No, Israel Is No Culinary Superpower

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

Recently, we played host to a young Italian journalist who seemed to have nothing but bad things to say about his native country, just like Israelis who incessantly complain about theirs. For instance, he told us that, whenever he is abroad, he crosses over to the other side of the street if he sees a group of Italian tourists and hears them loudly jabbering away, in a manner that reveals utter boorishness, coarseness, racism and arrogance.

Just like Israelis love to do, he talked about how his compatriots are addicted to religion, and about the primitive religious conservatism that is enveloping ever-wider segments of the Italian populace. He cursed the politicians who emerged victorious in the recent round of elections in his country, including a populist entertainer, who strongly resembles our own Yair Lapid, and Silvio Berlusconi, whom - as is the case with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - no one wants, but who still manages somehow to get elected for lack of any better candidate.

Disappointed by his comments, we asked our guest whether there wasn't anything positive he could say about Italy. The only things he could think of were good food and a reputation for stylishness, he said in reply, his face suddenly brightening with a broad smile. He then began to talk about the marvelous dishes and fine wines for which his country is famous, and about the wonderful taste Italians exhibit in their attire and in the design of their homes.

And what did our Italian journalist guest think of Israeli cuisine, I asked. At this point, he gave me a look full of pity and, for the sake of politeness, replied that the hummus he had eaten in Jerusalem's Old City was tasty. This was precisely the same answer I got from a Parisian author who recently visited here, to whom I addressed the same question. With the help of a compliment for Arab hummus, he managed to adroitly get himself out of a tight corner.

I think it's healthy to receive such a slap in the face from time to time from visiting foreigners, because Israelis need to liberate themselves from the illusion that their country is a culinary superpower. This fantasy is, first of all, constantly pumped up from every possible direction by newspaper food columns, and by critiques - which are allotted a totally disproportionate amount of space - on local restaurants. Another source for dissemination of this pipe dream is television reality programs on cooking that do their utmost to make viewers forget, for example, that the discerning gastronomic taste of judges on the local version of the British "MasterChef" show does not in any way reflect day-to-day reality in this country.

On a recent whirlwind visit to Washington, I became strongly aware of the gap between culinary illusions and reality. The street I found myself on was full of representatives of the huge restaurant chains, whose branches human beings enter, like articles on a mass-production line, emerging a few minutes later with one hand holding a coffee cup containing a brownish liquid called coffee, and the other hand with something wrapped in paper and called a sandwich - which means that it contains either a paste with a tantalizing label like Stromboli, or a meat patty oozing with fat.

That is the reality. But along with it I noticed, however, that the thick weekend supplement of The Washington Post has 50 pages devoted to proliferating culinary illusions, with seductive photographs of gastronomic masterpieces and recommendations for exquisitely delicious dishes available at exquisitely delicious restaurants and prepared by exquisitely delicious chefs.

In any field of media coverage, journalists are measured by the degree to which they are critical of their subject matter and by their dedication to uncovering the truth. When it comes to the culinary realm, the opposite is true: Journalists are paid for hiding the truth and for feeding the public sweet illusions. I can read in Whatchamacallit magazine about What's-his-face, who has been crowned "the chef and the legend," and about the owner of the incomparable What's-its-name restaurant, which serves dishes that exude a unique new, personal interpretation. Like chicken livers in tea-and-fig gravy or chicken breasts in chocolate sauce.

I can read about dozens of fabulous kinds of goat's milk cheese in the Galilee that are accessible only if you are game to spend half a day hiking to the shop. Or about little-known spices sold in an East Jerusalem purveyor catering to aficionados. Incidentally, when I paid a visit to such a shop, I noticed that the owner had hung up on the wall near the entrance an article that sang the praises of his establishment.

A staunch opponent of these vacuous culinary illusions is the multi-talented and original-thinking artist Rafael (Rafram ) Haddad, who has gained a reputation here as a crusader for the Slow Food movement. Haddad has paid dearly for his originality: He was falsely arrested, placed in prison and subjected to severe torture in Libya when it was still ruled by its late dictator Muammar Gadhafi. Haddad describes his personal ordeal in a recent book, in Hebrew, called "Rafram's Guide to Libyan Prison."

Haddad seeks to make the public aware of the destruction that is being wrought upon Israel with regard to taste in food. Not long ago, he described for me what he calls the growing gap between the standardization of taste in foods that is being imposed upon Israelis by the state (in the form of laws intended to monitor the import of food from the West Bank, for example ), and the grand illusion being cultivated by the media, according to which the country's culinary universe is open and ignores borders.

Passover is fast approaching - a holiday intended to remind Jews of the "bread of affliction" that their ancestors ate during the Exodus from Egypt, and which also brings Jews back to their traditional cuisine, which consists primarily of grayish matza balls with a chicken or fish flavor. On the threshold of this bland-tasting holiday, the local plant that churns out culinary illusions is working overtime.

These days, everyone in these parts is talking about wine-making. In this country, few people really understand wine and fewer drink it. Nonetheless, it is a tradition to give bottles of wine as a holiday gift, which the recipients then go on to pass on as a gift to their friends, who pass it on yet again to someone else, and so on and so forth - as in the celebrated box-of-chocolates skit by humorist Ephraim Kishon.

The sophisticated members of our society escape the herd mentality of this country and go abroad to Italy, for instance (Rome has lately become a fashionable destination for this brand of Israeli tourist ). Since they have become so accustomed to living in a world of illusions, these people will return home, singing the praises of Roman macaroni, while Italians who seek to escape Rome's herd mentality (which exists, in part, due to the fact that that city is continually deluged with Israeli tourists ) and come to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem will return to Italy after their visit, singing the praises of the delicious hummus they ate in Jerusalem.

IllustrationCredit: Eran Wolkowski

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