Seeking Jewish identity at the Sabra hummus factory
Editor’s Note: On May 4, 2020, the James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for its writing awards. This piece, originally published in the Forward in 2019, is one of three finalists for the long form personal essay award. Winners will be announced on May 27.
Three blue cornflowers, stenciled on white ceramic — for the 18 years I spent growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, that was my family’s emblem of hummus. The CorningWare dish, wide and stout, was the type you’d ordinarily see cradling a pot roast, or brimming with enough stuffing for Thanksgiving plus leftovers. But my parents, both of them Israeli immigrants, raised three boys on enormous batches of homemade hummus, one casserole dish at a time.
When school friends came over, I was reminded of how different I was from everyone else. I hadn’t yet picked up phrases like “first-generation American” or “third-culture kid.” It was around 2000, and I’d just begun high school; the only word I had for my kind of different was “weird,” and I felt a tinge of embarrassment each time a friend learned they’d be dining with their hands that evening. But as they accepted it, I learned to be proud of my family’s food.
The first time my dad brought home a slim tub of Sabra hummus from a supermarket in Northeast Philly, we gathered around it as if it were a new toy. They sell hummus at the store? My parents were also tickled. Here was their culture, marginal in Southeastern Pennsylvania, now validated in the most American of forums: the supermarket.
But while Sabra became a mainstay, it never took the place of the real deal. For one, the flavor was just too… much. The store-bought stuff somehow took the soul of hummus and spirited it away to the fantasy realm of Doritos and Smartfood, where everything was brighter, tangier, electrified. The flavors tapped directly into my young brain’s pleasure circuit, bypassing the complexities of “garlic” and “lemon” and engaging in a direct exchange of salt for dopamine.
By contrast, my parents’ hummus was heavy, rich and as unexciting as it was satisfying. It never brought the rush that Sabra did. But even at that age, with my teenage metabolism and sneaking sense of invincibility, I drew a hard line between snack food and meals. Sabra was addictive, but there was no mistaking it for an entree. The stuff in my parents’ big, white casserole dish: that was dinner.
I went to college in the South, and when I applied, my mom surprised me by asking about the Jewish population on campus. We grew up secular — never bar mitzvahed, never went to Hebrew school — but suddenly it was important to her that the University of North Carolina had a Hillel. I know it wasn’t food she was worried about, but maybe it should’ve been; in Chapel Hill I first saw hummus in the hands of another culture: hippies.
The culprit was actually a place I loved — a cafe-slash-used-book-and-record store, now shuttered, called Skylight Exchange. At night the name changed to Nightlight, and the place hosted local noise music, garage and folk acts. During the day, it offered a modest sandwich menu for student budgets, and hummus was on it.
I fought my Israeli instinct to kibitz. Excuse me, did you know that’s not a condiment? Have you tried it with pita instead of sliced bread and alfalfa sprouts? Maybe put a little more on there so that people won’t be hungry?
But I kept mum, and as the other students around me munched on their soft vegan sandwiches, doubt began to creep in. On one hand, it was validating to see hummus find new audiences. But was the popularity worth diluting the food I love most? As more people made it their own, would hummus even be mine to claim?
Fast-forward a decade, and my hopes and fears had come true. On the plus side, hummus was a hit. Yotam Ottolenghi included it in his string of smash cookbooks. In my hometown, star chef Michael Solomonov had opened his hummus place Dizengoff on the heels of Zahav. It became Philly’s best restaurant.
Meanwhile, Sabra expanded. In 2008, a joint venture between PepsiCo and Sabra’s Israeli parent company, Strauss, gave the soda-and-snack giant a 50% stake in the business. In the same year, Sabra, which is based in New York, built a $70 million plant outside Richmond, Virginia. It’s the largest hummus factory in the world.
But, as before, with stature came dilution. An entrepreneur from Santa Monica named Makenzie Marzluff unveiled dessert hummus on “Shark Tank” (the company makes “high-vibrational foods infused with frequencies of love”). Sabra itself changed its name to Sabra Dipping Company, and today its hummus shares shelf space with Sabra guacamole, salsa and bruschetta.
These developments felt like rumblings under the earth. Was this the second coming of my favorite food, or the tremors before an earthquake that would destroy it for good? Should I be ecstatic or terrified? What I did know was that something was happening with hummus, and underneath my feet the ground was shifting.
Why did I feel compelled to board a plane to Richmond just to spend two hours in a food factory? I’m secular, but I couldn’t help but think: Maybe this was my rabbinical consult. Maybe this was a pilgrimage.
One thing I was looking for was an identity. In 1990s Pennsylvania, eating chickpea dip with our hands was what set apart my family; it was a symbol for everything that made me feel different — first ashamed, then proud — about being from an immigrant family.
At Sabra, I hoped I’d find kindred spirits. I wanted to meet people who looked like me and who would exchange tips for eating in Tel Aviv. Then we’d have our talmudic summit: With our food’s sudden fame, what have we gained? What have we lost? What is our hummus past, and what is our hummus future? And above all, who is hummus really for?
What I found when I got to the Virginia office was a group that was less yeshiva, more MBA. I met just two Israelis during the entire factory visit: Meiky Tollman, who oversees the business in the United States and abroad, and another higher-up, who was in town on a work trip. Around a long table, the staff introduced themselves boardroom-style: name, title, number of years at Sabra. Then Tollman, by way of introduction, delivered my first surprise of the day.
