Pleasure Hunting / Telling Porkies

It is possible to find pork on the menu at some Israeli restaurants, and you can even hunt your own boar if you’re so inclined.

Ronit Vered
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ronit Vered

A recent Tuesday afternoon in the yard of a private home in Jaffa, near the Givat Ha’aliyah beach. A nice breeze, not yet blocked by high-rises, ruffles the herb plants and the leaves of the fruit trees, and carries a whiff of the salty sea. Around the garden, a group of Arab laborers one sporting the kind of beard that has become the trademark of the Muslim Brotherhood movement are building a stone fence between the houses.

In a marvelously equipped outdoor kitchen, complete with sink, stove, meat smoker, grills and various ovens and furnaces, Lior Hargil and Gili Sassover are cooking up a feast of wild boar for friends. Behold, a peaceful and peculiar Israeli-Jaffa scene! The spectacle grows all the more odd as the hours pass and the intoxicating aroma of roasted meat spreads through the Arab-Jewish neighborhood.

Scenes and dishes from the Hargil and Sassover wild boar barbecue, with a side serving of coarsely-chopped potatoes.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Hargil, owner of the Haminzar bar in Tel Aviv, is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to alcohol and gastronomy. Sassover is a movie producer, writer and one of a group of food- and drink-lovers that have made Hargil’s bar a second home.

On this particular day, meat from a large wild boar (130 kilos before butchering) was being prepared by Hargil a gift by a hunter from the south.

In this country, where 2,300 hunting licenses are distributed annually, a fascinating subculture exists far from the public eye. Some people hunt out of love for the sport, others out of love for the meat. Some hunters keep a collection of rifles at home of the kind usually seen in American movies about Southern rednecks; others indulge in the sport with only a knife and some hunting dogs. In any event, the dark crimson meat of the mature pig is the most sought-after.

Pigs bred on farms hardly move around and are fed a staple and fairly dull diet. The meat of wild boars is tougher and more sinewy, but the animal’s more varied diet has a strong, positive effect on its flavors. Naturally, the bigger the boar, the more time it has had to grow fat off the fruits of the land. These include acorns, roots, wild mushrooms, vegetables poached from fields, sweet grapes off the vine. Indeed, every hunter and foodie fantasizes about the legendary foods consumed by the pig whose meat is on his plate.

The boar in question on this particular day was caught in the midst of devouring a field of fresh chickpeas (the basis for hummus). One can only wonder what hummus, that most Israeli and Arab of foods, could do to the taste of pork?

The cooking of such meat is a very slow process that stretches over many pleasant hours. The pig’s haunches, its massive back legs, were being marinated on this day in red wine and fennel seeds, and then put in the smoker with the blackened doors for eight hours.
Anyone who took a Pilsner from the beer cooler in the yard, which occurred regularly, was asked to contribute a little something to cover the marinade for the ribs, which was made of beer and juniper berries. The enormous racks of ribs were going to spend a short time in the oven at a low temperature and then be roasted on the grill. A bit of pig fat was already sizzling on the stove, and coarsely chopped potatoes were about to be added to it. Fennel bulbs are roasted in large pans and stalks of celery were sliced for a remoulade.

Hargil uses the leftover meat from the ribs to make a cassoulet, adding white wine and root vegetables to the pot for this rustic dish.

The test of taste

Ma’ayan Habira in Haifa: A genuine Jewish tavern, full of atmosphere, that serves kostitza, home-cured pork ribs, along with excellent draught beer, chopped liver, calf’s-foot jelly, pickled herring and other classics of Eastern European cuisine.

Yoezer Wine Bar in Jaffa: To paraphrase a famous saying about the Chinese and their attitude toward food, chef Shaul Evron doesn’t shy away from any ingredient as long as it’s tasty. On the menu at this bar you can order a platter comprised of jambon de Paris, a country-style pate, and porchetta (a sausage made from the stomach of the pig); a rich choucroute of pig leg, bacon and two kinds of sausages; boudin noir (blood sausage) wrapped in phyllo dough; and pork schnitzel made from the neck meat.

