May 222008

Kasha Varnishkes/קאשה וורנישקס (כוסמת עם אטריות)/קאשע ווארנישקעס
каша варнишки/Kasha Varnishkas/Kasha Varnishka

Mmm. Childhood food. I don’t think anyone ever acquires a taste for kasha varnishkes as an adult; for the dish to be truly appreciated, the earthiness of the kasha and the fleeting sweetness of the caramelized onions have to be augmented by recollection, by the sense memories of your grandmother’s kitchen as experienced from your below-the-countertop vantage point. Eating kasha varnishkes without ever having had an Eastern European Jewish grandmother is like eating hummus without tehina.

Kasha varnishkes is a heavyweight of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine in America, familiar to probably every American Ashkenazi with roots in Eastern Europe. I grew up eating it in my Baba Larisa’s little apartment, where it was usually followed by her airy, moist apple cake, but until not so long ago, I was under the impression that it was a Russian dish. My mother’s parents, from the Austro-Hungarian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Romanian/Ukrainian/Russian/Ukrainian city Chernivtsi (isn’t 20th century European history fun?), had their Jewishness, or at least their willingness to talk much about it, effectively beaten out of them by the lightning jab and cross of the Nazis and the Communists, which is why it took me so long to realize that many of the foods I had grown up identifying as Russian, kasha varnishkes among them, were actually Ashkenazi Jewish.

Kasha is the Slavic word for any kind of cereal porridge, a basic staple of Eastern European cuisine – but in Yiddish, which adopted the word from the Slavic languages, and in English, which adopted the word from Yiddish, it refers pretty much exclusively to buckwheat groats. The etymology of varnishkes is murkier. It means “bow-tie noodles,” but it appears (to my knowledge) only in the context of this dish. It’s a Yiddish word, at least in structure and phonology, but the Yiddish word for “noodles” is the unrelated lokshn. Obvious cognates don’t appear in the main source languages of Eastern Yiddish (medieval German, classical Hebrew, and the surrounding Slavic tongues). The Italians, who probably invented bow-tie noodles, call them farfalle (butterflies), so much as in World War I, they’re little help. I couldn’t even find a consensus on how to spell varnishkes in Yiddish. I was beginning to think, after much research (even, vey is mir, reading Yiddish newsgroups), that like General Tso, tikka masala, and the global success of Domino’s, varnishkes would have to be consigned to the great realm of culinary mystery. But then I asked my mother, who knows everything.

“It’s from vareniki,” she said. I was skeptical. Filled dumplings seemed a fairly far cry from bowtie noodles and kasha. But then she started making sense: she explained that “varnishkes” was a Yiddish corruption of “варенички” (varenichki), the diminutive of vareniki, and that the dish arose as a quick and easy version of those significantly more arduous stuffed pasta dumplings. Those lazy Jews. It makes sense; varnishkes sounds pretty damned close to varenichki. Reigning lady of Jewish cooking Joan Nathan mentions a kasha varnishkes recipe dating back to 1925 that was “basically a kreplach-type noodle stuffed with kasha, buckwheat groats, and gribenes” – which implies that, at some point in its history, kasha varnishkes was literally kasha vareniki, that is, noodle dumplings stuffed with kasha. So there you have it: a mystery even the Internet had no answer for, solved in thirty seconds by my mother. And they give Joan Nathan the million-dollar ethnic cookbook deals. Feh.

But for now, less inherent unfairness of life, more kasha varnishkes recipe. Read on:
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May 202008

My musical taste these days usually plies a fairly reliable course between reggae and jazz, with frequent calls at R&B, hip-hop and MPB, but occasionally it will drift a bit off course and I’ll stumble upon something uncharted that commands my attention for a time. Lately? The Isley Brothers. Obscure? Hardly. Outside the realm of my normal musical affections? Not at all. But somehow, to me, overlooked. No other group was able to keep abreast of every major development in black American pop for as long. They could sear nearly as hot as Funkadelic, and then turn it around and quiet storm hard enough to break Smokey Robinson’s windows. But despite all my explorations of bygone generations of black pop, I only recently figured that out.

