Does Israeli Cuisine Exist? Queen of Food Writing Serves an Answer

Dalia Lamdani wrote an extraordinary book about how food helps to shape our lives. When she couldn’t find a publisher, she had 100 copies printed herself.

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Dalia Lamdani and her private library.
Dalia Lamdani and her private library.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

“A cocktail party is a ritual gathering that enables strangers to get acquainted and chat, without any commitment to remember or be remembered. It’s no wonder that the cocktail party is popular among diplomats, for whom an artificial smile and polite blather are standard issue.”

– From “Drink in Hand” in “A Journey Around the Table,” by Dalia Lamdani

The launch party for food writer Dalia Lamdani’s new book was held a few weeks ago in the backyard of her brother Ilan’s home in Kfar Haim, near Netanya. At five o’clock that Saturday afternoon, dozens of invited guests sat down at tables set with white tablecloths, set up on the green lawn stained with sweetish-smelling red pitanga fruits. The book, about how food shapes human culture, brings to life sumptuous meals featuring items like roast peacock, truffle-stuffed rack of lamb, and salmon steamed in champagne. At the unpretentious feast to mark the book’s publication, the guests nibbled on homemade cookies, and sipped coffee and a simple table wine.

Lamdani, dressed in white, excited but characteristically restrained, welcomed the guests from a chair. In the past year, she has been getting around with a walker, and standing up is hard for her. Copies of the new book were piled on a low table by her side, bound with a smooth purple cover.

Despite the fact that this is the first, comprehensive Hebrew work on the subject of the link between food and culture – Lamdani’s book was self-published: Just 100 copies were printed. On the first page of the books she gave out, Ramdani added a hand-written dedication to her guests, who are mostly friends and family. Not many of the usual faces from the local food scene – chefs, journalists or members of the pack who usually bound from one highly publicized launch here to a free meal there – were to be seen. Only a few came to pay their respects to one of the pioneers of Israeli writing on food and leisure: a woman who became the close friend of Mimi Sheraton, Claudia Roden, Cara de Silva and other major figures in the international culinary world.

“This is a book about food in areas outside the kitchen,” said Lamdani, addressing the people at the gathering, in part quoting from the introduction to “A Journey Around the Table.”

“It’s not a collection of recipes or restaurant reviews, and there isn’t a single word in it about dieting. Sometimes when I talk to people who want to know about what I do, I’m surprised to find that there are still people who have no idea that our intimate relationship with food does not start and finish between the two ends of the digestive system. That food is involved in so many parts of our lives and says just as much about us as we say about it.

“This book contains a lot of information and a vast amount of knowledge that isn’t derived from academic study. I never obtained a high-school matriculation certificate, and in Israel there isn’t a single library where I could really research what interests me. The only library I used is the one in my bedroom: about 1,500 books on food, with only a small proportion being cookbooks.”

Lamdani finished writing the book, which is based on a lifetime devoted to food, words and research, in 2004. At the festive gathering, she explained why is was hidden away for a decade.

“The publishers I contacted turned the book down,” she said. “The ones who bothered to give a reason said it wasn’t commercial and wouldn’t sell. They also said they didn’t know how to sell it, what category to put it in. It’s not a cookbook, not a history book or a book of folklore, even though it has some of all of that. There were three exceptions. Three publishers actually said they wanted to publish the book, and almost did, but in the end they didn’t.

“The first was Ramot Press from Tel Aviv University. They thought it should be an album with color pictures, but they backed out because they feared the sales wouldn’t cover the production costs. The second was Mapa, which even commissioned another book from me for a series on popular science, but a few months later, because of the crisis in the publishing business, they fired most of the editors there and went back to just publishing maps and guidebooks. The third one to express interest was [culinary journalist] Gil Hovav, but the industry crisis affected him too. So 10 years went by when I didn’t even think about going back to the book. Now that I’m not well and my time is getting short, I decided to publish the book myself so I’d have something to leave behind for my family and good friends.”

Last October, after eight months in the hospital due to a mysterious illness that left her nearly paralyzed, Lamdani was diagnosed with lung cancer, and since then she has been undergoing difficult chemotherapy treatments.

Pioneers and peanut patties

“For centuries, the fork fought for its place next to the plate. At the dawn of the 20th century, the British Navy still banned the use of the fork, which was considered damaging to discipline and to manliness.”

