Next month’s Paris Cookbook Fair will draw notable chefs and high-profile foodies from around the world for three days of kitchen demonstrations, food tastings, and author appearances, all taking place next to the Louvre starting Feb. 22. Israeli authors Assi Haim and Ofer Vardi will be there, too, talking about a most unlikely and unglamorous, low-profile culinary niche: kibbutz food.
Despite the popular conception in Israel that kibbutz food—to put it bluntly—sucks, Haim and Vardi’s Hederochel (Communal Dining), a Hebrew-language collection of recipes and stories from the heyday of the kibbutz, has been on Israel’s best-seller list since Vardi’s independent publishing house LunchBox put it out in September.
Hederochel teaches you how to make Beef Tongue With Olives à la Kibbutz Re’im, or how to bake Yankale’s Yeast Cookies, which were so legendary in Kibbutz Na’an that the recipe was engraved on the man’s tombstone. But the beautiful hardcover book is also a coffeetable book of sorts, replacing the usual glossy cookbook aesthetic with an understated matte design, more suitable to its notoriously modest subject. The book contains nostalgic archive photos that complement Haim’s soulful photographs of the different dishes, as well as his moving portraits of the kibbutz members who made them, all in the unassuming style of his photo-blog, Hamordim.
Neither of the two authors actually lived on a kibbutz; Vardi was born in Be’er Sheva, grew up in Rehovot, and now resides in Tel Aviv, while Haim grew up in Netanya and lives in Givatayim. But they believe that the fact they approached the subject as outsiders has been the secret of the project’s success. “Many times the kibbutzniks themselves didn’t even realize they have a story on their hands,” said Haim. “For instance, they didn’t seem to understand what the big deal is about making 1,800 kneydls for Passover and then destroying them all because someone’s wedding ring got lost in one of the matzoh balls. We approached this project as anthropologists and fell in love with what we found.”
Hederochel was born out of an article the two wrote for Israel Hayom—the newspaper for which they both work as editors—in which they searched for the best historical dishes from different kibbutzim. “We were surprised by the stories we revealed and the emotions we triggered,” said Haim. “We started understanding that we touched upon a wonderful and vibrant world, waiting to be discovered and exposed.”
Following the success of the article, the writers began doing research for a book-length project. Their year and a half of research started with a Facebook post in search of kibbutz food stories, continued with tracking down original recipes (which in the book have been adapted for today’s cooking methods, while quantities have been changed to suit home kitchens), and ended with visits to close to 100 kibbutzim, where Vardi and Haim talked to old-time kibbutzniks, veteran cooks, economists, and anyone who might remember anything. Recipes that weren’t delicious didn’t make the final cut, nor did tasty dishes that didn’t come with an interesting enough story.
While collecting the book’s 59 kosher recipes, Haim fell in love with a soup, nicknamed Drunk’s Soup, which used to be served at Kibbutz Shomrat after wild parties. The sour soup, containing sauerkraut and kabanos sausage, was considered a hangover remedy, which intoxicated kibbutz-members believed would enable them to wake up early to work after their notorious Purim party. Haim can’t forget the first time he tasted the soup, which won his heart even though he was sober: “I was at the kibbutz one cold afternoon and I found myself at Shlomo Dagan’s house, one of the kibbutz elders. He spoke with longing about the early days of the kibbutz. Then he served me this amazing soup he made, and with every spoonful I felt yearning for the past he spoke of.”
Vardi recalled many of the stories behind the food—and the people who made it: “Albertina, the legendary cook from Kibbutz Mefalsim, inventor of the french-fry-pie, doesn’t go to the communal dining room anymore because the food is made by a catering company. Gila, the porridge-expert from Kibbutz Tze’elim was asked a couple of years ago to stop making porridge for the children each morning. These people built this country with their own hands, and now all that’s left from the magnificent kibbutz movement are the memories.”
The fact that kibbutz food is basic, ascetic, and unsophisticated is a given, and Hederochel’s authors don’t necessarily disagree, but what they came to realize is that if you dig deep enough, underneath the horror of the klops (Polish meatloaf stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, which caused many kids growing up on a kibbutz quite a trauma), there were more than a few culinary treasures to be found.
“When we started the project I, too, believed the myth that kibbutz food is bad,” said Haim. “Usually this is pretty much true because they had to cook standard everyday food for hundreds of people. Many times there were economic problems, which obviously influenced the quality of the food, although during the 1950s, when the state of Israel was under a regime of austerity, the kibbutz was about the only place you could get butter, meat, and vegetables that in the city you had to buy in the black market. Nevertheless, we found that every kibbutz developed some incredible dishes as well.”
According to Kfar Blum’s archivist Shimon Schwartz—a New York native who has been living in the northern kibbutz for 62 years—the question of whether the food on a kibbutz was good or bad was, for many years, totally irrelevant. “The kibbutz motto was modesty, humility, and simplicity, in every aspect of life,” said Schwartz. “Kibbutz food had to be filling and reasonably nutritious and not much else.”
Schwartz divides kibbutz cuisine into three distinct periods: “First, there was the ‘instead’ period. In the early days the food was served on trolleys and everybody got the same thing. If you didn’t like it you could ask for something else instead, and then you got something else, which was usually of lesser quality, and if you didn’t like that either, it was your problem. There were no other options. The second period was the ‘variety’ period, which more or less started in the 1970s. That’s when the dining hall switched to self-service, which was the only way more variety could be introduced. And the third period, which started in the 1990s and is still going on today, is the ‘privatization’ period. The moment you started paying for the food, it got better and more varied, and the quantity wasn’t limited anymore either. Before you couldn’t have more than one piece of chicken or two sausages at lunch, now you can have as much as you want, since you’re paying for it. But privatization also meant that communal dining rooms started closing down, either entirely or partially. Even before the privatization process, most kibbutzim stopped serving dinner. Then they stopped serving breakfast. Now most privatized kibbutzim serve only lunch, if they’re open at all.”
Despite the dishes he and Haim discovered, Vardi maintains that the food was never the main event of the kibbutz dining hall: “The importance of the communal dining hall runs much deeper than the food. The kibbutz was and is a home to many, and the dining hall played an important unifying role in the culture that developed in each kibbutz.”
Yet not everyone who grew up on a kibbutz remembers communal dining fondly. Yael Neeman, author of the memoir We Were the Future, about growing up in Kibbutz Yehiam, recalls a quite stressful experience: “The moment you entered the dining hall, all eyes were on you,” she said. “If you wore something a little bit out of the ordinary, you would receive stares, people would check out who you were with. The dining hall was the place where everything happened, and the food was just a tiny and almost insignificant part of what went on there.”
Good or bad, it seems the communal dining hall is reaching the end of its life. Today there are 274 kibbutzim in Israel, and only about a quarter of them still preserve a cooperative dining system to some degree. As communal dining declines, so do common dishes that became famous kibbutz fare. “There are still a few communal dining rooms active, but not many, and nowadays most of them are run by external catering services,” Vardi said. “The objective of this book was to document these recipes and these stories before it’s too late.”
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