Oh, I was familiar enough with the early part of Isleys’ career. “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” and “It’s Your Thing” are as imprinted on my consciousness as they are on every other living person’s. I’d even heard some of their very early, basically doo-wop material…

“Angels Cried”

…and of course I was aware that the Isleys had once employed (and lived with) a very young, pre-fame Jimi Hendrix…

“Move Over and Let Me Dance” (ft. Jimi Hendrix)

(Isn’t it odd how an Isley Brothers song that happens to feature Jimi Hendrix as a sideman sounds like nothing other than a Jimi Hendrix original? The man had a signature sound and gone.)

Somehow though, mea maxima culpa, I had overlooked the group’s post-’60s efforts. I really don’t know how.

I began to realize the error of my ways when, by chance, I heard the blistering “That Lady (Pts. 1 & 2),” a remake of a song from the Isleys’ earlier days, which despite being a fairly major hit in 1973 had escaped my usual awareness of the pop culture of yesteryear. A massive oversight on my part, I know.

“Who’s That Lady?” (1964 original)

“That Lady (Pts. 1 & 2)”

So I began acquiring and soaking up their albums from the Gaye-and-Hayes era, getting particularly into 3 + 3, in which the Brothers traded in their snazzy R&B suits and pompadours for the fringe, leather, velvet, chrome lamé and open shirts worn by any self-respecting band of ’70s Afro spacemen, and brought on the younger generation of Isleys as full-time instrumentalists and official band members – including Strat-slinger Ernie Isley, who had obviously paid close attention during the period of his cohabitation with Mr. Hendrix. 3 + 3 and the few albums that follow it demonstrate the Isleys’ unparalleled ability to toe big-name funk’s finest line: aiming for the charts without sacrificing the groove. A few dance hits aside, Parliament/Funkadelic’s 40-odd members were – God bless them – too busy snorting their way through a Chocolate Milky Way of cocaine to make a concerted effort at freeing America’s mind and pop charts, and for all Earth, Wind and Fire’s success, we must remember that basically only a few tasty guitar solos separated them from being the black KC and the Sunshine Band. No, when it came to the R&B and pop chart-toppers in the ’70s, it didn’t get much better than the Isleys. By the middle of the decade, they had even begun, in classic Isley fashion, to smell what Sly Stone and War had been cooking up the past few years, i.e. fist-in-the-air, brick-through-the-Man’s-window protest funk:

“Fight the Power (Pts. 1 & 2)”

But their compelling funksmanship aside, perhaps the Isleys’ greatest (and most surprising) strength is taking drecky MOR ’70s pop songs and stapling balls to them. Even James fucking Taylor.

See, now here is, ahem, sweet baby James’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” culled from the greatest hits album I downloaded for the purposes of this post and then immediately deleted before it could make me find Carly Simon, and by extension Steven Tyler and Seabiscuit, attractive.

“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (James Taylor)

God, what on Earth would ever make any woman want to let him be lonely? No, really, do you realize how many white children were conceived to this song, how many drape-haired and mustachioed ’70s-sensi-dudes let fly their seed to the sound of the hacky saxophone solo? No wonder the resulting generation was so into depression and flannel. My advice: don’t shake hands with any white American 35-year-olds – you might catch the Taylor.

But now here are the Isley Brothers doing the very same song, the song penned by the bony alabaster fingers of James Taylor:

“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (Isley Brothers)

How the shaw ’nuff did they do that? I mean, in a way, it’s justice; Taylor gained much of his fortune by turning in limp, colorless interpretations of black pop classics (see, or on second thought don’t, “How Sweet It Is”), and to have black artists take his limp, colorless, aggressively insipid originals and render them somehow awesome seems like sweet revenge. They can even do a number on “Fire and Rain,” which is an even worse song.

“Fire and Rain” (Isley Brothers)

It makes one curious to see if dewhitening device that apparently came into the possession of the brothers Isley circa 1972 could be applied to other contemporary shlockmeisters – say, Seals & Crofts. Hey, of course it could:

“Summer Breeze”

Still, for all their skill at resuscitating the hypoxemic hits of the early ’70s, even the Isleys can’t make the concept of imaginary jasmine sound any less dumb.

And their ballads? Yes, wonder of wonders, even those are alright.

“Let Me Down Easy”

“For the Love of You (Pts. 1 & 2)”

Still, in funk music, the ballad, which by its very nature requires a band to step back from a wrought-iron funk groove, is fraught with peril. No amount of Fender Rhodes warbling can save a song like “At Your Best (You Are Love)” from a terrible lyric.

