Kibbutz Cuisine Gets Its Due
A best-selling Israeli cookbook collects the best recipes—and the best stories—from communal dining halls
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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