– From “The Evolution of Cutlery” in “A Journey Around the Table”

A weekday afternoon in Lamdani’s home, in an apartment on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv. The door is opened by the caregiver who’s been living with her ever since she returned from the hospital in a wheelchair. Around the apartment are framed photographs of Lamdani’s only child, a daughter who died nine years ago at age 48 (“It was pancreatic cancer, and she died just six weeks after it was discovered”).

Lamdani is sitting by the table in the living room and, eyes sparkling with curiosity, is reading a doctoral thesis that was just sent to her, about the evolution of the dinner plate from a psychological standpoint. As trance music blares at an incredible volume from the apartment next door, she keeps a small radio tuned to the classical music station. Whether talking about the neighbors, her illness or life’s ups and downs, her manner is calm and devoid of self-pity. The old pioneer ethos on which she was raised is still much in evidence.

Lamdani was born in Atlit in 1931: “They were building the Haifa port then, and my father worked in the quarry that supplied the rock for it. My parents – who met when they were both sent to Acre, he as a Hebrew fisherman and she as a seamstress – were already registered in the organization that later founded Kfar Haim, and when I was four we moved to Wadi Hawarat, now Emek Hefer. It was a typical moshav house for those days, a nearly completely autarkic farm.”

Some of the most interesting articles she has written were about the food of the simple workers, the culinary culture of the austerity years and the kibbutz dining halls.

“My mother did nearly everything herself. From boiling soap to baking bread to making patties out of peanuts. We had a chicken coop but they only rarely slaughtered the chickens. It’s like the Polish saying: A Jew eats a chicken only when it’s sick or he’s sick. Whenever it did happen, my mother would divide the chicken into parts and use them to make different things: from the backs and thighs she made something similar to the Spanish soffrito; from the necks, wings and legs she made soup; and she used the breast to make patties, with or without spinach. Schnitzel wasn’t around then.

“The daily menu consisted mainly of vegetables from the backyard garden, and the house had no electricity. Today it’s hard to imagine what an effect that has on life. For us, in an age when there was no refrigerator or ice – sour meant spoiled. When I was 13, and was a guest in the home of a family from Greece, they served a clear chicken broth. It had a sour taste and I thought it must be spoiled, until I learned that it had been seasoned with lemon. This soup taught me that people who speak a different language eat different-tasting food. Ever since then, I’ve been curious to taste all kinds of unfamiliar foods.”

As a teenager, she managed to get in one year of studies at the Nahalal agricultural school before the outbreak of the War of Independence: “I served in a military entertainment troupe – I was the one who wrote the texts for the songs and skits.”

In 1952, she married a lieutenant colonel in the army and they went to live in Eilat. Two years later the couple returned to the center of the country, and in 1957 their daughter was born.

“We lived in Tzahala and I worked for the Am Hasefer publishing house. I worked on the first version of the Keshet [literary] quarterly. When we divorced in 1961, I moved to Tel Aviv and worked as a freelance writer and editor,” she adds.

Lamdani was a ghostwriter, for Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (founder of a method of human movement) among others, wrote for a number of magazines and newspapers, including Haaretz, and translated some classic children’s books from world literature. Later on, her mastery of English and French (“I learned English on my own in Eilat, with the help of a little dictionary and a pile of old journals. I learned French in a course at the embassy and then on my own”) enabled her to delve into the history and anthropology of food, at a time when nobody in Israel even knew that such fields of study existed.

Readers and writers

“From time immemorial, women have been told what, how, how much, when and where to eat. In the old world, men kept women down; in today’s world, women are doing it themselves” –

– from “Sexual Discrimination on the Plate,” in “A Journey Around the Table”

In 1967 Lamdani began working for the weekly women’s magazine La’isha, published by Yedioth Ahronoth: “I worked for them as a freelancer, doing translation and editing, and during the war – when all the male editors were called up – I was offered a regular position. At the same time, Benjamin Tammuz had offered me the position of secretary for the Haaretz literary section. I was debating between the two offers when I happened to run into a writer who warned me against getting involved in the hornets’ nest of the literary section, and said there was a good atmosphere at La’Isha. I accepted their offer and Tammuz didn’t speak to me after that for many years.

“I started working at La’Isha as a junior editor. I was constantly asking: ‘If this is a magazine for women, why doesn’t it address the target audience? Why are there no articles about children or articles with practical guidance about cooking or crafts?’ In those years there was just a two-page spread on those topics, and all the rest was devoted to European princesses and romantic tales. Only later, when the big economic crisis came in the early 1970s, did the editor, David Karsik, let us start a section concerned with matters of home economics and practical information. I edited that section for years.