“At Your Best (You Are Love)”

At your best, you are love
You’re a positive motivating force within my life

Not only does it reek of couples counseling (“You need to be a positive motivating force within each other’s lives!”), it raises the question: what is she at her worst? One imagines the Ron Isley family dinner parties culminating in impromptu booze-soaked renditions of “At Your Worst (Goddammit Woman Shut the Hell Up or So Help Me I Will Sell You to P-Funk) (Pts. 1 & 2).”

Perhaps songs like “At Your Best (You Are Love)” were an ill portent. Any period of creative fecundity must eventually wither away, and by the beginning of the 1980s, the Isley Brothers had become a textbook case of that sad artistic truth. The less said about their post-’70s career the better, especially once they discovered hip-hop, although I must profess a certain affection for timely “Sexual Healing” rip-off “Between the Sheets,” partly because it was on the soul station in GTA: San Andreas, and partly because ’80s-era bedroom freakin’ music is always somehow so honest.

“Between the Sheets”

So take my musical oversight, and the resulting Isleycation, as a lesson: when flipping through the stacks for the best of the obscure, one shouldn’t overlook the best of the popular. And remember, no matter how bad a song is, someone out there armed only with a Stratocaster and an elaborately embroidered double-breasted velvet suit has the power to make it kick ass. And that’s a comforting thought.

May 192008

This post brought to you by:
Sly and the Family Stone

Let’s say – and maybe I’m reaching here – that you love food. What do you call yourself? Are there not words in this English language of ours that can fully capture the depth of your affection for delicious victuals? Have all our legion of poets failed to come up with a means of expressing that most basic of loves?

Of course not.

Does your love of fine food extend to any of the other arts of man? Do you like a glass of wine at the gallery, steak-frites at the supper club? If so, you are an epicure.

Do you love to eat so much that you find gluttony a frequent guest at your table? Do you just shovel it down and let God and your colon sort it out? If so, you are a gourmand.

Or do you simply love the simple pleasures of a finely-prepared meal? If so, you can be either (your choice!) a gourmet or a gastronome.

You see? Four words, possessed of various shades of meaning, to describe someone who shares one of humanity’s most fundamental affections.

But you may have noticed that I haven’t included a certain other word, and for good reason.

Seriously: stop fucking using the word “foodie.”

It is childish. It is déclassé. It reduces a great art to the level of spit-up and uncontrolled bladder function. “Foodie” comes pureed in little jars. “Foodie” is marshmallows and sprinkles and quivering little grocery store jello molds, full of suspended colonies of canned fruit-product. “Foodie” is a Mickey Mouse pancake. “Foodie” is a Ben and Jerry’s specialty flavor. “Foodie” is Rachael Ray and her Christmas hams licking chocolate off a spoon in a lad mag.

Really: if you like a well-mixed martini, are you a “drinkie”? If you rock Monk and Mingus, are you a “soundie”? If you never miss the Met when you’re in New York, are you an “artie”? If you sigh longingly every time you see an Art Deco facade, are you a “designie”? If you think the world would be a more beautiful place if everyone were a grim, high-cheekboned statue draped by gay men in transgressively angular raiment, are you a “fashionie”? Or are you too fucking smart for that?

Or, to further simplify, here’s William Safire:

After eating, an epicure gives a thin smile of satisfaction; a gastronome, burping into his napkin, praises the food in a magazine; a gourmet, repressing his burp, criticizes the food in the same magazine; a gourmand belches happily and tells everybody where he ate; a glutton embraces the white porcelain altar, or, more plainly, he barfs.

A foodie Twitters “eating tacos al pastor at casa pendejo – about to take the first bite!”, takes an ostentatious couple of pictures for his blog, and then writes, “Meh. Casa Pendejo was totally overrated!” on Chowhound.

So maybe you realize that “foodie” is the stupidest fucking buzzword for an extremely venerable concept since “intelligent design,” but “epicure,” “gourmet,” “gourmand” and “gastronome” aren’t right for you. Perhaps you don’t want to sound like you’re putting on airs with your fancy eighth grade vocabulary. That’s fine too, because there’s an even simpler way to say what you mean: “I like to eat.”

May 142008

The hamlet in which I live was battered last night by a series of storms, bruising thunderheads igniting the day-bright sky with great incandescent arcs of violet lightning, hail paradiddling on the roof, rumbles of thunder luxuriantly crescendoing towards mighty percussive barrages that rattled the windows and doors.

What was my reaction to all this elemental bluster? To lie in bed, wide awake, in my pitch-black room, my increasingly concerned dog beside me, responding to every thunderclap by yelling “OOOOOOODDDDDIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNN!” and improvising beatboxed death metal riffs before losing it in a fit of cackles.

Then I had an idea for a teen sitcom called “Poe Boy” which concerns a high school Edgar Allen Poe and the social awkwardness caused by his inability to go anywhere without the weather immediately turning into a violent, ambience-fostering thunderstorm.

The mind, when steeped in hermitage, is a consistently surprising place.

May 132008

Sourdough Starter/מחמצת שאור/Levain

Once upon a time, when men were men, and women were ostensibly women (but who knows since nobody ever talked about them), bread was leavened not with packets of Fleischmann’s but with sourdough, a sinister froth comprised of wild yeasts and bacteria kicking it symbiotic in a mix of flour and water. Yes, in those heady days of yore, yeast was not something you bought, but rather something you dearly cultivated, giving it far more love and attention than all those children you put to work at six and married off at twelve. We’ve lost something since then, and it’s not just an uncomplaining pool of nimble child workers: it’s the taste of our bread. In this era of pre-sliced uniform bread product, we’ve forgotten that bread should be rich and complex, nourishing and fortifying, the staff of life and not the densely wadded ball of Wonder. Take my hand (briefly, because I don’t much like being touched) and let me guide you to the old school flavor.

First, to lay some background: a sourdough starter is a symbiotic colony of wild yeasts – microscopic fungi which can be found zinging about everywhere, from the air on down to the nether regions of Monistat users – and a certain strain of bacteria, the lactobacilli. In an active starter, water breaks down the starch in flour into simple sugars, which just so happen to be a yeast’s favorite food. The yeast digest the sugars, and subsequently poot out what just so happens to be a lactobacillus’s favorite food. Nature: gross in tooth and claw. With regular additions of fresh flour and water, the starter will chug on indefinitely, denying access to any nastier microorganisms, and happily leavening all your bread.

I should also mention that sourdough in this context does not refer to the actual flavor of the dough, but rather to the entire category of naturally leavened bread. Technically, what I’m talking about here should probably be referred to as levain, after the French, but that strikes even me as too pretentious. In short, you shouldn’t confuse sourdough the concept with its most recognizable application: San Francisco sourdough. San Francisco sourdough gets its flavor from a particularly gnarly local lactobacillus and a long fermentation time. The bread you make with a sourdough starter can range from not sour at all to sourer than any San Francisco loaf, depending on how long you allow the dough to ferment before baking – and depending on the particular bacteria in your starter, which vary enough to give each starter its own unique flavor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So, to get back to the topic, how do you start a starter? Read on.
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May 122008

When I get bored – or have something more important to do – I like to kill time by browsing through jazz videos on YouTube. Whereas today every note sung, latte bought, thought expressed and vagina exposed by our vapid pop stars is recorded for posterity, live videos from the jazz’s heyday are relatively few and far between, mostly due to the difficulty of video recording in the sort of venues where great jazz transpired. But there are always exceptions, and among the most sterling is 1957’s The Sound of Jazz (available on DVD here), a TV broadcast gathering luminaries of Dixieland, swing and bop onto one stage for a combined concert. The standout of the evening, which has been uploaded to YouTube, is Billie Holiday’s performance of her song “Fine and Mellow,” notable not only for its quality but for the fact that it marked the musical reunion – and last performance together – of Holiday and the brilliant, influential tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

After forming an exceptionally close musical and personal partnership during the ’30s and early ’40s (giving each other the nicknames “Prez” and “Lady Day”), Holiday and Young drifted apart, and by the time The Sound of Jazz was taped they apparently hadn’t seen each other or spoken in years. Wikipedia relates the story of their reunion per jazz and social critic Nat Hentoff:

Hentoff, who was involved in putting the show together, recalled that during rehearsals, they kept to opposite sides of the room. Young was very weak, and Hentoff told him to skip the big band section of the show and that he could sit while performing in the group with Holiday.

Years of alcohol abuse had ravaged Young’s famously smooth tone and seriously eroded his chops, but his melodic sense and good taste remain beautifully, and thankfully, intact. He can’t stand up through an entire song, he looks terrible, and he doesn’t have the stamina to play for more than a few bars, but he still manages to turn in a masterful blues solo (beginning 2:39 into the video). Holiday’s reaction is heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures.

