I failed to understand the uproar this past week surrounding the paella, served to a couple of diners in the upscale Tel Aviv restaurant Turkiz, that included salami made of horsemeat. Judging by the vivid descriptions that the newspapers gleefully provided to their readers, one might have thought that an entire racehorse was served up on the plate − or, alternatively, one of those pathetic horses that used to pull watermelon wagons in our city, which became exhausted and as a prize for its hard and anonymous life as a beast of burden, would suddenly receive new life in the form of a delicacy.
It’s not becoming for those who presume to be men of the world, and to understand food, as is true of many Israelis, to yell “yuck!” suddenly in the middle of a restaurant, just because the animal whose meat they are eating for some reason doesn’t seem to them to be fit for human consumption. In what way is horse meat yukkier than the meat of a cow or a hen, or a pig, or an octopus, or a snail − which around here is popularly known as bereleh, and is considered a delicacy. The best Hungarian salamis contain horse meat and the entire world knows that and buys and eats them. In short: a tempest in a teapot.
And still, there is an important lesson to be learned from the affair, and from the subsequent huge public reaction to it: that the vast majority of Israelis are not gourmets and do not like culinary adventures. And in secret, it can be
said − and don’t let anyone hear us − that even those who have enough money to pay for the culinary adventures offered by the most opinionated and impressive of Tel Aviv’s chefs, do so not because they really like what they’re served, but so they can tell their friends that they ate the creation of a certain famous chef.
And as in many other areas in our lives, in this one, too, the truth comes out from time to time: that the so-called “Tel Aviv bubble” is based on self-deception and cunning. It is these two elements that keep this balloon in the air. And if, God forbid, the atmospheric conditions that keep the balloon inflated were to dissipate, all that would be left in our hands would be a shmatte, an empty shell.
It’s easy to come by proof of this grand self-deception. All you need do is walk around Tel Aviv in the evening − or in the morning or at
noontime − and see the masses storming the entrances of the restaurants or sometimes waiting in line until a table becomes available. Then, as the hostess leads them in, they toddle after her with an expression of self-importance, as if to say, “Look, we have been accepted, not like the losers who are still waiting outside!”
You should be aware that often these same diners are couples buckling under an oppressive mortgage or others paying astronomic rent only because they want to live in proximity to those restaurants so as to feel that they have an interesting life. Unlike the provincial folks who may pay less rent but live far from the real thing, that which extorts their last shekel from them for a portion of rice, decorated by pieces of a fish or of an animal, which the mavens call “paella.”
And there are some who also crowd the restaurants and the cafes in the morning hours, so that if they weren’t cheated enough in the evening, they can be cheated then as well. A saucer with a tablespoon of cottage cheese. A saucer with white cheese. Another saucer with two slices of Bulgarian cheese, a two-egg omelet, and a sliced tomato. And
bread − yes, even the bread is worth its weight in gold. And it’s all called “the Israeli breakfast.”
The cunning ones who aren’t embarrassed to charge an exorbitant price for this couldn’t have carried out their scheme without a desire on the part of their victims to be misled.
You ask yourself whether those Tel Aviv partyers would spend their money so easily on a book, or a play or a concert. After all, for the price of such a breakfast, they could afford to delight their spirit with a literary or artistic experience. We know the answer: It takes a stupendous effort to entice a Tel Aviv family, or an Israeli family in general, to buy a book. And you have to make a Herculean effort to get them to spend the same money they threw away for a sandwich adorned with lettuce leaves on a subscription for this newspaper itself. Not to mention a concert subscription.
What attracts them to spend their money on food they don’t like, which deep inside they think is actually “yucky,” and that they know is overpriced? The answer is simple: They have the intelligence of horses. Not of thoroughbreds, who often turn out to have their own will and temperament, but of the pathetic beasts that slowly pull heavily laden watermelon wagons, until they become exhausted and collapse underneath, but before they become corpses that are led to a slaughterhouse.
In other words, it is definitely possible that the source of the public’s disgust at the presence of horse meat on the plate of someone in the upscale Turkiz is a kind of process of identification one suddenly feels with the bitter fate of the horse, which is so similar to the bitter fate of the Tel Avivian, who pulls the heavy wagon of his life with his eyes closed, and between the crackings of the wagon driver’s whip imagines himself a man of the world.