The box of vegetables arrives every Tuesday evening. Starting at 5 P. M., everyone in the house is alert for the quick knock that heralds the arrival of the delivery boy.
When the knock is heard, everyone rushes to the door to see what’s in the box this time. Each week, the cycle of seasons brings different surprises. The carton is opened, the vegetables are taken out, still covered with clods of earth and sometimes tiny snails. Now everything is spread out on the kitchen table so we can plan all kinds of delicacies before storing the week’s treasures in the refrigerator and the pantry.
In winter the carton was filled with heads of fennel and cabbage, broccoli florets, root vegetables and a variety of green leaves; in spring we devoured ful (fava beans) and sweet peas, enjoyed the fragrance of fresh garlic and quarreled over the purplish hearts of artichoke; the early days of summer brought red field tomatoes, slender cucumbers and many kinds of squashes and gourds.
A month ago, during one of those strange weeks when frequent holidays confuse one’s biological clock, we waited as usual for the vegetables. When the knock didn’t come, we found it difficult to carry on with our routine, and gloom enveloped the house. At 10 P.M., when we could no longer bear the tension, we contacted friends who are also regular subscribers to the weekly basket of first fruits − only to discover that we had been eagerly awaiting it on a Monday night.
The weekly basket of vegetables has become an integral part of the fabric of our lives. There was a time when we would celebrate the Shavuot festival once a year, but today not a week goes by without a celebration of “first vegetables.” They come to us from the agricultural cooperative of which we are members, a model of agriculture in cooperation with the community that originated in Germany, Switzerland and Japan, and in recent decades has spread all over the world. These are organic vegetables grown with a great deal of thought about people and the environment. It is very nice to know that we are putting vegetables without pesticides and chemical fertilizers into our bodies.
We can even be caught bragging about our small and marginal contribution to saving the planet; but taste is the most important consideration in the world of those who sanctify the pleasures of the palate. The juicy taste of the purple cabbage, the likes of which we had forgotten or never known; the sweetness of the roasted beets; or the wild fragrance of a sprig of thyme − the real stuff of a gourmand’s dreams.
Hothouse vegetables grown out of season, or vegetables that have undergone a long, vitality-reducing wholesale route on the way to the consumer, can never compete with the taste of fresh seasonal vegetables that were picked at sunrise and arrived at the home kitchen in the evening.
The element of surprise also plays an important role in the ritual status of the carton of vegetables in our home. In the unwritten contract agreed between farmers and consumers, the latter promise to purchase all the farmer’s produce, whatever it may be. In return, the farmer promises to provide a rich variety of vegetables and species. For the cook, the use of a changing and unexpected selection of ingredients, in contrast to store purchases made according to an orderly list, introduces a pleasurable spark of improvisation and creativity to kitchen chores.
Winter minestrone with pumpkin and carrots; kale leaves oven-baked into crisp chips; a Roman-style baked dish of fennel with Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs; red cabbage cooked with apples and bacon; pickled kohlrabi and turnips − these are only a few examples of the variety of dishes prepared with the inspiration of the weekly basket. Over time we have developed a genuine affection for the vegetable growers, a handful of genuine idealists who implore us to come and visit the vegetables and every week send us a touching report about the trials and adventures of a farmer in the 21st century.
We have never dared reveal to them the full measure of the heresy and cynicism of the average gourmand, who is willing to demonstrate total indifference to issues of nature and morality. But the alliance between us is strong and both sides are compensated. They plant heads of lettuce with our name hovering above them, and we eat a Caesar salad made of ingredients of a rare quality.
The morning mist envelops the organic vegetable garden in Kfar Hanagid and conceals the houses of the urban neighborhood bordering the fields. Over 60 years ago, when a core group of Bulgarians established the village, uncultivated fields and agricultural lands stretched to the horizon. Today the last of the farms are adjacent to the streets of the city of Yavneh. A rooster crows from one of the farm buildings, and there is nothing in nature similar to the strange braying sounds made by Rex, the farm mule. This dramatic concert, which begins with low tones and ends with rising and falling moans, is often heard all over the village and frightens incidental passersby, who look for shelter.
