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November 24, 2014 | 2nd Kislev 5775

Cucumbers

Galilee Diary #338, May 20, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons,
the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.
            -Numbers 11:5

The daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard,
Like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city beleaguered. 
             -Isaiah 1:8

Once again, on a recent trip to the US, I had the experience of walking through the produce section of a large supermarket (what in Israeli “Hebrew” we would call a hypermarket or a megamarket), and pausing in front of the display of cucumbers and remembering why I made aliyah. There is no question that the produce section in general is an enticing, colorful place, with the carefully arranged bins of fruits and vegetables in every form, from organic carrots by the bunch to the processed minicarrots in a bag, from boxed salad green mixtures to out-of-season fruits from all over the globe. Everything is clean and shiny, the misters keep the greens looking fresh… But the cucumbers – fat, waxed, watery – is this really what the American consumer wants? Is this the best that global agrotechnology can come up with?

Israel has succumbed to the temptations of globalization on many fronts. We have fast food and processed food, cheese that has no cheese listed in the ingredients, meat that has been “improved.” But one thing that has remained constant at least since my first visit here in 1962 is the cucumbers. Dark, matte green, slender, about six inches long, piled high in the bins of every outdoor market and supermarket, crisp and full of flavor, they are the staple of every salad. The skin is thin – no one peels them. In the winter the prices go up, as they are grown in hothouses or in the Aravah (on the way to Eilat), but they almost never disappear, and most of the year are locally grown all over the country. While obviously the quality and freshness vary from market stall to market stall, there is almost no choice of varieties; tomatoes may come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and tastes, but Israeli cucumbers are just – cucumbers (apparently, the variety, called the Bet Alpha, originated here).

“Israeli salad,” on the menu of every eatery from fancy restaurants to the local falafel stand, consists of finely chopped cucumbers and tomatoes (and sometimes bell peppers), with onion, parsley, and lemon juice. The proportion of tomatoes – and their redness and flavor – varies widely with the seasons; but the cucumbers remain a comforting constant. