A recipe book collected from the now-silent dining rooms of Israel’s kibbutzim sounds like a bad joke, a snide swipe at a relic of the old Israel from a couple of Tel Aviv hipsters. This book’s recipe for French Fried Potato Quiche and references to rubber chicken would fit right in. Yet Assi Haim and Ofer Vardi’s new cookbook “Chadar Ochel,” meaning “dining hall,” is anything but.
With the warmth and affection of people visiting familiar but distant relatives, the authors go in search of the Chadar Ochel, the communal dining room, the “beating heart” of the kibbutz, its physical and social center. They traveled the country, visiting dozens of kibbutzim, collecting hundreds of stories, photographs and close to 60 recipes. Their aim was not to compile another community cookbook, but rather to collect what they could still find of a now-fading institution, before it is too late.
In its heyday, before commercial caterers and differential wages came along, the dining room was the essential focal point of the kibbutz. Its long tables were one of the most iconic images of Israel, instantly recognizable at home and abroad.
The first permanent building in a new settlement, the dining room often dwarfed the modest members’ housing and the wide lawns that encircled them. According to Haifa University sociologist Oz Almog, the architecture of the dining room was a statement, a monument to the communal, modern and secular values of the kibbutz movement. It played multiple roles in the life of the community. Without any means of cooking at home, there was no alternative to eating together. It was also the arena in which communal dramas were played out. In the great Mapai-Mapam schism of the early 1950s over the extent of Israel’s pro-Soviet orientation, which eventually resulted in several kibbutzs physically splitting into two, rival groups ate in roped-off areas for fear of ideological contamination.
Against this background, the food itself might seem secondary. It was frugal, simple and with a strong influence of Ashkenazi culture, notes Israeli celebrity chef Jonathan Roshfeld, who grew up on Kibbutz Ruhama in the Negev. There wasn’t much for the Moroccans, the Algerians or the Tunisians to enjoy in the early years, he added. In those years, food was scarce in any case, although today’s enormous “Israeli breakfast” of salads, cheeses and eggs are typical of breakfasts offered in kibbutzim from the 1950s where access to locally grown produce ensured better food than that of city-dwellers whose consumption was rationed.
The book wisely steers clear of these staples, though, and finds some of the more unusual dishes and the stories behind them, which livened up the otherwise mundane cuisine. In the collective environment of the kibbutz, they took the place of a grandmother’s or mother’s famed recipe for brisket or birthday cake. Often, they were a taste of home for immigrants, or a link to the past.