Food is Love. Love is a Battlefield.

What I remember most about living in Acco is the muscle fatigue. That sort of dull, throbbing soreness doesn’t often accompany sensory memories of the culinary kind, but in my case, smell and taste cannot be separated from the aches in my fingers and arms. Why, you may ask? Well, when one is cooking lunch and dinner for eighteen, there is a lot of chopping, peeling, stirring, and kneading involved. Even simple tasks like making grilled cheese sandwiches become three-hour long, assembly line worthy endeavors. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, so let me start at the beginning.

Like many American children, I spent the summers of my youth at camp. Unlike many American children, my camp was founded on the example of the kibbutz movement in Israel. While other children spent their summers learning archery and making lanyards, my friends and I passed long hours discussing the history of Israel, debating issues of social justice and learning how to share every aspect of our lives.

Perhaps because it is necessary for us to sustain life, food was a major avenue through which I was able to learn and then practice the ideology by which my movement functioned. The first lesson most campers learn is about social issues surrounding the unequal distribution of wealth and resources. Every summer, counselors for the first-year campers teach this by giving brown rice to some campers and chocolate bars to others. Everyone was required to work hours in the dining hall and food sent by parents was shared by all of the campers. As a counselor I would plan activities where my campers were forced to pool resources or work as a team in order to receive an edible reward. At staff meetings we played a game called “Capitalist Pig,” where the loser is openly ostracized for taking the last bite of a shared bowl of ice cream or pudding. At the age of 8, when my parents first sent me to camp, I had no way of knowing how significant these lessons would be. Eleven years later, as I my fingers were cramping and my back was hunched over a cutting board in the kitchen of my brand new apartment, the significance of these lessons finally appeared.

The first kitchen I could really call my own had a stove, an oven, a fridge, beautiful white and glass cupboards and counter space I would kill for now. It was well lit by natural light, easy to clean and it was mine. Mine to share with seventeen other people, that is. While, like most American children I had graduated from high school and struck out on my own, unlike most American children I had moved to Israel to live in an urban socialist commune. As a large family unit, living off of one bank account and out of one house, I quickly realized that meal preparation was the least arduous of all the steps involved in sitting down to a “family dinner.” Each week we had a meeting, asepha in Hebrew, where we decided by consensus who was to complete which food related tasks and how much money was to be spent on what kind of food throughout the week. There was almost always some debate about whether or not we should buy milk for drinking or if it was only to be used for cereal. Deciding whether or not to buy meat was a constant struggle as there were a different number of vegetarians and vegans in the house depending on the day and the individual journeys of each member.

After the menu was decided and money was budgeted, we left in small armies to various parts of the city to acquire food. One squadron would head to the old city and get pita and hummus. Another trekked down the block to the supermarket for grains, dairy and meat. Yet a third ventured past the bus station and through an abandoned lot to the shuk. This was my favorite task. I loved the vibrancy of the open air market, a literal smorgasbord of colors, sounds and smells. People bickered over the price of bananas, children cried and stray cats dashed in and out of stalls looking for treats. I had never even seen half of the fruits which came in all shapes, sizes and textures.

At the beginning of my stay in the city I struck a deal with the best vendor in the shuk, Meyer. In exchange for buying my vegetables solely from him, he would cut us a great deal on prices, and save the stuff we liked on days he knew we were coming. I almost always bought the same thing. Six heads of broccoli, carrots, peppers galore, potatoes, batata (sweet potatoes), corn on the cob, the list goes on. Rarely, when Meyer didn’t have something I needed (green beans were a common culprit), he would holler over my head to the nearest vendor in Hebrew or Russian, presumably asking for what I wanted. The message was passed from man to man over the din until someone would smile, fill a bag with beans and then toss it back, from person, into Meyer’s hands, onto the scale and then into the 70 liter hiking backpack I used as a shopping cart. Fruits were harder to get a good price on, and the fruit vendors were mostly sketchy older men with missing teeth who emanated the smell of stale tobacco as they would show me how fresh the guavas or the persimmons were on a given day. The last stop I had to make before leaving the shuk was to buy four dozen eggs, stacked in trays and tied with waxed string so that I could carry it home in my hand.

Then, I left. I passed the tables of fresh fish, salty smelling and wide-eyed, their gills and tails flapping in the suffocating air. On the sand of the empty lot, my shadow looked like a monster, the greens of the carrots emerging from the top of my backpack, a crate of eggs in one hand, bags of apples in the other, and a watermelon strapped to my stomach in a sarong. By the time I had walked the three blocks back to my house I raised my eyes to heaven and thanked the person who invented the elevator that carried me to the seventh floor. As soon as the doors opened I would run into the apartment and heave my bags onto the nearest table, calling for people to come put the groceries away before I collapsed in a chair.

Meal preparation started two or three hours before it was time to eat. I liked to make dinner because it helped me unwind after a day teaching high school students. Most of my kvutzah mates worked late or went out in the afternoons so the house was quiet and still. I would open the windows of the dining room to let in the afternoon light and the breeze off the Mediterranean Sea. We had various cooking playlists on the communal iPods, my personal favorites were The Best of Queen and a bunch of illegally downloaded tracks from the current American Idol season. Once the music was blaring I would set to work.

At first I cooked easy things like stir fry and spaghetti. After a few weeks I took to trying out new things and soon my repertoire expanded. I read entire chapters of The Joy of Cooking in order to learn the ins and outs of kneading bread, soaking beans and preparing a good soup stock. Cooking quickly became a creative outlet for me as well as a way for me to show how much I loved my kvutzah. On Fridays, I had a special ritual to celebrate the Sabbath. After my usual trip to the shuk, I would head back out to the street and around the corner to the ice-cream store where I could buy ice cream bars and popsicles for a shekel each (then equivalent to about 25 cents). This would get stuffed into the freezer for dessert. Then I would make the challah dough.

Challah is a traditional Jewish bread eaten on Friday nights to celebrate the Sabbath. I used my mother’s recipe, and doubled it so there would be six large loaves—enough for us and our weekend guests. Because I lacked a bread maker, or even a large enough bowl, I would mix the dough and let it rise in a giant pot (I mean, this sucker was two feet in diameter!). I stirred so strongly that I developed a spoon-shaped callous on my hand and my right bicep was noticeably larger than my left. Then I would knead and divide the dough and bake it until the oven was full and the smell of the bread wafted out the door and down the stairs, mingling with the Shabbat smells coming from the other apartments.

Cooking the food was only half the battle and cleaning up after the hoards that dined in our house was no easy task, but it isn’t what I remember about the Acco house. What I remember is singing along to Queen while I cried over chopped onions. I remember learning why it is difficult for humans to digest beans if they aren’t cooked properly. I remember going to the shuk in the rain and taking my Hebrew-English dictionary to the grocery store. Some meals were good, some days the house was cleaner than others but what I will always go back to is the sight of a full kitchen, the smell of fresh-baked bread, the laughter of the people I loved, and how the dull soreness in my arms and hands was never as strong as the fullness of my heart.

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~ by ettaqueen on December 27, 2010.

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