The other day when we were walking through Yafo, Rhonda asked me "what do you miss from New York? You got to miss something." I actually don't miss much and I was stumped for a moment. When I didn't come up with a ready answer she asked again "Really, what do you miss?".
"Chinese food" I blurted out. "But not real Chinese food, American Chinese food".
I have been thinking about this conversation for two days now. It is niggling at me. Something is not right about my answer and it is not because I fell back on my safe topic - food. At least it was better than lying, but almost not. What's bothering me is that I qualified my answer. I explained it with a more detailed description. "Chinese food" wasn't enough. I had to make it clear that I knew that it wasn't "real Chinese food".
I learned to do this "I'm as hip as everybody else" routine in New York. Partly it was a self-preservation move. I had once made a terrible mistake and said I loved Chinese food and found myself at a Dim Sum restaurant with friends and had to excuse myself so I could secretly get rid of the gooey, doughy mess hidden in my napkin. (this is not an indirect put-down on the value or quality or anything-ness of Dim Sum).
From that point forward I always made it perfectly clear that I love American Chinese food. No, let's correct that. I love food that is proffered (or at least used to be) in New York in restaurants with names like "Charlie Mom's" and "Szechuan Palace". I like cold sesame noodles and Chicken with Green Beans and the Duck Sauce that comes with the Hot and Sour soup. I like Lo Mein that comes in a cardboard box.
Now many people may be appalled. I have actually met some of them. I have listened patiently to the explanation that the Chinese in America don't frequent these places and they certainly don't eat food like this is China. I know by heart the lesson about authenticity and the crime middle America has perpetrated against a noble and ancient cuisine; and how I would really enjoy eating in a "real" restaurant in Chinatown.
We have our own version of this conversation in Israel. Usually it is about חומוס (hummus) or as they say in the midwest - hum-mus. Only here, because it is Israel, everyone else in the world has to have an opinion about it and politicize the discussion. I don't know how long chickpeas have been eaten here. I need Avi to answer that since he wrote his Master's Thesis on food policy and in particular, its relation to national identity. Suffice it to say some sort of cooked, mashed, and/or pulverized beans/peas/pulses/ served with olive oil and eaten with flatbread, have been the staple here for centuries.
The thing is, the חומוס made by the דרוזים (Druz) is quite different from the חומוס made by folks in אבו גוש (Abu Ghosh). And the חומוס we ate in מסעדת משייה (Mashya Restaurant) with tiny, tiny פיתות (pitas) was unparalleled. The חומוס from מחנה יהודה (Mahane Yehuda Market) in Jerusalem, made behind the counter is the basic diet of students at the university and comes from countless other family recipes - ... דרוזי ,יהודי, ערבי, נוצרי, צ'רקסי (Druz, Jew, Arab, Christian, Cherkessi..) it doesn't matter. Even some חומוס from AM-PM will do in a pinch at 2 o'clock in the morning.
All if these are real. No one owns חומוס. It is not a sign of cultural appropriation to make your own חומוס and change the recipe. It is not racist or an act of colonial aggression to be from Tel Aviv and serve חומוס in a restaurant and call it Israeli cuisine. (Alas, London is lagging behind where Israeli restaurants are called Middle Eastern or Palestinian so they won't be boycotted).
I eat what I like. I like חומוס and I like לבנה (labane) - same חומוס argument mutatis mutandis. I cannot live without גבינת פטה (feta cheese) and I love that some Jewish family from Rhodes came here and continued to make it and then sold-out to תנובה (Tnuva) - not the sold-out part.
Food is adapted to the country in which it is made, and in a new home it may be slightly or wholly different from the country of origin. Old foods become new foods in a new country. People move, nations move. The food changes.
The Food of the Gods is what nourishes your soul. What nourishes my soul is the opportunity to eat חומוס (hummus) and לבנה (labane) and גבינת פטה (feta) in this country in all its different forms. Israel is evolving. I am evolving.
Post Script - Grace, who used to work for me at the library was born and raised in China. She lived downtown with her family below Canal Street. She ate at McDonalds and Burger King way to often. But occasionally I would see her with a styrofoam container of Lo Mein at her desk. I asked her once why she was eating Lo Mein when her mother cooked every night. She told me she hated Chinese food.