Haminzar in Tel Aviv: Haminzar, beyond constituting the rare phenomenon of being a real pub, offers a wonderful, changing daily menu that, first of all, goes well with alcohol, but is also inspired by various cuisines from around the world. The fabulous kostitza that’s served here is something Lior Hargil learned from his father, who used to prepare it for his gourmet-loving family but never ate it himself. Obeying God’s strictures is important, but family harmony is even more so.

La Maison in Tel Aviv: Ben Tidhar and Ilan Duvshani, veterans of Shaul Evron’s kitchen, offer a selection of cold cuts, sausages, pickled meats and other charcuterie items. Rilletes, a minced pork and duck spread; smoked jambon; pancetta; German-style and French-style sausages; and saltimbocca, thin slices of pig sirloin and sage leaves wrapped in bacon and roasted on the plancha these are just some of the delicacies you can eat there or take home to savor.

Thai House in Tel Aviv: The Thai word for pig is actually “moo” (like the sound a cow makes). “Moo yang” is roasted pork brisket, served with a hot pepper sauce; “moo pad pik,” pork slices fried with peppers, is even spicier; and on the regular menu of this wonderful Thai restaurant, owned by Yariv and Lak Malili, you’ll also find “nam tok moo,” a salad of meat and herbs that originated in the Isan province, and “pad kapao moo” chopped pork served with rice and a fried sunny-side-up egg.

Long Sang in Tel Aviv: In Kung and Chin Chu’s dragon kingdom you can eat eggplant, mushrooms or hot peppers stuffed with a chopped pork mixture; “jao deza,” dough pockets stuffed with pork and steamed; and a marvelous dish made of slices of pork stomach, with its wonderful fat and tasty skin, which is briefly boiled and then sauteed in a wok with soy sauce and large chunks of cabbage.

Fresco in Rehovot and Ashkelon: Chef Eliezer Loya and his partner Carl Berg continue to serve a pig-neck steak, once a common and very popular dish on the menu of many steak restaurants. At these two Romanian-style restaurants, you’ll also find pork ribs in a sweet sauce, and if pre-ordered, roasted whole piglet stuffed with buckwheat.

When pigs fly

Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, has devoted himself to studying the cultural and gastronomic aspects of eating pork, but has no intention of tasting any
At first glance, Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a slim, dark-haired and very polite young man, perfectly fits the bill of being a “nice Jewish boy” from Brooklyn. But in the last few years, the focus of this nice young guy’s life has been pigs or rather, the taboo surrounding the eating of pork. As part of his quest, he spent 2007 in Israel, researching the local non-kosher food culture, and two months working at the pig farm on Kibbutz Lahav; he has now returned to conduct further research on the subject for a book.

During the past few years, he has been writing culinary articles for American publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic and Meatpaper related mostly to eating pork.

Earlier this year, he launched a website called Pork Memoirs, which invites people of different nationalities and religions to share personal stories about eating pork.

Just to heighten the paradox, it should be noted that this man is more intimately familiar with pigs than most people are: In his work at the farm he was responsible, among other things, for cleaning the pigpen and for overseeing the reproduction process for instance, collecting sperm from male pigs in test tubes. But Yoskowitz, who is dedicating his life to understanding this animal in terms of its social, cultural and gastronomic importance, has never tasted pork himself. Not in private nor in the dark of night, nor in the name of culinary curiosity or edification.

“My grandfather my mother’s father, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States from Poland worked at a pork processing plant in Massachusetts during his first years in America. He never tasted a piece of pork even though he took pigs apart and knew the animal inside and out,” the grandson explains. “I’m not prepared to cross that line either. For me the choice not to eat pork is the ultimate one, when it comes to preserving an individual identity. I could come up with various rational and intellectual explanations for this choice, but it’s essentially an emotional choice that comes from the gut.”