“My interest in the subject of food started before that. I didn’t yet have the big library that I have now, but I started cooking, exploring, reading. The woman who’d been writing the recipes for the newspaper left for Switzerland, and when they were looking for someone to replace her, I took the job. There were still just short recipes without any introduction or social and historic context. The articles about different ethnic and national cuisines, about the history of food, about specific ingredients and about famous foods from around the world, only came later.”

How Israelis start the day

“Breakfast is the most practical and conservative of all the meals in the day, but still there are some who focus their fantasies upon it. The Israeli breakfast is unusual in that it revives ideas from the Middle Ages.”

– From “Fantasy for Breakfast” in “A Journey Around the Table”

The columns and articles written by Dalia Lamdani over the years, many ahead of their time in terms of their exploration of local and international culinary research, were never collected in a book. “I once wrote a book of recipes about frozen food,” she recalls, “and I had such a miserable experience, in terms of working with the publisher, that I never wanted to repeat it – until I went through all the hardships with this book.”

Over the years, she watched as colleagues published cookbooks and recipe collections and gained a wider reputation. “I’m not good at that kind of thing,” she shrugs, referring to efforts at self-promotion. “There are those who read and those who write. While I was reading more and more, they were writing – sometimes books that were really a plagiarism of things that had been published abroad but with which no one in Israel was familiar.”

Something about Lamdani’s studious and correct – at times almost pedantic – nature left her outside the local culinary scene, though in New York, where she spent two months a year for close to three decades, and in international culinary circles, her vast knowledge was recognized and admired.

The book she eventually wrote is unusual and pioneering in terms of the local culinary scene, although the lack of editing by a proper publishing house is a drawback, and her lovely and meticulous Hebrew sometimes seems a bit outdated.

“A Journey Around the Table” is divided into three sections and 20 chapters, dealing with topics like cookery of the rich and the poor, food and gender, and national cuisines. The splendid and plentiful anecdotes, from Trimalchio’s Feast to the lavish feasts held by the shah of Iran, were gleaned in part from Lamdani’s awe-inspiring collection of books on food that she amassed over the years. Her library contains first editions of important books, like the first Jewish cookbook ever published in English, in 1846, and a rare compilation of impressions written by an Italian who lived in England during the Renaissance and sought to teach people there what good food is – alongside important scholarly tomes, forgotten local works and academic articles about culinary matters. Lamdani hasn’t decided to whom she’ll bequeath her rare collection (“I wanted to leave it to one of the universities, but I realized that there isn’t anyone there who would take such a collection seriously”).

On her computer, after the last year of being stuck at home and having ignored the doctor’s predictions, waits another book: a collection of articles she wrote about different ingredients and families of foods, such as couscous, pasta and cholent. Who, if anyone, will publish it, is not something she’s eager to talk about. The book business is in even deeper trouble than it was a decade ago, and who’s prepared these days to delve into lengthy, erudite texts without pictures? The local audience has come a very long way in the past two decades from the time when gastronomy was practically a taboo field for conversation, but even in this age of reality television programs featuring cooking competitions, it’s not certain that there are many buyers out there for Lamdani’s merchandise.

“I’m asked so often – ‘What is Israeli cuisine?’ And I don’t have an answer, because there is no such thing. I can cite a certain Israeliness in food, in techniques or different dishes, or the Israeli way of serving a meal: a lot of salads at the start, which are more like the Mediterranean meze than the French appetizers, which took the place of the first course; and then soup, a main course and dessert, following the European custom. In other words, there’s a combination of Sephardi and Ashkenazi cuisines here, which is characteristic of the local culture created here. There are also things that have acquired an Israeli ‘stamp’: Israeli hamin, for instance, is a real mix.

“The Ashkenazi version of cholent had the Sephardi hamindos [slow-cooked eggs] and chickpeas added, and the Sephardi hamin got kishke [stuffed intestines] added to it. There is no specifically Israeli cuisine, mainly because we’re great imitators of all the popular trends from overseas. When you’re writing about a national cuisine, you’re writing about things that are lasting, that will still be true 500 years later, and not about things that each new passing trend relegates to oblivion.”

To purchase a copy of “A Journey Around the Table,” contact Ilan: 09-8825502, 054-7698195

“Burlesque Feast” by Jan Mandijn (16th century).Credit: Getty Images