I’ll be a man. I’ll admit it. It makes me mist over a lot a little. And I’m not the only one. Hentoff again:

Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.

Little more than a year afterwards, Young died. Attending his funeral, Holiday said “I’ll be the next to go.” She was – only four months later, she joined him.

There’s plenty to recommend the rest of the video. Here’s the order of the solos, if you like what you hear and want to look into the musicians:

1) Ben Webster, swing tenor saxophonist
2) Lester Young, swing tenor saxophonist
3) Vic Dickinson, Dixieland/swing trombonist
4) Gerry Mulligan, bebop baritone saxophonist, token white boy and representative of the school of Cool
5) Coleman Hawkins, swing tenor saxophonist
6) Roy Eldridge, swing trumpeter, who seems to be having a lot more fun than anyone else

The historically-minded should note how nonexistent production values were in the early years of television, especially in the obvious editing. The emcee (John Crosby, I think), who appears to have been produced, vitamin-enriched, and shipped out in stiff plastic wrapping just in time for the broadcast by the Continental Baking Company, dips deep into the cultural lexicon of 1950s America for an adjective to describe the incomparable Billie Holiday, and dredges up “really great.” He could have at least tried “spiffy keen.” Then he turns away from the camera and reads the names of the musicians off a clipboard. Imagine if Ryan Seacrest did that shit. He would be off the air faster than you can say “flagging numbers among females 18-49.”

To send you off, here’s Billie and Lester in happier times (1941), burning through “Let’s Do It” (in all its politically incorrect glory) and “All of Me”:

051208(1).mp3 051208(2).mp3

And since we’re on the topic of Lester Young’s tragic early demise, here’s Charles Mingus’s eloquent requiem for the late saxophonist, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” recorded in 1959, followed by Joni Mitchell’s vocal version of the same, from her Weather Report-backed album Mingus, recorded in part with the dying bassist in the ’70s.

051208(3).mp3 051208(4).mp3
May 112008

Kibbeh/קובה מטוגנת/كبة مقلية/Kibeh/Kibbe/Kubbeh

Le Cordon Jew (GET IT???!!!!1!!) is my new cooking series. I’ve been cooking regularly since I was about ten or eleven, and along with music and not leaving the house, it’s one of my favorite hobbies. When I lived in Israel, I had neither the money nor the equipment in my one-burner, no-oven apartment to do much of it, so when I descended into Exile, I threw myself back into the world of sauté and shallots with the kind of intensity and dedication I usually reserve only for scorn. My culinary passion, fostered by all that time in Zion, is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, but I get a kick out of cooking just about everything. Le Cordon Jew, as its name implies, will focus on my epicurean fascination with all the facets of Jewish cuisine, from the old-fashioned Yiddishe Iron Curtain poverty food I grew up eating to the heady culinary fusion I encountered in Israel, where hummus, shakshuka and mesir wat shared city blocks. I plan to break down proven recipes step-by-step and augment them with plenty of images for you visual learners. And we’re starting out with kibbeh.

Kibbeh are ubiquitous in the Middle East, appearing in dozens of different forms, the most popular of which is the deep-fried torpedo. The Lebanese consider this version, sometimes called kibbeh nabulsiyeh (Nablus kibbeh), their national dish. The Syrians do too, but given that they also consider Lebanon their national property, that’s not entirely surprising.

Making kibbeh is not for beginners. It’s one of those dishes, like couscous or risotto, that serves as a test of skill within a particular cuisine (in this case, that of the Levantine Arabs), requiring several uninterrupted hours of delicate, tedious work. It’s worth it, of course, especially since you can freeze kibbeh essentially indefinitely – but it ain’t everyday food.

My recipe is derived from the one in the Sephardi cookbook A Fistful of Lentils. I’ve made some modifications and omissions based on my own experimentation, and judging by reactions, I’ve hit on a fairly successful formula. So read on…
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May 102008

Meierleh, Meierleh, You’re a Cannon*

Look at that. One post into my new endeavor, and already I’m back to writing in Hebrew. Bear with me, though, for I mean to touch on an issue of vital importance to all creation: tehina.

