Anny Gaul, Graham Auman Pitts, and Vicki Valosik (eds.), Making Levantine Cuisine: Modern Foodways of the Eastern Mediterranean (University of Texas Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Anny Gaul (AG): The cooks, kitchens, and landscapes of the modern Levant have produced some of the most popular foods in the world today, within and beyond the wider Arabic-speaking world: hummus, shawarma, tabbouleh, and more. Yet there is surprisingly little scholarship on, say, the politics of kibbe, the cultural meanings of mahshi and dolma, or the history of falafel. My co-editors (Graham Auman Pitts and Vicki Valosik) and I envisioned this book as a first step towards addressing that fact. It includes essays that touch on everything from shakshuka to pistachios, but it also raises many more questions than it answers. We hope it is an invitation not only to readers but also to scholars and writers working on the region to consider food as a way to understand history, politics, and culture from a new perspective.
This is not just a matter of filling a gap in the scholarship, either; there is a robust conversation around Levantine food in Anglophone food media and food culture, and a lot of it includes misrepresentations––from the appropriative re-labeling of regional foods as Israeli to vaguer depoliticizing moves that present Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian dishes as “Mediterranean.” Popular discourse also frequently romanticizes and exaggerates food’s potential to “bring people together” in the face of injustice or conflict. At the same time, recent years have seen vital work addressing these problems outside the academic sphere, particularly among Palestinian activists, writers, chefs, and artists, like Vivien Sansour, Mirna Bamieh, and a growing number of cookbook writers.
Making Levantine Cuisine aims to contribute both scholarly research and personal narratives to those conversations. We felt strongly that the project should be collaborative––a collection of essays rather than a monograph––to diversify the kinds of perspectives represented. The contributors come from a range of career stages and disciplines, and include authors with culinary, not just scholarly, expertise. As a result, the book’s chapters provide a range of distinct (though connected) contributions: substantiating and historicizing the appropriation and erasure of Palestinian and Armenian foodways; revealing the often-overlooked role of women and rural workers in cultural production; and critiquing the labels––national and otherwise––that are frequently appended to Levantine foods.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AG: Overall, Making Levantine Cuisine seeks to balance scholarly inquiry with lived experience and practical know-how. It documents key recipes and major shifts in modern Levantine cuisine while presenting food as a lens for understanding nationalism, modernization, colonialism, labor, and gender in the Levant.
The first section focuses on how nationalism and industrialization impacted urban food cultures in modern Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria. Graham Auman Pitts and Michel Kabalan analyze how Lebanese cookbooks reflected the changing relationship between members of the Beiruti middle class and their rural pasts. Samuel Dolbee and Chris Gratien explain how Adana kebab and pistachios, both foods from the borderlands of Turkey and Syria, were incorporated into Turkish national culinary traditions. Sara Pekow’s chapter illustrates how Syria’s integration into a global economy transformed Syrian confections from luxury items to more broadly accessible “national” foods. Antonio Tahhan’s essay, accompanied by a family recipe, weaves many of these themes into a personal narrative that speaks to the circuits of migration between diaspora and homeland that have helped to make Levantine food meaningful within and beyond the region.
The book’s second section focuses on Palestinian foodways in light of Zionist settlement and the Israeli state, addressing both appropriation and resistance. Dafna Hirsch’s history of food venues as “contact zones” between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in Mandate Palestine dispels the notion that different groups “breaking bread” in common spaces has historically corresponded to reconciliation or even sociability. Discussing the role of Mizrahi Jews in mediating Palestinian foods to European Zionists, she uses culinary examples to detail how new forms of “social and spatial segregation” emerged during the mandate period. Anne Meneley’s expansive study of the olive tree highlights how Palestinian communities continue to engage in a shared ecology of “co-nurturing” between humans and plants. She shows how olive trees offer both symbolic and material forms of resistance against Israeli efforts to uproot both the trees and the Palestinians who tend them. Reem Kassis’s essay, meanwhile, takes the category of national cuisine seriously but also critiques it, arguing for an understanding of Palestinian cuisine that encompasses its geographical and cultural diversity.
