I highly recommend the book, History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. The title is a bit pretentious and the text is often tedious and dry, but it is chocked full of fascinating information (and opinion) about hunting, farming, bread, foie gras and all things important to the northern European kitchen and by consequence, to northern European culture. There is an obvious emphasis on France.
I read this book many years ago and was struck by the author's attempt to situate the very human activity of eating into a social, yet not quite political context. Put simply, a lot of what we eat and enjoy eating is a function of chance and opportunity. What is near, what is available and what is shared.
I have continued to read books about the history of food, the anthropologic and geographical aspects of farming and harvesting; the relationship between planting and harvest festival; between herding and religious rites. Most recently I have been following the debate - dare I call it that, since it is more of an accusation than a debate - regarding the "cultural appropriation" of food.
Usually, the war, at least in regards to the Middle East, is waged around the "ownership" of hummus. Who can make it? Who can eat it? Who can claim to have "invented" it? What it should be called on a menu, etc. etc. How eating hummus in Israel is an act of cultural aggression, and so on and so on.
Today however, I was in for a treat. It seems that ever cheery and over syndicated Rachel Ray, caused a storm on social media for allegedly co-opting and appropriating Palestinian culture by cooking Ptitim (פיתיתים) and calling it Israeli couscous. To make matters worse, she cut up tomatoes and cucumbers and called it Israeli salad.
Below Ptitim פיתיתים in its natural state, accompanied by Salat Katzutz סלט קצוץ.
Ptitim in Hebrew means "flakes". Salat Katzutz means "chopped salad". Ptitim is the standard lunch fare for young children and began to be mass produced in Israel in the early years of the state because rice was unavailable. It is the same product as Italian Fregola and a version of it was brought by Jews from Europe as an inexpensive means of filling their bellies.
Salat Katzutz on the other hand is ubiquitous. There isn't a meal in all the of Middle East or the Levante or Greece or Turkey that does not have some sort of version of this salad. The amount of oil and lemon juice or vinegar varies. Sometimes it comes with tahini טחינה, but it is pretty much made of cucumbers and a new world nightshade fruit called tomatoes.
Israelis who originate from Middle Eastern and North African countries מזרחים have eaten this salad as long as their neighbors did. And when they were banished from these countries they brought their recipes and cuisine with them. Now everyone in Israel eats them. It is not a plot.
In fact, many ingredients and combinations of ingredients were brought to different cultures through the spice route that boasted many Jewish peddlers and traders. New food and ideas were spread by these permanent travellers - not being allowed to settle in the countries in which they worked.
Any Jew travelling anywhere in Europe as well would have brought food to a region and been influenced by the food he/she brought back. The recipes would have been adapted to the Jewish laws of Kashrut and a version particular to the Jewish community would emerge. Everywhere and in every time, food has been adopted and adapted to the tastes and the needs of the particular community.
Israelis - Muslims, Christians, Jews and the whatevers eat the local food. The food is grown is Israel. It is Israeli food. It has evolved from the combination of Middle Eastern agriculture and a population from all over the world.
Personally, I like to buy from this woman.
She is Druze. She is not Syrian. She is not Arab, She is not Palestinian. She is an Israeli citizen who makes the best hummus חומוס and labene לבנה. She speaks to me in Hebrew and I thank her in Arabic. She and her family have been making these products for hundreds of years.
Sometimes I take the bread home and eat it with dal. I am sure she wouldn't mind and I am sure that the B'nei Menashe community wouldn't consider me a cultural imperialist.
In fact, I am sure I will see Druze Pita and Dal on a menu one day in an overpriced New York restaurant and it will be hailed the next fusion cuisine.
-btw- Apple Pie - the quintessential American dish is actually British (pastry) /French (apple). Brought by the Pilgrims, the pastry method was varied to suit the elevation and humidity in different parts of the United States. And although the seeds were brought from Europe, the apple trees developed in North America and apple varieties abound.
I hope Rachel Ray is not too bruised by the nonsense swirling around her today. But she should be wary of making Spaghetti Bolognese. The tomatoe did not arrive in Europe until very late. She may have to change the name of all of her dishes to satisfy the trolls out there.