The Wandering Jew: Eating in the Land of Love and Honey
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
Someone asked me this while we were dining at a gourmet restaurant in California. I paused to consider the Halibut confit, white miso champagne risotto arranged beautifully on my sea-blue plate. I’ve been to some pretty amazing restaurants, traveled extensively and sampled all kinds of delicacies, from perfectly seared foie gras to handcrafted ravioli and homemade green tea ice cream.
Despite all of these culinary adventures, I can honestly say my favorite meals are of the homemade Israeli variety… Not at some swanky restaurant in Paris or LA but at “Chez Meir” in Zichron Yaakov.
Every Friday night we go to my in-laws for dinner. The menu varies slightly, but a few things are always the same: the white tablecloth, the Shabbat prayers and the over-abundance of unbelievable food. There are 10 of us total, and the table is heaped with delicious dishes, from roast chicken and sweet potatoes to veggie-stuffed dumplings and (you guessed it) homemade hummus. It’s a loud, raucous affair, punctuated by multiple conversations spoken through mouths half-full of food.
We make jokes, we argue and we taste everything, spilling soup on the tablecloth and mopping up the mess with challah. Dinner starts around 7 p.m. and by 11, we’re sipping the last dregs of our mint tea or Turkish coffee, packing up boxes of leftover treats to last us all throughout the week.
I love it. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in Israel, the majority of them at my in-laws‘ table.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t tell my acquaintance this, at least not flat-out. I was being treated to a fine dining experience, after all, and I didn’t want to confess what I was just beginning to realize: I sort of hate gourmet food. It’s one of those things that — like the collected works of D.H. Lawrence or avant-garde performance art — I’ve tried very hard to appreciate out of a stubborn belief that it will make me more sophisticated and cultured.
It’s the pretense that bothers me. I feel as though the entire gourmet dining experience is designed to impress, so my expectations are unnaturally high. My first problem is with the menu — I usually don’t understand a word on it. I can ask my knowledgeable waiter who has a BA in culinary science, but it’s likely I’ll be even more confused. It’s not a mushroom sauce, I’m informed; it’s Chantelle Reduction, made from a rare type of French fungi cultivated by blind orphans from Myanmar. Their sharp sense of smell allows them to pick the choicest mushrooms, which are then flown in by helicopter directly to the kitchen.
I come to understand that the “cardamom soil, pea tendril mojo” took hours to prepare, and it does look pretty, painted in artful strokes across the plate. But what the hell is it? And I hate to sound ignorant, but what is soil doing on my chicken? That is chicken, right?
Compare this to a scene at my in-laws. Whether it’s moussaka, Moroccan fish or lamb-filled dumplings, my mother-in-law has the same answer when I ask about a dish. She shrugs her shoulders and tells me, “It’s good. Try it.”
“Tasty, tasty” everyone murmurs in agreement. My mother in-law shrugs again, half-smiling. “It was nothing. So easy to make. Chik-chak!”
She watches us eat, her face filling with pleasure. “La Breut,” she says (meaning, “for your health).” And we do, we eat for our health … and then some.
Back at the gourmet restaurant, dishes are passed around and tasted, and we are all expected to make intelligent comments about the integration of flavors. People say things like, “Texturally, the saffron cream in the consomme is reminiscent of the garlic aioli often served with boulibase.” Every dish is a showcase of inscrutable ingredients assembled in the most unusual way possible. Bean chimichurri with mushroom hay and sorrel, for example. Mushroom hay? Did these mushrooms grow up on a farm? Are the blind orphans aware of this?
Admittedly, these forays into fine dining always end up making me feel both empty and disappointed. The emptiness is probably hunger. I have never left a gourmet restaurant feeling satisfied; the portions are tiny, yet the plates are almost as huge as the bill.
Maybe that’s why gourmet food hasn’t really taken off in Israel. Ask an Israeli to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a thimble’s-worth of “milk-fed veal on dehydrated tomato confit” and they will likely walk out before the consommé has been served. In Israel, food is about substance.
Which brings me back to these Israeli family dinners. It’s not just the food that’s amazing — it’s the atmosphere. This is going to sound schmaltzy, but I really think that food tastes the best when it’s made with love. And my mother in-law puts her heart and soul into the meals she makes. Not every dish comes out looking like art. But you can bet your sweet shekels that it tastes like a masterpiece.
Is it experience, the right blend of ingredients and a flare for culinary creativity? Sure. But the poet in me maintains it’s something more, something contingent upon the symbolic act of breaking (homemade) bread with some of the best people on the planet.
To me, that’s a truly gourmet experience. The icing on the cake? I always have leftovers to take home, tasty remnants of those beautiful meals. Yet another reason for me to feel so much more at home in this land of chocolate poppyseed, date and honey-pie paradise.
Lauren Meir is a former Metro Detroiter now living and writing in Israel.