Anyone who gives a passionate, ungelded donkey a royal name, admits its owner submissively, runs the risk of overturning normal routine. This aristocrat was brought in to help with the potato planting – hard work done with hoes – but Rex turned out to be an undisciplined laggard who specializes in stealing cauliflowers and Houdini-style disappearing acts. His owners continue to cultivate the potato beds, while Rex continues to complain loudly.
Dan Kimhi, 41, who is named after his grandfather, goes out to his daily work in the fields. He was born in the village and at the age of 16 inherited the farm established by the first Dan. After his army service, he left the country for many years.
“I had to get away from here after the army,” he says simply, “but even during the years when I lived in the United States, I found myself doing jobs related to animals and to the land.” In New York he owned horse-drawn carriages in Central Park (a field that is zealously guarded for descendants of Irish immigrants: “I got into it by unorthodox means, and they called me ‘Paddy the Jew.’”) Later he wandered among farms, including in Amish Country, and when he returned to Israel and to his ancestral land, he decided on organic agriculture.
“In the course of the years and the journeys, and also because my father is an importer of tractors and agricultural equipment, I was exposed to all the types of agriculture,” he says. “Organic agriculture is my way of offering repair and compensation for the exploitive way in which we all treated the land.”
The founders of Kfar Hanagid grew vegetables for their own use in small gardens next to their houses, and planted orchards of oranges and other fruit. They and their children were called upon to provide for the needs of a quickly growing population after the establishment of the state. They built large chicken coops for egg-laying hens and developed modern methods of industrial agriculture, with extensive use of technology and chemical substances.
The grandchildren’s generation, having witnessed their parents’ economic collapse in the 1980s, needed a long time-out before returning to work on the land. Anyone trying to make a living from farming in today’s market economy has to cultivate large areas of land. But some are trying to find alternative solutions to the techniques and work methods that became rooted in Israel and the world over in the second half of the 20th century.
Dan met his partners in the organic farm and the agriculture cooperative, Einat (35) and Eyal (38) Itzkovitz, when he took a course on organic agriculture together with Eyal. The long tresses of the Rastafarian couple are concealed inside hats and scarves. “The rastas are the roots of the Rastafari,” explains Einat, “and it’s not pleasant to walk around with your roots exposed. Besides, it’s hard to withstand the harassment on the Israeli street. Everyone has something to say.”
The attraction to working the land also originated in the worldview of the Rastafarian movement, which among other things favors a modest life, close to nature, and a vegetarian diet, free of poisons.
For many years Eyal, a native of Kfar Sava, made a living providing catering services to the film and television industries. At the same time, he nurtured a magnificent vegetable garden in the yard of his urban home. When their first child was born, the couple decided to move to Gan Yavne and to turn their inclinations into a livelihood and a way of life.
For five years Eyal worked as field manager of the Hubeza farm in Mishmar Ayalon, in the Ayalon Valley, one of the first organic cooperatives in the country. Two years ago, the three friends started a cooperative of their own, “Hava Bakfar” (A Farm in the Village) in Kfar Hanagid.
The farm, which today also includes plots leased from neighboring farms, boasts one of the most beautiful and well-kept vegetable gardens we have ever seen. This God’s little acre feeds almost 200 families, who receive weekly produce delivered to their homes. Dan and Eyal work in the field from morning to night – as their lined and callused hands reflect – and a group of workers of Eritrean origin are with them. The farmers say that the lucky Eritreans arrived in Israel within 48 hours. For the unfortunate ones, the terrible journey lasted almost three years, including long periods of imprisonment in shocking conditions.
There are almost no Israeli workers, they say, because nobody wants to do manual labor in the open air, and only a few want to specialize in organic agriculture. Occasionally, one of the elderly farmers wanders into the field – one of the last members of the founders’ generation – and warmly recommends a chemical solution for dealing with some wave of pests or another.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the large lean-to adjacent to the stables fills up with dozens of crates of fresh vegetables that were picked a few moments earlier. Einat, Eyal and Dan prepare the deliveries for the members of the cooperative. Each carton has a name and a face. They have formed personal relationships with many of their customers, and by advance order will add to the vegetables fresh free range eggs or dried organic dates from other farms, as well as fresh pasta made by Einat’s grandmother.