Sex, Traif and Rock 'N' Roll: Welcome to Haifa

When food critic Hila Alpert was asked to write a culinary guide to Haifa's Lower Town area, she squeezed the information into a couple of pages. What she put on the other 200 pages is testament to a restless soul who, by her own admission, writes the way she lives.

When the Haifa municipality commissioned Hila Alpert to write a small food guide to its Lower Town area, the restaurant critic went way beyond the boundaries of the book genre, if not actually the Haifa neighborhood itself.

A writer for the free daily Israel Hayom, television cook, culinary consultant and bohemian actress, Alpert spent many a sleepless night at a Haifa eatery penning "There's a Place in Lower Town" (just published in Hebrew by LunchBox).

The book, which is subtitled "a Haifa food journal," is chock-full of recipes that Alpert collected from around the world. But it also contains stories of love and desire, and fragments of conversations with Haifan studs. It's far removed from local politics, and all that remains of the original idea is a delicate illustrated map and two crowded pages of recommendations.

The other 200 pages feature a variety of stories from the key hangouts of Lower Town - Hummus Abu Maron, Yonek, Kalman's and others - along with photographs (taken by Itiel Zion) of meticulously prepared recipes, as well as a powerful scent of sex that's just taken place upon the tablecloth.

If there are people who live to eat and others who eat to live, Tel Aviv resident Alpert thrives on her preoccupation with food. She is always in love, she positively sizzles, and she knows how to live, eat and drink.

Ruler and stopwatch

You've been writing about food in the media for 20 years, but this is your first book. Your colleagues are constantly coming out with cookbooks. Do you think one has to be a chef to write books about food?

"What is a chef? Such contempt [these days]! I once posed for my sister-in-law, wearing a blouse - does that make me a model? If I sing at my kid's bar mitzvah, am I considered a singer? Everyone's a chef now. The man stirs sugar into coffee, writes cookbooks and calls himself a chef. This thing where everyone is in a hurry to spout off because that's their path to fame creates an entire culture - not limited to food - in which everyone does everything: Everyone shoots a movie; everyone releases an album; everyone writes. Obviously, anyone can write a cookbook and, if there are buyers for it, then it also has an economic justification for existing. Is this good for food culture? That is a different question.

"What really pisses me off is someone in a position of power publishing a crappy cookbook, rife with mistakes and exclamation points. The Internet is full of instant culinary 'stars' who have no basis for that stardom, no culture, do not have good taste, and who write nonsense. They also do it in print and on television. And they have power.

"If you send someone to the grocery store to buy something for your recipe, take responsibility for it. I tested every recipe in this book, including the semolina cake recipe I found on the restroom wall in a restaurant. I always try out the recipe before I publish. I work with a ruler and a stopwatch. I try to be very clear in my explanations. And I generally also try to write recipes that do not require a lot of utensils - but that's simply because I hate washing them."

Why pick Haifa, if you have to choose a particular place to which to devote your first book? Why not a book about the kibbutz where you grew up, Ma'ale Hachamisha [in the Judean Hills]? Was the food there not worth writing about?

"I write about Ma'ale Hahamisha all the time, and about my parents, my brother, my grandmother. Food always leads me to personal writing. Haifa, that's another story. This was not the first time I had received an offer to write a food guide to a city. I always said no. But I have this affection for the Lower Town that goes way back. How far back? It's pretty silly. I was twenty-something and went to visit [Kibbutz] Ma'agan Michael. I fell asleep on the train and got off at the Bat Galim station [in Haifa], a lost kid. I wound up at [the eatery] Ma'ayan Habira - and the rest is history."

The word "kosher" adorns the book cover in small letters but, in the very first story, Alpert tells of a pork sausage factory. A few stories later, she recounts how she fell in love with Haifa after she went to the Suidan family grocery store in Paris Square, in search of prosciutto. And in writing about the restaurant Ma'ayan Habira, she sinks into a fantasy in which she takes the entire suckling pig that's been served to a bunch of hot-looking guys.

What exactly is kosher here?

"The recipes in the book are kosher. I think it would have been good if that were what it said, instead of [how it is] on the cover. But the publishing house had considerations of their own; they say that kosher invites more people to come and be introduced to something. Ultimately, you can't write about a kosher Haifa, because there isn't a single story about the city in which pork, shrimp or three prostitutes doesn't come up. One of the amazing things about Haifa is this tolerance."

What's so special about Lower Town?

"Lower Town is a very masculine place - in terms of its visitors and those who run it. It is also masculine in its memories. It's a place with a mustache. And I'm a girl with a mustache. Do you know how fast mine grows? Haifa men are tall and they all look younger than their age. Also, they also don't know how to handle compliments."

Did writing the book come as easily as writing regularly for a newspaper? Did you enjoy the process?