Who am I?

Yoskowitz was born in New Jersey in 1984 to a secular middle-class Jewish family. They attended synagogue mostly on holidays, and their festive meals consisted of traditional Eastern European Jewish foods like brisket, stuffed cabbage, gefilte fish and strudel. He and his sisters attended Hebrew school.

Yoskowitz’s parents decided to keep a kosher kitchen for the sake of tradition when he was two; thereafter, outside the home, they mostly ate vegetarian so as to avoid kashrut problems. Thus, from the time he was very young, not eating pork became a means of self-identification for a Jewish boy living in an overwhelmingly Christian society.

“In America the choice between a tuna sandwich and a ham sandwich is one that constantly reminds you of who you are,” he says. “You grow up surrounded by fast-food chains that fry foods in lard. You watch commercials for Burger King and feel like you’re an outsider, you’re not part of the club. When I was 14 I went with a friend to a basketball camp in Philadelphia. We were the only two Jewish kids at the camp. On the first day, we went into breakfast and there on the buffet were skillets sizzling with bacon and pork sausage, an odd and intriguing sight for someone who grew up in a home where breakfast didn’t include meat. My friend ate it but I didn’t. I wanted to stay Jewish.

“I remember the other kids asking me tons of questions, like, ‘What would you do if Cindy Crawford would eat bacon and then want to kiss you?’ Even childish questions like that force you to take a stand and form an opinion. Not necessarily a religious stand. I’m not a very religious person, although I have a deep spiritual connection with Judaism. I live a somewhat secular life but I’m not totally secular, in the way that Israelis perceive of secularism. I’m an American Jew and that’s a whole different story. I’m part of an American community that is careful to keep kosher, and part of a community of food-lovers who believe that kosher food can also be delicious.”

The memoirs

At college, Yoskowitz majored in U.S. history, with a focus on the history of food, and wrote his thesis on kosher food in America. He used the money for a scholarship that he received at the end of his studies to come to Israel for a year to study the opposite subject: non-kosher food in the Jewish state.

“As a kid I used to come to Israel often to visit relatives in Ramat Gan and Shoham. For me, Israel was a paradise of kosher meat, a place where, for the first time in my life, I could eat a hamburger in a restaurant. In 2005, I came upon a non-kosher dish on the menu of an Israeli restaurant for the first time and I was stunned. I realized that there’s this fantasy that Diaspora Jews have, concerning Israel’s image as the Jewish state and there’s another Israel that’s more interesting and complex.”

During the year he spent in Israel he lived in a commune of young people from Tel Aviv on Hayarkon Street and volunteered to work in the pigpen at Kibbutz Lahav.

“There’s no question about it, the smell of pig crap is the worst smell in the world,” he laughs. “Every day I scrubbed myself for hours and still never felt clean. Working with pigs, I discovered wonderful creatures that I loved working with, and I was cured of that Jewish-Muslim reflex of automatic and ridiculous hatred of the pig. The pig is unjustly perceived as the embodiment of total evil and bears a whole burden of history.

“On the other hand and because of my Jewish roots it’s hard for me to shake the thought that there’s something impure about this animal. The story of Hannah and her seven sons, and the stories that my grandmother told me about life in Europe during World War II, keep echoing in my mind. I worked with pigs and I have no problem holding uncooked pork in my hand, but eating cooked pork is a line I can’t cross.”

Yoskowitz spent his time in the Holy Land on pig-related travels, visiting Kibbutz Mizra in the north and the “pork triangle” in Jerusalem (the area in the capital where there are delis that sell pork products), and conducting hundreds of interviews with pig breeders, pig sellers, chefs and pork-eaters of all kinds. These interviews were also the inspiration for the Pork Memoirs blog.

