“Israeli diners want big and cheap; they care less about quality,” says Prof. Nir Avieli, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. “That’s something I learned from the first field study I conducted about food, as an M.A. student. Our assignment was to write about Israeliness. I don’t remember why, but I decided to interview Israeli food experts and chefs. This was in the mid-1990s, and chefs weren’t yet mega-celebs. They were more accessible and also nicer, and they were all happy to talk. “Something that came up often in the interviews were complaints about the young generation of cooks. ‘These days everyone takes a three-day course in France and when he comes back calls himself a chef,’ they’d say. When I asked them, ‘How did you learn?’ it turned out that they also took a three-day course in France. That’s the essence of the shoddy Israeli culture: very talented people who do everything sloppily. That’s the standard, that’s how things are done here – and I don’t consider myself an exception to the rule.”
“Size matters” – the title of the first chapter of Avieli’s book “Food & Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel” (University of California Press) – is based in part on an article he published at the start of his academic career, in which he analyzed the Israeli penchant for quantity over quality. “At first people laugh when I say it,” he says, “but when you check it out in additional places – such as in the song “Ochel, kadima ochel” (Food, forward for food), wedding buffets, weekend meals or hotel breakfasts – you realize that it’s true.
“I can’t forget an interview I did with a talented young Israeli chef who returned from an internship abroad and was hired by one of the best-known restaurants in Tel Aviv. He told me, ‘I am going to educate Israeli diners and serve smaller portions.’ When he went to the kitchen for a minute, the service manager told me, ‘The fact is that when he made the dishes smaller, half the regulars left. The owner forced him not only to restore the portions to their original size but to make them bigger.’ People mistakenly think this is typical of a low socioeconomic class, but it happened in one of the most expensive and prestigious restaurants in Israel.
“I know I am painting a not especially attractive picture of Israeliness,” Avieli continues, “but the Israeli diner is not the only player in this game of vulgar behavior. The Israeli restaurateur is also a player. To be a sucker is the worst affront an Israeli can experience, and because the state’s attitude toward its citizens renders them suckers by definition – the security situation is fraught, government corruption is rampant, taxes are high and the quid pro quo is low – in interpersonal relations we are in no way willing to be suckers.”
Avieli explains: “The diner wants to leave sated and not pay a lot, and the idea of being sated resides within us, Jewish Israelis, as part of the whole highly charged emotional baggage we carry from the diaspora to the Holocaust. On the other side is the Israeli restaurateur. He knows exactly what his customer wants, so he gives him large portions and big plates, at the expense of quality. Both sides come out with the feeling that they’ve screwed the system.”
Avieli, 52, is a pioneer of academic food studies in Israel and has trained a generation of researchers in the field. His department at Ben-Gurion University publishes a wide range of studies about food, and his students go on to other universities, local and international.
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“In 1996, when I first wrote about food and discovered the fascinating literature that exists on the subject, the world’s leading universities had only just opened food studies departments,” he says. His doctoral thesis, afterward published as a book, dealt with food culture in the Vietnamese city of Hoi An, which lies on the coast of the South China Sea. “The culinary arena is an excellent prism through which to examine patterns of behavior in human societies, because we think about food nonstop, but generally don’t give much thought to its political and cultural implications. Things happen and are spoken about in the culinary arena that are no longer given expression in other cultural spheres.”
He hadn’t even planned to write a book about Israeli cuisine, which appears under the imprint of the prestigious culinary series of the UC Press. “My academic career has been devoted largely to Vietnam, but I live here and I encounter interesting phenomena time and again, so over the years I have conducted quite a few local studies.”
Avieli’s research projects are based on extensive fieldwork and generally originate in intriguing personal encounters with the Israeli reality and way of life. For example, a chapter about why Israelis are so fond of Italian food began to take shape when he moved with his family to the south of the country.
“Until then I hadn’t noticed how prominent Italian cuisine is in the Israeli periphery,” he recalls. “Be’er Sheva and Netivot are full of pizzerias. Even our small village has a pizzeria, and pasta with tomatoes is one of the most widespread dishes in the Israeli domestic kitchen. I examined the question systematically, and it turned out that everywhere in Israel, Italian restaurants constitute the largest category in the restaurant industry. More than falafel, hummus or Eastern food. Why is this so?”
He interviewed owners of Italian restaurants. “The first thing everyone told me is that Italian food is tasty. But the anthropological hypothesis is that taste is a product of social and cultural construction, and that is precisely the reason for embarking on a study. A few possible explanations arose from what the interviewees said. The first is that Italian food is easy to serve; it’s cheap and its quality is not difficult to fiddle with. Second is its relatively easy adaptability to kashrut restrictions and the separation of meat from dairy. The third argument is based on Israelis’ family orientation – Italian cuisine is perceived as child-friendly. Fourth, and most interesting of all, Israelis were said to like Italian food because ‘we resemble the Italians – we have the same climate, the same temperament and the same raw ingredients.’
“When I pressed people and said, ‘But there’s another cuisine that fits those parameters perfectly: Palestinian cuisine,’ people scowled. The image we would like to confer on ourselves is of people sitting in a small village in southern Italy, in Naples or Sicily opposite a blue sea. Italian food offers Israelis the possibility of imagining themselves in a different place. Not in the Middle East, but in the Mediterranean. No Iran and a civil war in Syria, but Italy, France and Spain.”
A charismatic lecturer and a fine storyteller, Avieli is one of the most realistic proponents of Israeli cuisine. But the character of Israeli society, as reflected in his remarks, isn’t always consistent with the current line being touted by Israeli public diplomacy, whose focus is on Israeli cuisine’s idyllic “conquest” of the world. (The frequent use of the word “conquest” – the Hebrew word kibbush also means “occupation” – in connection with the world’s present interest in Israeli food, almost insists on affirming his claims about the aggressiveness that is rife in Israeli society.) Some members of the audience at a recent talk he gave in Washington about Israeli cuisine squirmed uneasily at his words about food and politics and about the conflicts that split Israeli society. And the local academic scene doesn’t always take kindly to what he has to say.
“We can agree by now that there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine and that it has its own flavor, character and style,” says Avieli. “But to categorize it solely as a cuisine of immigrants is really to say nothing. Every cuisine is the product of the blend of immigrants and climate, ecology and the local kitchen.
“What I tried to do in the book is to characterize Israeli cuisine, and one of the things that characterizes it – and I am of course not the first to note this in the context of Israeliness – is power and power relations. We Israelis are the strongest and the weakest alike, and the culinary arena is a central space in which that give-and-take is conducted. I discern this ambivalence everywhere: in the tension between quantity and quality, in the battle over the price, in the way we make barbecues, in our attitude toward the foods of foreign workers and refugees, and in our approach to Ashkenazi food and Mizrahi food. If in the cultural arena a tempestuous cultural battle is being waged between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, then in the culinary arena that contest has already been decided, and by a complete knockout.
“The food we eat is Mizrahi food, a new culinary category that didn’t exist here before the establishment of the state. That’s what we prefer at home and outside, too, and that’s true of the whole political and ethnic spectrum. Even the pizza in the outlying areas is undergoing a process of becoming Mizrahi, served with harissa [a hot chili paste] and sesame on the crust. Is the culinary area – as occurred in other cases – ahead of other cultural arenas and thus heralding the direction in which Israeli society is moving? In my view, yes.”