You may be confused. You may have never given tehina much thought. To some people, tehina may well be “tahini,” the bitter, runny white sauce served alongside falafel at Middle Eastern joints, or the pale amber emulsion sold in tiny jars next to the natural peanut butter wherever Ani fans congregate to swap dread-waxing tips. And while those things, true, are technically tehina, the Pizza Hut Big New Yorker was technically pizza. The tehina one can find in America is usually produced either by natural foods companies, who too often substitute feel-good for taste-good, or by the Greeks, who should stick with what they know: delicious rotating buckets of compressed mystery meat and endemic corruption (thanks for democracy, Homer and ouzo, though, you lovable Hellenes).

Real tehina, much like a certain other oily Middle Eastern product, is zealously guarded by the Arabs and only stingily doled out to the nations of the world. Lebanon, being (in part) the most Western-friendly of the non-Gulf Arab states, is reasonably generous with its ground sesame, with the mediocre Ziyad and fairly decent Al Wadi being easiest to find. But me, I ain’t gonna settle for no fairly decent. I been to the mountain. I heard the Word. I’ve wiped hummus at my beloved Taami in Jerusalem, at Abu Shukri in Abu Ghosh, at the other Abu Shukri in Abu Ghosh, at…the other Abu Shukri in the Old City, hummus made by Arabs, hummus made by Jews, hummus made by Druze, and by God, I will not allow the quality of my own hummus to be limited by no castoff export Produit du Liban. I’m more than sure the Lebanese produce excellent tehina, but unless they’re packing it into Katyushas, it’s not crossing any borders.

No, to get real tehina, I had to work my connections. I headed to the local Mossad outpost, which these Amerikaki rubes call “city hall,” and sent a coded communiqué to Zionistan: “Send tehina. Also Krembos, limonana, arak, za’atar and Liraz Charchi. Jabotinsky, Jabotinsky, Nile to Euphrates. David Ben-Crockett out.

My liaison in Zionistan, Meier, took up the case. Specifically, I was searching for what the cognoscenti call the king of tehina: Karawan. The Nablus-based Karawan, subject of an informative, even moving Haaretz piece by the usually irritating Gideon Levy, is as close as tehina gets to an artisanal brand: family-owned, made in small batches using antiquated methods. The scion of the Palestinian family that churns it out is the incredibly sweet-natured and enthusiastic Ala Tamam, who’s taken plenty of time out of a doubtless demanding sesame-milling schedule to share his passion for tehina and hope for peace with the readers of the Humus101 blog. If I may be allowed to briefly remove my tongue from within my cheek, if we ever manage to extricate ourselves from the morass of the last four decades, it will be because powerless men make the powerful realization that it is better to break bread than to break spirits. If we can agree on tehina, perhaps one day we can agree on borders.

Anyway, Meier, a homeboy of the truest shade of blue, set out on the trail of the elusive Karawan, sometimes hard to find even in Israel (due to its small output, West Bank origin, and lack of kosher certification). Meier hit Machane Yehudah, Jerusalem’s central marketplace, where I used to live, and asked for Karawan at several shops, whose owners to a man disavowed any knowledge of the stuff. Perhaps they genuinely hadn’t heard of it; perhaps they had, but were worried about selling a product without kosher certification in the all-kosher-by-law Machane Yehudah; perhaps – and this is my theory – they were fulfilling their genetic mandate as shuk shopkeepers of puckish sourness in all things. But the indefatigable Meier hit upon a bright idea: he went up to one of the market’s many Arab employees and asked, “Do you know where to find Karawan tehina?” The man’s eyes lit up with all the passion of a gourmand who has encountered an unexpected kindred soul, and he said “Follow me.” He led Meier to a dusty stall in one of the dimly-lit, less-trafficked corners of the shuk and told the shopkeeper to surrender the choice tehina. And that was how the box filled with jars of tehina and bags of spices arrived on my doorstep not long after.

I quickly realized upon opening it that the hard-won tehina was not Karawan, but rather a brand I’d never tried before, Eljamal (or perhaps Al-jamal, depending on how you want to transliterate), a Palestinian brand emblazoned with a family of eponymous camels. Even though it wasn’t Karawan, I had no doubt, given the story of its purchase and the crudely affixed mostly-Arabic label, that it was the proverbial good shit.

This tehina could beat you in a fight.

Duly curious about the nature of my prize, I scoured the Hebrew Internet for any mentions, coming up with a handful. The translations, and any resulting incidents of linguistic awkwardness, are my own.

