What’s in a falafel? By the lights of food-studies and nutrition adjunct professor Raviv, it’s not just chickpeas and pita bread, but also identity.
You are what you eat. That’s true of nations as much as people, and that can be a problem if what you eat is what your neighbor eats—or, as the author writes, “Who has the right to falafel? Whose hummus is bigger?” As she shows, foods such as falafel and hummus, now mainstays of the Israeli diet—and, yes, of Israeli self-definition—owe to neighboring Arabic traditions and were absorbed into Israel’s cuisine through a process whereby, to put it one way, Europeans shed their European identities: “Israelis’ choice of falafel and hummus as markers of identity should perhaps be perceived as a reflection of their wish to become part of the Middle East.” Olives, oranges, and other foods underwent similar assimilation, even as Israelis began to incorporate elements from many places—immigrants from Russia, Italy, North Africa, and America. Though invested with many meanings, those foods became unifying symbols. Raviv traces this transformation over the course of more than a century, looking at such matters as the Zionist “homegrown” campaign of the 1920s and the use of the school cafeteria as a vehicle for the development of a national cuisine. The author is particularly good on pressing the point that such cuisines are seldom fixed but instead constantly adapt as new groups enter and as time changes. Naturally, such ideas of variability and contested meanings are couched in the language of postmodernism—e.g., “Because food is disarming, it does not read as a product of high culture”; “I, too, aim to use the concrete evidence of the development of a national cuisine to interrogate the abstraction of nationalism.”
Readers wishing for a little more about food and a little less about nationalism may want to look elsewhere, but Raviv delivers an academic yet mostly accessible work of culinary anthropology.