(Ahem, I apologize for the brief detour into food blogging. Food is one of my favorite things to write about, and I don't often get the chance. Fear not, I'll try to come back to politics at some point...unless you really want to hear my deep thoughts about food.)
When I wrote my post on fuul akhdar, geeksdoitbetter
left a comment asking me to square two of the things I said: that "deviating too much from that shape [of a recipe] results in doing a discredit to the original dish" and that "there are a million iterations" of every dish. I haven't responded, because I've been thinking of the best way to explain what I mean, but a confluence of things today lead to me arriving at a good way in.
Let's talk about hummus.
As I've mentioned 'round these parts before, hummus
in Arabic means "chickpeas," and the dish we call hummus in English is generally called hummus bi tahineh,
chickpeas with sesame seed paste. You'll find a dish like it in most of the Levantine countries.
However, there are lots of variations of hummus. Do you use paprika, or cumin, or za'atar
, or garlic, or mint? How much tahineh? How much lemon? Do you serve it hot or cold? All of these factors can move and shift from recipe to recipe; there are some broad national differences, but there are also little family differences.
But, here is the thing: there is a point beyond which you're not making hummus anymore. Or not proper
hummus, not the real thing.
You've distorted it just past the point where it is what it is; you've made it something else.
Take this NYTimes article
about Holy Land Hummus, and all the different varieties they release. What's the opening quote from the owner? "Back home, they would shoot me in the head for doing this to hummus." An exaggeration, but there's a truth in there: artichoke-garlic hummus is just wrong
, in that it deviates too much from the original shape of the dish.
(Interesting, parenthetical note. Majdi Wadi is described in the article as being born in Kuwait, and having immigrated from Jordan to the US in 1994. There's a fact that's being elided here: that he's almost certainly Palestinian, given that information. After the 1991 Gulf War, Kuwait expelled its large Palestinian population, both immigrants and Kuwaiti-born, because of the PLO's statements in support of Saddam Hussein. These Palestinians were "repatriated" to Jordan, which, for most of them, was a country they had never seen; however, since Jordan formally governed the West Bank from 1948-1967, they had Jordanian passports. Many then emigrated again, to the US or Europe. Probably the most famous Jordanian with this life history? Queen Rania. This is one of those moments where context adds a great deal of depth.)
Or, to take another example, let's talk about a tweet
I saw today. The tweeter, sseham
, says, "I could sit for hours and watch Arab expressions as they learn about this site," and links to the webpage for a product called "Crazy Camel Dessert Hummus."
I had to get pretty far down the webpage before I realized that was D-E-S-S-E-R-T, and not D-E-S-E-R-T. (Maybe I was distracted by rolling my eyes at the 'crazy camel' business.) Because, if I were to try to match up two words in the English language I would never want to see next to each other, they would be "dessert" and "hummus." Partially, that's because I'm a gluten-free baker, and I know what a disaster it is to try to bake with chickpea flour, which dominates pretty much anything you try to bake it with and requires herculean efforts to make edible. And it's partially also because...that's not hummus. It's just...it's just NOT.
Hummus isn't just a puree of chickpeas. (It's also not a puree of just any legume: white bean hummus, for instance, is wrong
in a lesser, but related way.) It's a broad set of ways of combining chickpeas with a limited set of other ingredients. Small innovations one way or another make sense; but there's a point at which those who know the dish would say, well, this could be good, but it's just not hummus anymore.
(And, to give you an example where it's not just "other" food that is "cultural" in origin: In my family, we make corn pudding, a sweet custardy dish, for family holidays. I was visiting my sister and her mother for Easter this year, and her mother made corn pudding. It was very different from the way my mother makes it: frozen corn instead of canned creamed corn, vanilla instead of nutmeg, and I think some bourbon, which was totally new to me. But I recognized it as corn pudding. If she had given me, say, something with less milk and more eggs, and called it corn pudding, I would have very politely accepted it, while muttering in my head, "No it isn't, it's a crustless corn quiche.")
So, while there are lots of different ways to make hummus, there are some ways to not
make hummus while still making chickpea purees. Some things you do with chickpeas are wrong.
And this isn't purely an academic distinction. I'm thinking of all the many conversations about food as culture that I've seen Arab-Americans having. (here's a lovely moment I can't cite right now, but I think is in a piece by Nada Elia
, about seeing people order hummus on their falafel sandwiches, and feeling betrayed that people would eat her food but not doing it properly. Food means identity for many, many people; it means identity in particular for many ethnic and racial minorities, because eating different food is part of what defines them as different. So there is a hurt that comes from seeing something that is yours, a part of you, pervasively done wrong
by others, in order to meet their standards. Particularly if you think, were you to explain to them what they're doing wrong, they wouldn't be able to hear you say it.
There is no hummus police out there, and I don't want to take on that role. (Although, OK, if it meant eating a lot of hummus, I'd give it my best.) But I think it's important, as food moves around between places, that we recognize that you can't do just any thing to just any food, and give it any name. Names have meaning, both literal and figurative. And there are questions of justice that attach to this naming process, which it's worth it to remember when we're eating, and speaking about food.