Beyond Hummus and Falafel: Social and Political Aspects of Palestinian Food in Israel by Liora Gvion


Before reading Beyond Hummus and Falafel I defined the politics of food within the realm of agribusiness, i.e. manufactured foods made by huge food corporations whose bottom line is profit, profit, profit and also the loss of family farms to agribusiness. After reading this book I have an additional definition: For Palestinians living in Israel, preserving their ethnic and regional dishes is a form of political protest. The Palestinian women write no cookbooks, nor do male restaurant owners serve their traditional Palestinian dishes to Israeli Jews. Cocooning their dishes in the safety of their kitchens and community, they preserve their distinct identity as a minority within a larger, majority society, which has already appropriated hummus and falafel as Jewish-Israeli food. (When I lived in Israel, I thought hummus and falafel were uniquely Jewish to Israel.)

If you are as fascinated with food as I am, you will find this book enlightening. The author, a Jewish sociologist at Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv, interviewed many Palestinian-Israelis living, working, shopping, and cooking in Israel. Professor Gvion sat in their homes, ate their foods, and learned about the role women play in their communities via their domain, the kitchen. The women learn to cook at an early age in preparation for her role in marriage, so learning to prepare traditional food is very important.

Now that many Palestinian women work outside the home, they use modern conveniences, such as the microwave and pressure cooker to make their traditional dishes in less time. They also buy processed Palestinian dishes and use canned goods while operating in the arena of basic, but less complicated, Palestinian recipes, which vary depending on what part of the country they live.

As a sociologist, author Gvion delves into Palestinian life in great detail. In fact, one could easily become overwhelmed in the details, but by investing the time to read all the chapters, the net result is a much greater understanding and appreciation of Palestinian society through their kitchen windows and restaurants.

I especially liked the last chapter on why there are no Palestinian cookbooks written by Palestinians. After reading the chapter, I extended my definition of the politics of food, because the decision not to write a cookbook is a way to keep Israelis from usurping their food culture identity and adopting it as their own. Many minorities adopt the foods of the majority culture, but this is less prevalent among Palestinian Jews, according to the author’s research.

Two sections of the book that I found quite helpful are the extensive glossary of Palestinian culinary terms that are found in italics in the text and also the author’s detailed notes of each chapter.  For example, here is the note on complicated traditional dishes on p. 175: “The disappearance of complicated traditional dishes is typical of kitchens encountering modern technology.”

If you are a foodie, as I am; if you enjoy learning about the culinary traditions of other cultures, as I do; and if you also happen to be a Jew who lived in Israel, as I did; you will love this book. And even if you didn’t meet the last of the three criteria, like the Levy’s rye bread campaign many years ago on New York subways: You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Beyond Hummus and Falafel by Liora Gvion. It has broadened my concept of preserving recipes from another culture so that it remains a way of defining that culture’s roots, both social and political.

Cost: The book is $26.95 on their website (www.ucpress.edu); also available from Amazon and other book stores.

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