The Park Slope Food Co-op, bastion of produce bargains and ardent ideologies, has for months been riven by a proposed boycott of Israeli-made goods, which at the Co-op include vegan marshmallows, SodaStream seltzer-makers, couscous, paprika, and at least one brand of hummus. The Jewish Week didn’t miss the trick. The “Hummus Wars,” the paper calls it.
It’s not the first time the dish has played a starring role in a political drama. In 2007, for instance, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, hoping to speed a series of secret talks with Israel over a contested Syrian nuclear reactor, is rumored to have arranged for a jar of fresh hummus to be ferried to Israeli prime minister and avowed hummus fanatic Ehud Olmert. According to a McClatchy blog, Olmert ate the hummus without having it checked by security. This show of trust did not prevent the Syrian facility from getting blown up.
A year later, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists threatened legal action to prevent Israel from selling hummus under the hummus name, which means chickpea in Arabic; the argument, in essence, was that as it goes for sparkling wine, where only bottles of a precise provenance qualify as Champagne, so it should for the tangy purée. By 2009, Lebanon and Israel had found a different way to settle their hummus differences: a competition to build the world’s single largest dish of the stuff. Israel whipped up an 8,993-pound batch, only to have Lebanon strike back with a decisive 23,042-pounder. More recently, Princeton University’s Committee on Palestine attempted in 2010 to mount a campuswide shunning of Sabra hummus, which is partly owned by an Israeli conglomerate. (“Boycott Hamas, not Hummus,” one pro-hummus Princetonian counterargued.)
Hummus: beloved by hippies, ultimate-Frisbee players, broke college students. Believed by scientists to diminish aggressiveness, alleviate minor depression, and aid growth. Good with pita bread and baby carrots. What makes it stick in so many craws?
“Well, when we talk about hummus,” the Israeli academic Dafna Hirsch said the other day, “we talk on the material level and also the symbolic level. There is a mythology that completely surrounds hummus that doesn’t surround a lot of other foods. It’s a fascinating thing.” Hirsch, 42, was speaking as an expert; last year, she published a cultural biography of hummus in an ethnology journal. Some aficionados, she explained, believe that the first written mention of hummus occurs in the Old Testament, where Boaz insists Ruth dip her “morsel” in a vinegar-based dish. Others trace its origin to the time of Saladin, the twelfth-century sultan. At any rate, hummus as we know it was originally popularized in the Arab world.
Only in the forties and fifties did Israelis adopt hummus. But after they did, it gradually attained a status as a kind of national dish. They eat it at lunch, whereas Palestinians tend to consume theirs for breakfast. The hummus gulf only widens when it comes to who uses the finer ingredients. But there is one thing that unites Arab and Israeli hummus eaters, and here the people who control the inventory for the Park Slope Co-op might take note. Made-in-the-U.S. hummus, both sides will tell you, is an abomination in its basic form, and a greater sin still once spackled with American accoutrements like olives, dates, or jalapeños. “Blasphemy,” says Hirsch. “Complete blasphemy.”