“I was hearing these stories that people were telling me and wanted to capture a snapshot of these memories. On the whole, the personal memories and stories are all about grappling with questions of religious and cultural identity in a modern world, and reflect the cultural history and psychological effects of the pork taboo. I want to create a dialogue and candid conversation in a place where the taboo and the silencing of discussion still dominate.”

On his charming website, one can find the story of Arnold Yoskowitz, Jeffrey’s father, who contributed a childhood memory about a stay at a Catholic hospital, where a nurse tried to get him to eat a ham sandwich; also, he believed that the death of singer Cass Elliot of The Mamas & Papas was caused not just by choking on a ham sandwich, but by divine intervention. A waitress from an American diner in Portland tells the interviewer about feeling bad for a Muslim truck driver who couldn’t share his fellow drivers’ meal before hitting the road. Plus there are also amusing memoirs by well-known writers, with titles such as “Waiter, There’s a Pig in My Soup” and “The Prince of Bacon.”

The book Yoskowitz is currently writing describes his own private and public pork quest in Israel, and he says it will present another way to get to know this country’s byways and to learn about how Israeli-Jewish identity has been shaped by the pork-eating issue.

“I understand and identify with both sides Israelis who eat pork and those who don’t though I’m opposed to the kind of extreme violence that leads to the burning down of shops that sell the meat,” he says. “I often wonder what Herzl, the visionary of the Jewish state, would have thought about the issue of pork in Israel. I think he would actually have been pleased to see pork chops on the menu of an Israeli restaurant.”

A local pork time line

1934: The British Mandatory government permits local authorities to decide whether to allow pig-breeding in their jurisdiction.

1953: The first bill seeking to ban the raising of pigs in Israel is submitted jointly by MKs from Agudath Israel, Mapai and Hapoel Hamizrahi.

1954: Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, is also the first to enact a municipal bylaw banning the breeding and sale of pigs. Other local authorities follow suit.

1956: Another bill concerning a ban on pig-breeding is submitted by Agudath Israel. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion is opposed. The compromise: the Local Authorities Law, which authorizes limitations or bans on the sale of pork.

1962: A law banning the raising of pigs is passed by the Knesset. Specifically, it prohibited the breeding and slaughter of pigs, with the exception of certain Christian-Arab locales, and scientific and research institutes. Still, the legislation spurred pig-breeding enclaves in the north and on kibbutzim.

1981, 1985: Bills submitted by MKs from religious parties seek to completely ban any commerce in pork. The status quo that was hitherto upheld between the religious and secular in this area is undermined.

1989: The first branch of (non-kosher supermarket) Tiv Ta’am opens and other such chains begin to take root in the wake of the mass wave of immigrants from the Soviet Union.

1990: In the 1990s, the battle over the pork issue reaches a peak. Cities with a large concentration of Russian immigrants, such as Netanya, Ashdod, Karmiel and Beit Shemesh, are the sites of sometimes violent demonstrations by residents protesting the opening of shops selling pork. The battle intensifies as the ultra-Orthodox parties gain strength, and Basic Laws pertaining to upholding human rights are enacted.

1993: A Tiv Ta’am petition to the High Court results in permission to import non-kosher meat to Israel. For a brief period, inexpensive and good-quality beef is imported, but when other market elements seek to expand imports, a public outcry ensues.

1994: The Beef and Beef Products Law is passed, banning the import of meat without kashrut certification. Paradoxically, the law ends up strengthening local breeders and manufacturers, and gives rise to a monopoly indeed, the local market for non-kosher meat that has been smuggled in survives.

2004: After a petition is filed by MK Marina Solodkin of Israel Beiteinu together with the Shinui party, the High Court rules that the restrictions on the sale of pork violate the freedom to conduct business, and that at most a ban may be imposed on its sale in areas where a majority of the population is religious. The ruling arouses much anger in religious circles.

Contrary to the popular myth that pigpens are built on elevated platforms so they won’t touch “holy” ground, the same method of pig breeding is common around the world because it makes it easier to remove the animals’ waste, and has nothing to do with any legislation.