In 1998 I spent a year in Israel’s Negev Desert supervising the overseas students. What qualified me for this role as caretaker for eighty-some students (many of them older than I) was my fluency in both Hebrew and English language and culture, and there was an unmistakable irony — though somewhat lost on me at that time — in being chosen to help young people acclimate and adjust to being here when I myself was probably at the peak of my struggle with my dual identity.
Three years earlier I had returned to Israel on my own to complete high school with some hopes that my family would follow me back. I attended an agricultural boarding school where I felt enveloped by community and camaraderie among others who had been raised in Israel and the States (or South Africa, Mexico, France etc) and had long been navigating the confusion of belonging simultaneously to two places and none at all.
After that year, however, I found myself fully adrift as a college student with a much less cohesive group of friends and acquaintances, and the growing realization that life alone in a family oriented society was far from desirable. One holiday too many spent as a guest at another family’s table led me to begin spending weekends and vacations at school, often with my roommate, Melissa — a Circassian Muslim with reasons far more sinister than my own for not going home on holidays. During that time I also met my future husband and soon we had our own make-shift, motley family that often included other wandering loners including Melissa’s boyfriend, Yusef, an Arab-Israeli whose family did not approve of Circassian girls; Troy, an undercover Black Hebrew who had come to Israel on the pretense of studying abroad but had actually been recruited by the Black Hebrew community in Chicago to come to Israel and join their illegal settlement in Dimona (southern Israel); and Lauren, a rather awkward girl from Newark, who seemed to enjoy befriending the Overseas Program’s Staff.
It was during this time that I began cooking in earnest. I had always been a baker and loved experimenting in the kitchen, but it was clear that meals were the glue that held my temporary clan together, so I focused my efforts on using what I could get a hold of to prepare meals that would keep them coming.
My cooking at that time was also heavily inspired (and driven) by the smells of traditional holiday food that filled the air on long walks with Jeff around Beer Sheva before Shabbat and holidays. Those smells seemed to epitomize the loneliness and my delicious self-pitying. It was like Eyal Golan doing Johnny Cash covers: a simple pining for something or other, where the pining itself is more the point than whatever the song is actually about.
Cooking was both a reaction and a solution to feelings of displacement and otherness.
This past week, as our first Shabbat back in Jerusalem came and went, little was certain other than the feeling that if I did not start cooking soon, that old, breathless loneliness (now combined with nostalgia, to boot) would certainly get the better of me. Here are some of my first attempts…
Spicy stove-top potatoes with tomatoes and pepper
serves 4-6 as a side dish
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 Tbs olive oil or other mild cooking oil
6-7 thin skinned medium golden potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1-2 spicy peppers, seeded and minced
2-3 Tbs middle eastern spice mix (mine included paprika, marjoram, coriander and possibly some oregano), if you don’t have such a thing, just play with some combination of things you like
1/2 Tbs cumin
2 cups water or vegetable broth (I used water and vegetable boullion)
salt to taste
Heat oil over medium until it has a sheen and slides easily around the pan. Add the onion and saute until translucent and slightly golden — if this is happening too quickly, turn down the heat a bit. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, minced pepper and the spices. Saute until everything is covered in the spices and then add the water or broth. Bring to a boil and then turn down to a low simmer and cover until potatoes are fork tender. Season with salt to taste.
Bulgur Salad with fresh figs, nectarines and caramelized onions
I found the most amazing Israeli sheep’s milk cheese to compliment this salad. It was mild and fruity and flecked with walnuts. You can use any mild sheep or goat’s milk cheese for this recipe or leave it out altogether.
1 1/2 – 2 cups bulgur
water for soaking
juice of one lemon
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 Tbs oil
1 tsp cumin (optional)
2-4 fresh figs, chopped (depending on the size of the fig, mine were quite large, like plums, but the ones I usually find in the states are very small)
2 firm-ripe nectarines, chopped
1 small persian cucumber, or half a large cucumber, seeded and chopped
2-3 Tbs chopped cilantro or flat parsley
hard, mild sheep’s milk cheese, cut into very small cubes (optional)
1/2 cup chopped, untoasted walnuts (optional)
In a large bowl, soak the bulgur in water, covered by about half an inch. While it is soaking begin caramelizing your onion in the oil over medium-low heat. When the onion is soft and translucent and beginning to get some color (15-20 minutes) add the cumin and a pinch of salt, and saute until very soft and golden.
Meanwhile check to see if the bulgur has absorbed the water. When it has, fluff it with a fork and add the lemon juice. Put it in the refrigerator and allow it to continue absorbing the juice while you chop the figs, nectarine, cucumber and fresh herbs. Mix everything together and add a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil, add salt taste and garnish with cheese and walnuts.