"All of the stories were written with the deadline [like a gun] to my head. It was not a normal process. The writing doesn't come easy, the words don't write themselves. I am a real stickler. I took a year off everyone's lives and two years off my own. I worked breathlessly. Sometimes I wrote a sentence and burst into tears. I've lost 20 kilos since I began working on the book."

A khat juice diet?

"I tried khat juice to quell my attention deficit disorder. It kept me awake but, unfortunately, it's been outlawed. At a certain stage I chewed khat - there is something very bitter and very focusing about it. When I took Ritalin, I was spitting out words but [it made me feel] very flat; not good enough. In a few cases I tried not sleeping, or else drinking. I did it all and did not find a solution. Let's just say that when we play Animal Vegetable Mineral at my house now, we skip the letter B, so for Mineral nobody can say 'book.'"

Food, boring food

So what's next - back to television? Never mind participating, are you capable of even watching cooking shows on television? It is hard to understand what's cooking there amid all the commercial sponsorships, marketing content and the barely hidden product placements.

"When I started doing television, hidden advertising was a sacrosanct no-no. Today you don't say a word unless someone finances it. You feel up the plastic wrap, run your hand over the knife - anything else is a waste of expensive screen time. Inside the studios in Israel, there isn't a second that is free of sponsored content. I learned to say 'No, I don't want to do the show.' All of the parties involved - the franchise holders and the production companies - have made the marketing content piggish; it simply takes over every word and every frame. You stand there, and you work with it. Enough! But without it, there is no television.

"Let's talk about public relations in the restaurant business. This is an industry that has pumped itself up to such dimensions that for every person who's opened a restaurant, there's someone who calls me up to ask, 'When will you come?'; 'Can we invite you?'; and 'Just say when.' The same applies to these anniversaries. Sheesh, one-year anniversaries, two years ... they celebrate every moment. I didn't celebrate my kids' birthdays the way they celebrate for restaurants. I thought the Internet would turn over a new leaf in this field and it would be free of these sorts of things, but it's there that it's the most blatant - also when it comes to restaurant reviews. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of wonderful things on the Internet. I love reading blogs."

Recipe blogs?

"Blogs about fashion, mainly. I actually don't read about food. It's boring, how much can you take?"

You write about food with a great sense of lust and desire. And in all of your tales of wandering between Haifa's saloons, your femininity is greatly underscored. The men enjoy watching you lustily bite their kebabs, and you are willing to devour their small fish with your hands. You write love letters about dark bars in Lower Town to unknown lovers, and meet the men of the town over a bottomless Guinness.

"I write the way that I live," Alpert says. "I have no other way."

Here, for example, is what Alpert wrote about sesame seeds: "Once, I had a man who would spread a thick layer of butter on a sesame bagel for me. On top of that he would place a slice of yellow cheese, plain Emek or Tal, and on top of that a sausage from Spain, Italy or France. He's a guy who travels a lot, and I don't even like sesame on bagels. With him it felt different. A long time after he would go away, a little sesame seed would suddenly appear in my mouth, claiming for itself the taste of love. That's how it is with these seeds. After the mouth has forgotten that they entered it, they pop out of some hole, always needing to have the last word."

Is sesame really that sexy?

"I really don't like talking about the connection between food and sex. It is often contrived. I think it was conceived at the beginning of the 20th century with the gathering strength of an advertising world that was looking for icons or a new world of associations for sex and food. In 'Nine 1/2 Weeks,' he moves the strawberry over her. What is this bullshit? Strawberries don't go with the taste of the body; each is tasty in its own right. It's a kind of mumbo-jumbo. Today there are plenty who fake culinary orgasms."

So how do I know you're not faking?

"I never tried to introduce sex into my food writing. It isn't a link I am comfortable with. When the sex is good enough, no one thinks about food - not I, nor anybody I know. When the food is good enough, there is no thought of sex. But when you sit down to write about food - it really is a world that comes from descriptions that are corporeal, physical."

For years now you have been doing multiple things in tandem. Is working at Israel Hayom not enough for you financially?

"There's no choice. I go to demonstrations to shout about the towers, and my mother thinks it's embarrassing that at my age I'm yelling about them instead of living in one of them. I'm just built this way. I have to do several things at once. I am not interested only in food. I also love music and love to dance."

Ever since you were on the reality TV show "Dancing with the Stars"?

"No, unrelated to that. Lower Town got a chance to see me dance on more than one occasion."

'I like him a lot'

No matter how many times I went through the book, I could not find a thank-you addressed to the Haifa municipality. Alpert leafs through the book, goes back to the dedication page and is surprised at its contents. "As I sit here I realize that I did not write a thank-you to the Haifa municipality. Do you get how that is so me? Making a terrible faux pas? Nobody pointed this out to me before."

So city hall isn't behind this book? Did it invest money in the book?

"Ultimately this is a book that was privately published, but there was definitely cooperation with them. They hosted me in an extraordinary manner. Perhaps if I hadn't waited for the last minute to submit the dedication page - but it was important to us to publish the book [in time for] Rosh Hashanah. I debated whether to thank Mayor Yona Yahav on the list of thank-yous, but it didn't seem right to me. I have to tell you that I liked him a lot."