The book’s final section takes up themes of migration, globalization, and commercialization to explore how Levantine cuisine has been produced through the crossing of political borders and geographical boundaries. Susan MacDougall’s ethnography of Palestinian and Iraqi women making mahashi in East Amman illustrates that Levantine cuisine’s survival and reproduction remain bound up with both its role in community-making and the labor of women. Noam Sienna explores the North African roots of shakshuka through the lens of a rare Judeo-Arabic cookbook, contextualizing the dish in a multiconfessional food culture that spanned the Maghrib and Mashriq. Harry Kashdan narrates the globalization of falafel, hummus, and shawarma, and explains how commercial and political interests have shaped the rebranding of these foods as “Mediterranean” in the context of what he calls “a denatured global food culture that lacks reference to the histories and contexts of particular recipes.” Concluding the section is an essay by Egyptian restaurateur Suzanne Zeidy, who details the re-emergence of a Levantine mezze-centered food culture in Egypt following the 2011 revolution, pointing to the ever-shifting tensions between national and regional food cultures in the broader Mashriq. My conclusion to the volume centers on readings of two poems by Zeina Azzam that speak to the possibilities and limitations of writing about something so intensely somatic, personal, and intangible as food.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AG: I am personally interested in food history as a vehicle for “thinking against” nationalist and other exclusionary narratives; in that sense, editing the contributions to Making Levantine Cuisine has sharpened my thinking about the complicated relationship between national labels and transnational culinary categories (like “Levantine” or “Mediterranean”). Most recently I have explored that relationship by tracing an emergent Mashriqi culinary imaginary in mid-century Egyptian cookbooks, which entailed, among other things, the integration of Shami foods and recipe variations alongside Egyptian ones.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AG: My current book project is a popular history of modern Egypt narrated through the home kitchen. One tension that the book explores is between embodied or oral food cultures and the canonizing process of cookbook and recipe writing. While the former often presented ways for women (and men) to recreate ties to their natal or ancestral landscapes within Egypt, the latter often entailed re-envisioning Egypt within a broader Mashriqi political landscape. Both have something to tell us about how the everyday space of the kitchen was a place where home cooks actively made and remade understandings of the nation.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AG: We hope that scholars of Middle East & North African history and culture will read the book for new perspectives on how understudied forms of popular culture, like cuisine, can illuminate the impact of major historical phenomena (nationalism, modernization) on everyday life. By including chapters that stem from practical culinary knowledge alongside those written by formally trained anthropologists and historians, we hope to encourage scholars to rethink what kinds of authorities we are learning from and citing.
We also hope that “foodies” and food writers who are invested in food politics will find something useful in these chapters, whether they are investigating the unique histories of the wide array of foods often marketed in the United States as “Israeli” or “Mediterranean,” or critiquing the distortion of “hummus” beyond recognition on supermarket shelves. We also very much designed and edited the book for use in undergraduate classrooms.
J: How do you envision the book being used in the classroom?
AG: The book is full of lively and compelling essays that can introduce students to concrete examples of how industrialization, nationalist movements, or colonial policies affected peoples’ everyday lives across the Levant. Because it includes chapters by both scholars and culinary professionals working outside the academy, it also presents opportunities for students to assess and learn from different kinds of sources and authorities in connection with a particular topic. For example, Tahhan’s narrative essay and rice pudding recipe can complement and deepen students’ reading of Pekow’s history of sugar in Syria, and vice versa. Understanding what the political economy of sugar was a hundred years ago offers historical context for Tahhan’s recipe, and his narrative adds details drawn from lived experience and family heritage to round out Pekow’s social history of Syrian sweets.
