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a fig salad for difficult conversations

For about a year now I’ve been relying on this salad recipe – so much so that it’s hard for me to believe that I haven’t blogged about it yet. It’s an adaptation of a recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, which is itself something of an adaptation of fattoush, the classic Middle Eastern salad most famous for its fried bread (I think you will agree with me that it’s impossible to compete with a salad that includes fried bread). In addition to that wonderful fried bread, my version features a bed of fresh spinach, arugula, or both (depending on what looks best at the market), juicy, tart, marinated mission figs, and just enough sumac and lemon to make your mouth pucker happily.

The way I make my salad differs significantly from the cookbook’s recipe, but it owes credit to that recipe for inspiration – which is perhaps why I haven’t written about it yet, despite having prepared the dish for most of the important people in my life by now. Because I have mixed feelings about this cookbook.

On the one hand, it accomplishes what I consider the hat trick of modern cookbooks: 1) it is beautiful, 2) its recipes, if followed precisely, produce great dishes, and 3) its recipes if not followed precisely can also be the inspiration of all kinds of fabulous variations because of the strength of their basic combinations and principles.

However: I disagree with the way that the cookbook frames and represents the culinary heritage of Jerusalem as a place. This doesn’t keep me from using it. But I do feel the need to address the issues I have with it if I’m going to reference it here. So here goes.

I don’t want to devote tons of space to the cookbook here, in part because I have plans to address them in more detail, and in a broader context, elsewhere. But I do want to point out just a few things:

A central point of the book is to highlight Jerusalem as a place where many religions and cultures overlap, resulting in tremendous culinary diversity. But within the cookbook’s presentation, that diversity is frequently collapsed into just two sides: an Israeli Jewish side and a Palestinian Muslim side. A trope of the book (and its marketing) is the fact that one author is Israeli and the other Palestinian. Its introductory material references “Muslim East Jerusalem” and “Jewish West Jerusalem” as though religious labels are adequate or even accurate for these places – and as though this were always so. Collapsing the city’s cultural identity into these categories obscures the existence of the Israeli citizens who are Palestinian, Israeli Jews who are Arab, Palestinians who are Christian, and so forth.

In doing so it also erases historical narratives. The most obvious is that of the Nakba, which for Palestinians is roughly analogous to what Columbus Day represents to the indigenous peoples of North America. The day Israelis celebrate as Independence Day is commemorated by Palestinians as Nakba Day. It represents expulsion and exile and appropriation, a process that, by the way, is still ongoing. West Jerusalem was once home to many elite Palestinian families. If it can carry the label “Jewish” today, it’s because of the Nakba. If Muslim-Jewish is a dichotomy that bears some resemblance to social reality, it is due in large part to the fact that Zionism imposed religious categories of inclusion and exclusion upon the geography of historical Palestine.

Oversimplifying identities in this way also obscures already-marginalized narratives within the Jewish population of Israeli society. During the early years of the state of Israel, Sephardic and other non-European Jewish populations were encouraged or required to assimilate to a European version of Judaism and Zionism, distancing themselves from their Middle Eastern and Arab and Levantine roots. Food was a powerful ideological tool in this process. This very short documentary segment shows an Israeli propaganda film from the 1950s in which Yemeni Jews are trained by European Israeli Jews to eat in the “civilized,” Western manner (among other things).

 

It’s a fascinating glimpse into the way national identity formation requires citizens to conform and assimilate even the most intimate cultural attachments (like the way you eat bread), instituting value judgements and hierarchies in the process.

To write a cookbook that doesn’t just include but embraces food from Palestinian as well as non-Ashkenazi cultural traditions without situating how those foods came to be in contact in Jerusalem today is irresponsible. In the same way it’s important to reckon seriously with the relationship of the historical legacy of African slavery to contemporary Southern American food, the historical and material backgrounds of the foods featured in Jerusalem: The Cookbook deserve to be voiced, particularly in a book that explicitly seeks to address the problem of appropriation and the controversies of the “hummus wars.”

Many of the cookbook’s shortcomings are eloquently addressed here, in an interview between Yotam Ottolenghi (the primary author of Jerusalem) and Maggie Schmitt and Laila El-Haddad, authors of the Gaza Kitchen (which I’ve blogged about before). Maggie Schmitt points out that when it comes to disagreements about ownership and appropriation and naming of foods, “the question of ‘is this our food, or is this your food…’ is not occurring in a void.”

Ethnic cleansing, genocide, atrocities: these are among the building blocks of modern history. If we can’t find a way to face up to them when we talk about our daily bread, how can we possibly hope to create a future without them?

A Fig Salad for Difficult Conversations

I should note that I have served this salad many times sans difficult conversations. It goes very well with just regular easy conversations too. This salad goes well with anything.

You will need:

Spinach and/or arugula, a nice handful or two per serving
Dried mission figs – unless it’s fig season, in which case go with fresh figs, for the love of God. I find that mission figs are the best variety of dried figs hands down. Trader Joe’s carries them, as well as most grocery stores (look near the raisins); halve or quarter them, about 2-3 per serving
Pita bread, torn up into bite-sized pieces, about a half round per serving
Whole almonds, roughly chopped (or you can always cheat with slivered or sliced almonds), as many as you wish

Juice of half a lemon to a whole lemon, depending on how much salad you’re making and how juicy your lemons are
Butter
Olive oil
Pomegranate molasses (Harris Teeter has this now. Try the international aisle of your grocery store. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, this ingredient will change your life)
Sumac
Cayenne pepper or other hot spicy peppery seasoning of choice
Salt

First things first: soak those lovely figs in a mix of pomegranate molasses, salt, and lemon juice (about half a lemon’s worth for 4 servings of salad or so) and let them just hang out for a while. Stir every so often. This can be done just 10 minutes before you serve the salad but if you let them soak overnight, so much the better.

Meanwhile, rinse off and dry all your happy greens.

Mix up your sumac (several teaspoons, at least, don’t skimp) and your hot pepper (to taste) in a bowl and melt a generous amount of olive oil and butter on medium low heat. Fry that torn up pita bread till it’s golden brown and crispy, and then toss in your almonds to toast them too. The trick here is to keep everything from burning – keep an eye on the heat and turn it down if you need to.

Sometimes I toss some of the sumac & pepper into the frying oil, because I think it helps seal in those flavors extra well. But you have to be very careful not to let it burn, because burnt sumac is as sad as regular sumac is marvelous. If you don’t do this, then just toss the fried almonds & pita in your spice mixture so that everything is nicely coated

Next put the greens in the biggest bowl you can find and toss with olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon, again, to taste.

Top with the pita/almonds and figs and serve.

 

 

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