Known as “the Israeli locavore,” food expert Uri Mayer-Chissick has written two books—one about Israel’s edible wild plants, the other about local foods in the Levant—and he lectures and consults on a wide variety of related topics, including traditional natural medicine. His master’s thesis was on the history of food preparation, and his PhD from Haifa University was on traditional medicine in the Medieval Arab era. But in a sense his career truly began about 15 years ago in the kitchen, not the classroom, when he met his wife Tali. “I started cooking for her,” said Mayer-Chissick, 38, “and I decided I want to know more about where my food comes from, who grows it, what people ate through history.”
His academic and personal interests have since grown into a family business. The couple now live and work together with their two daughters on the Neve Eitan Kibbutz near the Jordanian border, just south of the Sea of Galilee. They offer a variety of programs and events that promote healthy eating and healthy communities, including foraging tours where Mayer-Chissick shows people what kind of edible plants are growing all around them. “I’m dealing with culture,” he said. “How can we preserve the local traditions of the land of Israel?”
He aims to get people “to go out and know the place that you’re living in, to know the names of the plants around you, and to eat healthy food” on his foraging tours.
“What I’m trying to do is get people closer to their food, and there are many, many ways to do that,” he added. “You can teach them the history of food, the politics of food, the economy of food. You can cook with them, you can go with them to buy produce. That’s why I’m doing foraging. It’s one part of the whole picture of getting to know better where your food comes from. I’m using the foraging to get to people. And also, it’s fun.”
Mayer-Chissick had to call off a recent foraging tour because of the weather, when an unusual summer sandstorm covered all of Israel with dust in mid-September. But as the sandstorm began to lift, he demonstrated how he works: Neve Eitan is full of date palms, and while most are too tall to harvest by hand, he knows a few smaller ones. They were loaded with bunches of fruit, free for the taking. He went to a nearby organic farm to buy produce, and on a Saturday morning just before Rosh Hashanah he took me along on a foraging tour for families in the Biriya National Forest, in the Upper Galilee.
Mayer-Chissick noted that most Jewish holidays are connected with agricultural traditions, such as the planting season, or the fall harvest, and that many mishnayot refer to specific ways to handle food. He believes that detailed food knowledge helped people survive in ancient times and that the information can still help build strong communities today. He tells people who go on foraging trips that one goal is to teach children the traditional stories of plants and trees, since he believes those who know and understand nature are less likely to damage the environment.
He arrived at the forest early and immediately set off to look for food. One grove of figs had lost most of their fruit, but some had dried on the tree, leaving chewy pieces to snack on. A wild fennel plant was nearby, and Mayer-Chissick plucked off a piece. A carob tree still had tasty pods, despite the heat.
People began to arrive for the tour, including Idit Poncz, a 42-year-old professional from Tel Aviv. She told me that she enjoys urban life but doesn’t want her two young boys, ages 3 and 5, to lose all connection with nature. “It’s very important for me to do the right combination for my children,” she said of the urban/rural mix. Poncz and her children had been on a previous foraging tour with Mayer-Chissick, and the boys liked it. “I think that books would not [have] the same effect as seeing and doing and touching” food in the wild, she added.
Sharoni Shafir, 52, a researcher of bees at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was on the trip with his wife and three children. He said local food traditions are in danger of vanishing in Israel and that it is important to conserve “not only biological diversity, but genetic diversity” and cultural diversity. Shafir wants his children to see the bounty that nature provides and to know how people of the region used to gather food, before such skills are forgotten.
Mayer-Chissick led the group of about 20 people around the forest, and soon children were climbing up walnut trees to pluck nuts and then using stones to break them open. Other finds included wild capers, pistachio trees, Palestinian buckthorn berries, sumac seeds, pine nuts, and a few foods that weren’t ripe yet, such as spicy hawthorn and olives. At the end of the hike Mayer-Chissick combined the haul—mostly spices and flavorings in this case—with a traditional lunch cooked over an open fire.
Everyone left happy, but on the ride back to Neve Eitan, Mayer-Chissick said there are challenges even in a bountiful land rich with food history. “Unfortunately, in our modern lifestyle, we don’t learn from the past. We’re ruining the traditions. We’re losing all the knowledge that was gathered in thousands of years about the wild edible plants and the ways to eat them and where to find them and what names to call them,” he said. “In the last few years people are talking more about healthy food, local food. But it’s very, very slow in Israel. We have a lot of work to do.”
One internationally acclaimed chef with a long view said that in some ways Mayer-Chissick’s generation is inspiring tremendous changes. “There is more and more awareness to the environment, to what we are eating,” said Moshe Basson, owner of the Jerusalem restaurant Eucalyptus. Basson has been cooking and experimenting with traditional foods at the restaurant for 27 years, seeking “to find the sources of my food, the food of the Jewish people, the food of the Bible.”
Basson, who was born in Iraq and left that country as a baby in 1950, noted that over the last few decades younger people have changed public attitudes in many areas, such as smoking in public places. “It’s unbelievable,” he said, adding that some who were eating junk food will now go and buy free-range chicken. Basson thinks that it is all part of a trend that includes paying more attention to food, to the environment, and to the treatment of animals, and that people of poor and moderate incomes will eventually benefit, too.
Back at Neve Eitan, Mayer-Chissick’s wife Tali, also 38, said that many things she and Uri do are linked to kibbutz traditions: “To me it’s obvious that we are continuing that way of thinking,” she said. “To me it all roots from the values that I grew up on.” Those traditions include “the way you want to not only ask how much I can put into my bank account, but also how much am I giving back to the community I live in.”
She knows that many people won’t make a complete shift to a healthy lifestyle. “You meet every person where they are,” she said. “So, some of them grow some of their own food on their porch, or if they know Uri and they listen to him, so it inspires them to go to a farmers market.
“You can’t rush it,” she said of a shift toward truly sustainable and healthy food. “You rush people and it will definitely not happen. You can guarantee that.”
The couple are working on more projects with different groups of people, such as a plan to renovate the ancient market district in the city of Lod, which has been plagued by poverty and violence. An environmental park is in the works just a few miles away in Jordan, and Mayer-Chissick is eager to help. “Because they’re right next to us. And we need to talk to them. Cooperate. Get to know them,” he said.
Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the region share many of the same foods, he said. “Most people that lived here through history ate the same food. If they were Christians, Muslims, Jewish or any other culture. I think that’s a very, very good way to connect with neighbors,” he said. “The same land grows the same fruits and vegetables, and the land has the traditions. I think that the local traditions, they don’t really belong to the people, they belong to the land.”
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Kevin Begos is the author of Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine (Algonquin Books).