This in turn can lay the groundwork for a class discussion around the different ways that each writer addresses common themes like migration, mobility, and cultural diffusion––one through lived experience as related through family and personal stories, the other through analysis of archival documents and memoirs. Presenting similar themes or concepts through diverse media not only reinforces learning but also encourages students to appreciate the value of different forms of authority and push back against the idea that formal scholarship is the only legitimate form of expertise.
Excerpt from the book (from the introduction, pp. 1–20)
Anny Gaul and Graham Auman Pitts
In sight of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, restaurateur and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi tells Anthony Bourdain that the Ottoman occupation of Palestine ended “150 years” before their 2013 interview. The cameras for Bourdain’s Parts Unknown TV series then follow the pair to a falafel stand inside the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. In response to Bourdain’s query about the origin of the iconic fried chickpea dish, Ottolenghi declares, “There’s actually no answer.” As the author of several best-selling cookbooks (including Jerusalem: A Cookbook), Ottolenghi, along with his collaborator Sami Tamimi, is perhaps the most prominent chronicler of the Levant’s cuisine. However, his answers to Bourdain distort the history of Levantine food. The Ottoman occupation ended in late 1917, not even 100 years before the “Jerusalem” episode was recorded. Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s cookbook does correctly cite the date for the Ottoman withdrawal but reproduces a tired Orientalist cliché, describing the early twentieth-century city as “miserable, congested, and squalid.” The history section glosses over Zionist immigration from Europe, the signal development of modern Palestine’s history. The falafel that Zionist settlers eventually came to claim as their national food was made by Palestinians first. It belongs to a family of fritters made with fava beans, or chickpeas in the Palestinian version, that had long been shared throughout the Arab Eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria and Port Said in Egypt to Beirut in Lebanon.
The cookbook authors also make a “leap of faith . . . that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together,” yet such assumptions disregard the history of that dish and the broader progression of cultural encounters in Israel-Palestine. Historically, the appropriation of Levantine foods like hummus by European Jews has not corresponded with improving intercommunal relations but rather with the further entrenchment of Israeli colonialism. Misconceptions about one of the world’s most prominent cuisines persist, given the scarcity of scholarship on its origins.
Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s commodification of their “Jerusalem” brand is typical of the way in which the forms of dispossession essential to modern Levantine cuisine, in its different guises, have been obscured. Turkey and Israel both assembled their national cuisines from the traditions of populations marginalized in the making of those nations. In adopting Arab and Armenian dishes, Turkey’s national food culture attempted to obscure a non-Turkish past. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the uneven and shifting attitudes within mainstream culture toward the foods of marginalized communities masked a history of violent dispossession, in the case of Palestinians, and systemic discrimination, in the case of Jewish populations who immigrated to Israel from the Arab world. Each project for a national cuisine undermines its nationalist aims by tacitly revealing a diverse past and the persistent cultural unity of a politically divided region.
In addition to ethnocentric nationalist agendas, conventional discourse has concealed the inequalities of class and gender essential to making modern Levantine cuisine. Paid and unpaid female laborers have been key to the reproduction of Levantine foodways. This modern food culture began to develop once capitalist social relations took hold in nineteenth-century Beirut. Unlike the traditional mode of production where the terms of exploitation are obvious, they remain hidden under capitalism. It is the task of critique to reveal them. In centering questions of labor and inequality, this volume peels away the ideological branding that has largely defined this cuisine.
Making Levantine Cuisine is the first book-length scholarly work devoted to Levantine food and foodways. The concept “foodways” shifts our focus beyond food itself to a framing that considers the social contexts that make food and make food meaningful––spanning from fields to markets to kitchens, factory spaces, and restaurants. Eight chapters by anthropologists, historians, and critical theorists address this gap in our knowledge of global food history and culture. From a range of disciplinary perspectives, we address several broad questions: What is Levantine cuisine, historically, culturally, and gastronomically? What is the relationship between national and regional cuisines in the Levant? How does cuisine offer a way of conceptualizing the Levant beyond its traditional national borders? How are its national and regional variants known, consumed, and discussed by those inside the region and outside of it? Can studying the region’s food and foodways help us better define or understand what constitutes “the Levant” or what counts as “Levantine” and how they came to be?
