I am not the most adventurous of men. In fact, I don’t even like to leave the living room. And yet, here I am in Israel, of all places, trying to figure out how to eat. It’s easier than I thought; but it’s not that easy. Our eating habits don’t move with us that easily; they are part of where we live and how our parents ate, and what stores are in the neighborhood, and who delivers. I’ve always thought that geography was underrated as an aspect of our how we eat. Just because regional foodways have disappeared, and we no longer have much in the way of traditional foods or for that matter even local produce, that doesn’t mean that where we live doesn’t matter!
All you have to do is visit Israel to see that.
In Israel, the first night, Danit exclaimed to me that she could hardly believe how much delicious food was in her parents’ refrigerator. “There’s so much to eat!” she exclaimed. Really? I was tired and hungry and found myself suddenly filled with a hopeful excitement. I practically ran over to the thing. Here’s what was inside it:
- A package of chickpea paste
- a canister of eggplant sludge
- some pickled peppers
- two indistinguishable blocks of bone-dry feta cheese
- two tubs of briney, swamp-green olives
- brown bread with horrible little seeds on it.
- Some kind of weird yogurt
- skim milk of some kind
Now if this is the recipe for bliss for you, you simply come from a different place than I do. Or possibly a different species. Here I was, hoping for a big plate of cold fried chicken, some Kraft singles and garlic-flavored melba rounds, a big candy bar, a Hebrew National salami the size of an artillery shell, a rye bread, some salted butter, and a big bottle of black cherry soda. Maybe a big chocolate cake, perched appetizingly next to a quart of whole milk. Who knows? The truth is that I peer into people’s refrigerators a lot, and am always disappointed.
Restaurant food pretty much followed suit. I can’t read the menus, which are written in some kind of strange squiggly characters and which but rarely feature Dennys-style pictures of what the food looks like. Everything is not what I had hoped, even when it’s good. An “egg sandwich” means a sandwich with slices of hard-boiled eggs, possibly the least flavorful things in the entire world. “Lamb kebabs” were little meatballs resting atop a dish of mashed potatoes. What? And of course, whereas I thought Israel would be a paradise of shawarma, I have yet to see a single rotating wad of sliced lamb, turning alluringly in my direction. But I’ve only been here a couple of days. And I’m carrying the weight, both literally and figuratively, of forty-three years of eating in the USA.