You like him? Why, is he a man of vision?

"Whenever mayors meet someone from the media they become filled with vision straight away, whether they have any or not. Anyway, Yona decided to take action in Lower Town, and I have no doubt that this move will not be without mistakes and that he will succeed in ticking off a few people, but he went for it."

The shots of Haifa in the book were photographed by Zvi Roger, a veteran photographer who used to work for Yedioth Ahronoth and now works with the Haifa municipality. What was it like wandering around dark bars and clothing stores with him?

"Zvika is my exact opposite. Doesn't drink, watches his cholesterol, reads nutritional values. When I discovered a recipe on the restroom wall at Jacko's, I thought the restaurant was empty and I shouted, 'Zvika! Come to the bathroom.' As I'm yelling, I see that he's standing there with a group of older people, terribly embarrassed. On a separate occasion I got so excited that I yelled at him, 'Zvika, I found a hooker!' - because I was constantly looking for a prostitute among the city's girls who would agree to share a recipe with me. After the sort of embarrassment I caused him, he said to me, 'Do me a favor. I have to stay in this town, you'll be going back to Tel Aviv."

There are hardly any recipes in the book from the restaurants and bars you've written about. What happened? Did the Haifans refuse to share their secrets with you?

"It's not that they didn't give me recipes. It was simply not enough. I was looking for recipes that grew up in Lower Town."

There are recipes in the book for steak tartare, carrot cake, Melanzane alla Parmigiana, and risotto with salmon. Did you just put the recipes you'd collected over the years into a book that just happens to be about Haifa?

"It's not that I amassed recipes and was looking for a place to shove them. It's just something I do. When I get to know someone, I think about what to cook for him. It's a way by which I say thanks or show my love. These are my personal recipes, which I dedicated to people I met along the way and to places I visited in Lower Town. Ultimately, the whole food dimension in this book largely takes the form of the recipes; my stories and those of the places and the Haifans took over the majority of the pages."

Your memory of the Suidan family's grocery store led you to write about Lower Town. What is your position on the battle of the neighborhood grocery stores and the supermarket chains?

"I buy most things at a small grocery store. At a makolet and at the shuk [open-air market]. I hardly ever go to a supermarket. It's not only ideological. It's a matter of a connection over many years with my grocery store, Albert's."

Do they let you buy on credit there?

"Of course. He's as makolet as they come, but calls himself Minimarket Habima. Some minimarket! It's the size of a makolet, it has the makolet smell and makolet prices, and if a kid gets in a pinch, he can borrow NIS 200 from Albert. It's not just grocery stores. I like to opt for the small and the personal in everything. In Lower Town I met Mrs. Huberman. I bought two outfits from her. What a character. Such yekkeness," she says, referring to the stereotype of German-speaking Jews being prim and proper.

We learn from the book that Haya Huberman is a strong woman. For 70 years she has sold undergarments and towels in Lower Town and never eaten at the food stands and restaurants that surrounded her shop. She can't shake the smells of the Salonican food and Turkish melodies in the area, now long gone.

"Yes, when I paid her a visit she offered me an apple," Alpert recalls. "Aside from the gesture of hospitality, it was of course to protect me from the cruel world outside, which in any event no longer exists. They say the day that the port closed its gates brought about the death of Lower Town's glory, previously the undisputed business center of Israel. In my opinion, it happened the day they opened the Ashdod Port. To contend with the decline, every mayor tried to save the area. One brought the courthouses there, another brought office buildings there. But the British are responsible for the primal sin. For a port to function seriously, it required depth. With an attitude of 'We need, we take,' the British dug deeply and dried up part of the sea with the sand."

Based on your wanderings there, what condition is the Lower Town in today? Were you able to find active businesses to write about?

"Today the streets are finished. The whole of Lower Town is gorgeous but completely abandoned. It's a noontime place. At 5 P.M., a spell falls on the city; the Haifa lawyers and clerks get up and flee Lower Town before they are turned to stone. The moment at which I encountered the place is a decisive moment - either this place will die or it will change. After a great deal of thought, an option was put forward of turning the area into a region of campuses, and a place to rent out galleries to artists. But when you wander around Lower Town and get to know its people, you hear a lot of talk against this move."

And what do you think? Have you become convinced that the municipality's way is correct, or do you side with the merchants?

"He who does not act does not err. I really hope it will wind up a holistic approach. That the old will remain, even if it'll be a little crooked at times. Everyone wants the anchors - Kalman's and Hasandak - to stay put. These are beautiful places, where, when you get drunk, you feel the burps of the guy who got drunk there 40 years ago. It's a good idea to turn Lower Town into the port campus, into a place for young people; bring young families into the area to forge new life there. But I tried not to express my opinion in the book."