Supplementing these scholarly perspectives on what “makes” cuisine Levantine are essays and recipes that offer a glimpse into the kitchens where Levantine cuisine is made in a more tangible sense. This combination of scholarly, practical, and personal literature reflects both a feminist commitment to the validity of diverse perspectives and a conviction that as food scholars we have much to learn from matters of practice and lived experience.
The volume begins with the local and granular and gradually expands to encompass the Mediterranean and the world beyond. These accounts reveal an understanding of Levantine cuisine as an entity that has never mapped neatly onto political boundaries. They also look beyond the region to show how culinary styles most commonly known today as “Lebanese,” “Israeli,” or variants of the vaguer “Mediterranean” coalesced in the twentieth century as the product of global diasporas, modernization, and national tradition-making. Stories centered on food, in turn, recast the histories of these national communities.
…In Jacqueline Kahanoff’s formulation, the Levant is less aptly described through the metaphor of a mosaic than as “a prism whose various facets are joined by the sharp edge of differences, each of which . . . reflects or refracts light.” We have assembled a dozen essays that together present an account of modern Levantine cuisine as a multifaceted entity that students, scholars, and home cooks can use to view the region from a slightly different vantage. Their authors have collected and mediated materials in Armenian, English, French, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, and multiple registers of Arabic and Turkish. Through collected recipes, thick description, archival research, and close readings of understudied cookbooks and restaurant menus, they present an argument for a deterritorialized understanding of Levantine cuisine.
By “deterritorialized,” we mean several things that on the surface may appear contradictory. First, this book locates Levantine cuisine beyond the fields that produced its ingredients, the places that its cooking styles first developed, and the geographical borders of a short list of nation-states in the Eastern Mediterranean. In this volume, you will find Levantine cuisine appearing in Aleppo, Beirut, and Jerusalem but also in Palestinian and Syrian kitchens in Jordan as well as farther afield in Venezuela, the Netherlands, and the United States.
Second, by limiting our scope to the region of the Levant, we are also honing in on a specific set of environments and landscapes that produce the food we discuss. In doing so, however, we adopt a critical approach. We join the ranks of food scholars who have criticized, in the words of Kyla Wazana Tompkins, the “romanticized and insufficiently theorized attachments to ‘local’ or organic foodways, attachments that sometimes echo nativist ideological formations,” which underpin much of contemporary (and privileged) “foodie culture.” Without losing sight of the importance of attachments to local ecologies and places to the making of Levantine cuisine, we aim to resist taking them at face value. The association of foods or ingredients with specific places is common and more often than not contains at least a kernel of truth; but it often illuminates more about who is making the association than it does about the place.
Presenting an understanding of Levantine cuisine that originates and resides within specific borders and travels beyond them produces a tension that runs throughout this book, but it is a tension that we embrace rather than seek to resolve. The culinary culture elucidated in the following chapters took shape both discursively and materially only as the geographical Levant became integrated within a global capitalist system over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries––and its inhabitants left their home shores and villages. The stakes of national identification were heightened by displacement, population transfers, the fragmenting of empires, and decolonization. Industrialization reconfigured foodways and drove internal and external migration that in turn rendered a set of regional and homecooked recipes into commercial dishes that became known from Istanbul to New York and beyond. Writing the history and present of Levantine cuisine requires placing narratives of movement and migration in conversation with renewed attachments to the local within the region itself.
To write the rhythms and sensory richness of food, past or present, always proves an elusive task. Like making kibbe or stuffing grape leaves, we believe it is a task best done collectively. What follows is our attempt to put down in words the making of Levantine cuisine.