The clientele for my culinary tours in the Galilee has, until recently, been exclusively visitors from overseas. Even the most intrepid tourist, I understood, would never be able to find the region’s reclusive goat cheese makers, passionate vintners and edible wild plant gatherers I’ve spent years seeking out. Furthermore, I generally eschew restaurant visits, preferring whenever possible to arrange home hospitality, since cooking with a local family, whether Jewish or Arab, invariably results in a moving and unforgettable cross-cultural experience.
My first event for Israelis was a fundraiser I organized to benefit S.K.A., a non-profit social welfare organization in the Arab city of Kufar Manda in the lower Galilee. S.K.A. (for Sustainable Humanitarian Aid) delivers subsidized food, legal services, and dental care to families in severe economic need. What makes this organization special, particularly in the Arab sector, is that it is entirely secular and unaffiliated, a purely grassroots initiative in an environment where charity is usually dominated by the church or mosque.
The challenge, I knew, would be to bring Israeli Jews to Kufar Manda. For many, this town is especially contentious, still associated with the violence that spilled out from it during the start of the Second Intifada in October 2000. My idea was to plan an olive harvest day which would include picking olives, eating a homemade lunch of local foods, listening to a talk by a local authority on the traditions of olive harvesting in the Galilee, and visiting a local olive press.
A food journalist from one of the national dailies agreed to write a promotional article in advance of the event, and calls began to come in. We hoped for 40 people and in the end we had 58 Jewish Israelis of all ages, from a nursing infant to retired folk in their 80s, and from as far off as Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. They accepted the invitation to visit an Arab city, and to join in this ancient Galilee harvest ritual.
The day of the harvest was hot and dry, but a lively wind made the work of picking pleasant, and the children climbed into the branches of the trees to reach the high-growing fruit. Most of the olives we harvested were packed into sacks for the local landowner who donated the use of his grove for the event. After an hour among the trees, we convened in the shade and Dr. Shukry Arraf, an expert on traditional agriculture in the Galilee, spoke about how the introduction of industrial machinery not only transformed the way people process olives, but how it also rendered obsolete much of the rich vocabulary associated with this work.
The wives of the S.K.A. volunteers prepared our lunch — the kind of home-cooked Galilee Arab food that is almost impossible to find in a restaurant. Eating a festive meal outdoors is the highlight of any olive harvesting day, and our meal included cooked chicory, the spinach-like wild green that is a delicacy here, and farike — kernels of wheat that were picked while still green, then roasted, and prepared in a similar fashion as bulgur, with fresh sheep-milk yogurt on the side. For the main course, there was muhammar, chicken whose namesake color comes from the sour red spice called sumac. It was served on large, flat breads made with flour milled from wheat grown in Kufar Manda, baked in a wood-burning tabun oven, and soaked in onions fried in plenty of olive oil. For dessert there were balls of deep-fried dough drenched in honey syrup.
After the meal, we made the short drive to the olive press. Local families were milling around, loading their olives into the hopper and gathering around the final station, where the freshly pressed olive oil flowed in a green stream into the waiting containers. Our group spread around the huge interior, excitedly watching the olives make their way through the belly of the press. The novelty of so many Jewish visitors in this bastion of Arab activity made the locals a little awkward, but they answered the outsiders’ questions and explained the details of the process, from olive picking to pressing. Suddenly someone brought in a bag of fresh pita bread and invited the visitors to dip in and taste the aromatic and pungent oil fresh from the press.
Many times I have experienced the power of food to break through obstacles of suspicion and distrust that separate people of different backgrounds — here, between Israeli Jews and Arabs.