actually a smart move. After all, there are few activities more macho than grown men trying to knock each other down as hard as they possibly can? And as an added bonus, after they knock each other’s teeth out, there’s nothing that’s going to be easier for them to eat than a nice dish of hummus.