“Hummus in Israel is not what they think it is. They think that as you’re a baby, you drink hummus and this is how you continue life: to grow, and eat hummus all the time. And it’s really not the case.” Until recently, he said, Israelis (read: Jewish Israelis) ate hummus only at Middle Eastern restaurants (read: Arabic restaurants). They’d have it as an appetizer, or stuffed inside a pita with some falafel, but not at home. Then, in the mid-’90s, it hit supermarket shelves as a consumer-packaged good, which in Tollman’s eyes brought hummus into the Israeli kitchen.
My parents, who grew up in Israel in the 1960s and ’70s, later confirmed this: For them, hummus had been restaurant food. It was only upon moving to the States in 1980 that, missing a taste of home, they picked up a food processor and set about learning the craft.
For me, this was like finding out I was adopted. Hummus wasn’t our legacy? This thing that flowed through our house like water wasn’t our family’s storied tradition? I had mistaken my parents for representatives of all Israelis: They made hummus at home; thus, Israelis made hummus at home. But there are the traditions you inherit and ones you borrow. My family owes ours to the Lebanese, the Palestinian and the other Arabic restaurateurs of Israel.
Then came the second surprise. Other than the two literal sabras, the rest of the employees I met were a complete mix: a few Midwesterners, a Mexican researcher, an Italian marketing exec and dozens of factory workers from around Virginia. Most of them had never tasted hummus before joining Sabra, and some hadn’t even heard of it.
MaryDawn Wright, the corporate chef, grew up in the 1970s in Minnesota, where she became a vegetarian at age 11. Her parents, worried about her protein intake, heard about a chickpea-based food at a local Lebanese place, and thus she got her start. Lourdes Garcia, a research and development director, is from Mexico, where she began her career developing new foods for PepsiCo. Hummus first entered her life during the joint venture.
We donned gauzy white coveralls and goggles and breezed through the plant, the cinder block hallways lined with drums of tahini, the chickpea cooking room thrumming. Our pace and the steady drone of machinery made it hard to strike up conversations, but every floor worker I met was Virginian. Dave Hendricks, a manager, worked at Frito Lay for 17 years and, like Garcia, eventually heard about hummus through the PepsiCo partnership. A machine operator named Karl Byrd told me he preferred Sabra to fast food. He had dabbled in body building, so nutrition was important to him. That day, he confided, he was eating a frozen lunch of chicken fried rice ($2.04 at Walmart), but he usually packed his wife’s leftovers. He looked forward to Sabra’s newest introduction to the line: sweet and smoky BBQ hummus with jackfruit.
My bubble burst. For thousands of Americans, this dipping company was the first and only taste of hummus they’d have. And much as I wanted to, there was nothing I could do to make them taste the real deal: my own homemade hummus, or my parents’, or Hummus Said in the market at Akko, or to beg them to buy some chickpeas and try whipping up a batch at home. My baby had left the nest, and it was living a new life now.
Back home in New York, unease settled in. That was my big lesson? That hummus was never mine to own? I flew 300 miles for that? It seemed so obvious in hindsight. As an ending, it was too trite to hang a story on.
And it’s not even original. The idea of food as cultural exchange is a well-worn path in culinary writing. It’s in the sticky-sweet hoisin sauce in Vivian Lee’s ode to California Pizza Kitchen. It’s in the wheaten crust of Samin Nosrat’s tahdig, the emblematic Iranian food that pops up in her Netflix series “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” And it’s in the flour tortillas of San Bernardino’s Mitla Cafe, whose owners, in David Chang and Peter Meehan’s show “Ugly Delicious,” display astounding grace about being copied by the white man who opened Taco Bell, thereby unleashing iceberg lettuce and hard shells on the gringos of the nation.
I had held up hummus as a symbol of my identity, and now that was deflated. But funny enough, I still love it just as much. Shortly after Sabra, I went to see my grandparents in Israel, and during my journey, I sought out my favorite hummus dives. At home, hummus is a reset food for my partner and me, something we cook after a long trip, or after a week of too much eating out.
So where does that leave me? I recently picked up an idea about religion that for some, it’s more about practice than belief, that if you do a thing over and over it’s the doing that’s important. Hummus is the food I cook most. It’s my childhood, my family and my heritage. Yes, it’s borrowed from the Arabic people of my parents’ Israel, and it seems the next generation of adherents will also look nothing like me. But in the small universe of my kitchen, hummus is still the sun. Can it be that my practice is one centered on legumes and seeds? Can it be that hummus, in some subconscious, animating way, is my religion?
For American Jews, hummus is as complicated as Israel itself. You can dissect it to death, until all cosmic meaning is lifted, and it’s just a beige puree. But my love for it remains — soaking, boiling, blending, eating. Eating at home, eating on the road, eating in Israel, even eating in a sad airport terminal, where a tiny cup of Sabra is nothing short of a lifeline.
And now, after all the dissection, I have no answers, only questions that burn hotter: Is hummus my religion? If I’m not hummus, what am I? I’ve made my pilgrimage, I’ve sought advice from the elders, and I’ve returned to continue my practice at home. If hummus is the thing that drives me to such inquiry, could it be that there’s no symbol that better embodies Judaism?
Orr Shtuhl is a designer and writer living in New York. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington City Paper, and NPR.