Tel Aviv-based screenwriter Noa Berman-Herzberg—also known on Instagram as serialpickler—has two passions: pickling and storytelling. At the beginning of this year, she decided to combine her twin passions in a series of events held in her apartment.
In Hebrew, hachmatza means both “pickling” and “missed opportunity,” both meanings derived from “going sour.” So, Berman-Herzberg brought together sour food and sour stories at her hachmatza-themed events, combining pickles with stories about missed opportunities.
The concept is simple: 12 people (including Noa and usually her husband Yoel) sit around her dining room table, eat her pickles, drink vodka, and tell their personal missed-opportunity stories. Some of the guests are friends or acquaintances of Noa’s, but not all of them; many approach her after hearing about the evening from others.
At the moment she’s planning to host 10 events; the one I attended in May was her fifth. There were 11 of us there, all women, of different ages and professions—animators, a film director, an advertising executive, a social worker, and a therapist, among others—most of whom had never met one another, plus our host. We sat for about three hours around a big wooden dinner table, tasting various pickles, downing shots of vodka, and refilling our glasses from a big pitcher of Moscow mule with cucumbers inside. Each woman shared a very personal story with the group: Some told heartbreaking stories of abortions and lost relatives who had died before some kind of closure could have been achieved. One told a tragic-comic story of a lost opportunity to work with Wes Anderson because of a bureaucratic bad luck. Another told a story of how she could have slept with Mick Jagger but didn’t. And Berman-Herzberg, who tells a different story at each event, recounted a face-to-face encounter with her hero, German filmmaker Wim Wenders, which found her so dumbstruck that all she could say was “nice shoes.”
The foods we sampled included a variety of pickled delights that Berman-Herzberg prepared: mushrooms pickled in balsamic vinegar and spices; Korean-style pickled cucumbers with green onions and chili; tropical pineapple pickles with cinnamon and chili; pickled celery with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil; Louisiana-style pickled okra with mustard seeds; nashi pears pickled in rice vinegar, lemon, and mirin; and asparagus pickled in apple vinegar and garlic.
Berman-Herzberg grew up with a jar of pickles on the kitchen counter, stemming from her Russian heritage. (She is half Russian-Polish and half American; her paternal grandparents even owned a diner, serving kosher dill pickles, of course.) However, until recently she never pickled anything more than the usual cucumbers and cabbage.
Everything changed about a year ago when she was in New York. She entered a bookshop and started browsing through the different pickling and preservation books and thus the obsession started. “Then I went to the Catskills, and in the local grocery stores, I saw all these different jars of pickles: Sarah’s pickles, Jane’s pickles, Martha’s pickles. … Some of the names were handwritten. It was suddenly very clear to me that I want that, too! When I returned to Israel, I started experimenting and pickling everything in sight.”
Berman-Herzberg estimates that she’s pickled over 50 different items—not all of which turned out well. “I probably pickled things you aren’t supposed to pickle,” she said with a laugh. Most of her pickles are made with rice vinegar, because—after much experimentation—she came to the conclusion that it doesn’t interfere with the natural taste of the fruit or vegetable as much as other types of vinegar. Plus, she loves the Asian twist it provides. She also adds sugar, salt, chili, and other hot peppers to her pickles, and most of her pickling is very short, from 24 hours to 48 hours, tops, and then the jar goes into the refrigerator.
“The ability to control this whole thing from start to finish, and pretty fast, was thrilling to me,” she said. “The fact that I can fix things in the middle, add a bit of this or that, is also very cool. The process of pickling is in complete contrast to my work as a screenwriter, in which I have to wait for a very long time for things to come to fruition and I depend on so many different people. Making pickles is not like that, and that’s what I fell in love with.”
Her dream of having pickle jars with her name on them came true when she was invited to sell her pickles at a sale at the family winery her husband runs with his father: Herzberg winery in Sitria, a moshav in central Israel. She participated in a few of these sales; her pickles were a huge success, but she felt that at this point she doesn’t really want to sell pickles for a living. She wanted to do something else with them, but at first, it wasn’t clear what exactly that would be.
Berman-Herzberg told me that the idea for these hachmatza events was born out of her “hosting obsession”—if you ask her, the secret to happiness is having a table full of people, eating, drinking, and having interesting conversations—as well as her love of stories and pickling. And then there are the missed opportunities. “As a screenwriter, I wrote many screenplays—some have been produced, others might be at some point, and yet others are in the process. Missed opportunities are an integral part of my profession, so I think about this quite a lot,” she told me. “One morning in the shower, I suddenly thought of combining the two. I immediately texted some friends to ask if they thought it’s a crazy idea or if it might actually work, and to my surprise, they thought it was a great idea and said they’d love to participate.”
The two most popular pickles in Israel are olives and cucumbers. The pickled cucumber is an integral part of quite a few local combos. Bourekas are served with a hard-boiled egg, tahini, zhug, and pickles, and the traditional dish served at children’s birthday parties is (or at least used to be) half-a-pita with hummus and a pickled cucumber; those come from a tin, either in brine or in vinegar, often from Beit Ha-Shita, a kibbutz in northern Israel whose pickling factory has made its name almost synonymous with pickles here for decades. “When we were kids, it was really uncool to like the pickles in vinegar,” recalled Berman-Herzberg. “That’s why for years I thought I don’t like pickles in vinegar. It took me a long time to realize that I only don’t like pickles in vinegar when they come in a tin from Beit Ha-Shita. Otherwise, I love pickles in vinegar!”
Most Israeli street food is accompanied by a small plastic cup containing a few green olives (usually of the Syrian cracked variety) and sometimes you get pickled cabbage and carrots, too, which are derived from the Iraqi pickling tradition: They are spicier and usually contain turmeric. In many hummus joints you will find a yellow-colored mix of Iraqi pickles called torshi (although most Israelis probably aren’t aware of that name), which may include cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, turnips, white cabbage, and celery, with turmeric and special Baharat spice for pickles, similar to amba.
“The pickles served in shawarma and falafel stands are intended to add flavor but also to satisfy the huge Israeli appetite. Israelis love to stuff their pita or their plate to maximum capacity,” Eran Laor, street-food critic for Haaretz, told me. “Those pickles are usually industrial. They arrive from the factory in giant containers. It’s very rare to find a stand that makes its own pickles, although there are a few.”
Iraqi and Mizrahi pickles, in general, are very popular in Israel. “In every part of the world, people fermented and pickled what they had,” Uri Mayer-Chissick, doctor of local nutritional and medicinal traditions, told me. “The Mizrahi pickling traditions are the most popular in Israel because they are the most suitable to Israel.”
Mayer-Chissick prefers to see pickling as part of a larger tradition—that of fermentation. “Throughout history, fermentation served a very important role in human culture. One reason was preservation, but also to make foods easier to digest. Local fermentation traditions included sourdough bread, yogurt, cheeses, wine, and also cucumbers, olives, capers, etc. As far as I’m concerned, the pickles you find in supermarkets or restaurants aren’t really fermented. They are industrial products that went through all kinds of industrial processes. True fermentation and pickling is what people do in their own homes. Sadly, the tradition of fermentation is disappearing because nowadays people consume processed foods rather than preparing their own food.”
For Berman-Herzberg, preparing her own pickles is more than a hobby. It’s a way of expressing herself and bringing people together. “I take a jar, put whatever I put in it, close it, and that’s it,” she said. “A jar of pickles is a world in itself.”
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