Walla, a popular Israeli web portal, in the course of a right-headed article detailing the proper way to prepare hummus at home, declared that “with good tehina it’s possible to get better results; Eljamal is recommend, and can be obtained at the shuk.” Well, yeah.

Meanwhile, this food blogger, writing about a new (and seemingly now-defunct) food website delivering Arab culinary delicacies to Tel Avivi bubbleheads who can’t figure out how to get to Jaffa, asks, “Why don’t more people eat Eljamal tehina and have their eyes opened by the abundance of pleasure?” (This particular turn of phrase does not carry over well from Hebrew.) Encouraging.

And of course Shooky, the unquestioned doyen of hummus on the Internet, and something of a personal hero to me for his tireless efforts in battling the pernicious influence of those savages who eat hummus pureed with black olives, weighs in with by far the most detail, stacking Eljamal up against Karawan and Dove tehinas:

“There are people who, if you ask them, will aggressively maintain that Eljamal tehina, it and no other – certainly not Dove – is the best in the world. Others assert the complete opposite. […]

The tehina of the Eljamal factory, also in Shechem [Nablus], is a heavy tehina with a grey cast, somewhat murky. It’s thicker, relatively bitter, and using it requires more skill. In short: this isn’t a tehina for the pampered, or for people who wrinkle their nose at any trace of bitterness. Think of coal-black Arab coffee, well-scorched, with the overpowering aroma of cardamom – Eljamal tehina is its parallel in the world of sesame. If you’re taking your first steps into the field, perhaps this isn’t the place to start.

Pros: A tehina with presence. Heavy and rich.
Cons: More bitter and less user-friendly.
Conclusion: For the advanced.

That Shooky knows his stuff. But even if, when it comes to hummus, his word may be scripture, scripture always leaves room for commentary. And having eaten plenty by now, I can attest that it is a son of a bitch of a tehina. It is, as Shooky says, thick and gray, evincing little of the tendency of lesser tehinas to separate into a layer of sesame and a layer of oil. Eljamal remains a dense and malevolent uniformity. It spreads sensuously across the palate and its flavor gradually increases until the whole mouth is filled with a rich, earthy and deeply complex taste of sesame, which then quickly ducks out and leaves its surprisingly winning associate bitterness behind. Seriously, Eljamal is hard bop and American tehina is a British trad band. Ain’t no contest. Throw caution to the wind, fuck the fact that the average tehina molecule contains more saturated fat than Scotland on a football night – you can eat Eljamal by the spoonful. I say, goddamn.

It also makes fine hummus, but as Shooky implies, its powerful taste can clobber the hell out of the comparatively meek chickpea, even when lemon and garlic are thrown into the ring. My justly famed hummus recipe is going to require some tweaking.

And let’s render praises due: every man should be so lucky as to have a friend who will sling tehina his way. Much attitude of gratitude, Meier.

*Atah totach, “you’re a cannon,” is a Hebrew term of endearment corresponding roughly to “you’re a hell of a dude.”

May 082008

Welcome to Soul and Gone.

Why “Soul and Gone?” Swing your lookers over to the About page.

Yes, some of you may be wondering why I let my former blog founder before ultimately scuttling it. A fair question, and one that I don’t really feel like entirely answering. I’ll let a far greater man do it for me:

“Dig…dig, we’d like to get something straight. We, um, we got tired of the Experience and every once in awhile, we was blowing our minds too much. So we decided to change the whole thing around…”

Sometimes we need a change of pace, and if that change happens to be constructed out of blocks of solid Deco, all the better. But it’s not just a new template; Soul and Gone is largely the result of a decision on my part to focus less on the Jewish world, to keep my toes out of the rivers of its online Babylon, so that I can redirect my energies toward pursuits that don’t make me want go all Europa, Europa on my circumcision. It’s not a renouncement of my identity or of Jewishness, far from it – it’s a renouncement of any facets of those things that can be associated with the horde of glibly empty websites saddled with one of those monikers in which the word “Jew” is clumsily welded to a random adjective. That shit is Jewxhausting.

What I’m saying is, gentiles, prepare to begin understanding my jokes.

And while I’m still figuring out what course to ultimately set this blog on, y’all can expect a focus on music, on food, on drink, on all the things, from cynicism to caipirinhas, that make a man want to swing ’round the sun once again. Get some gin and vermouth communicating, slap down a hot platter of Yardbird on the turntable, and get ready to get your soul gone.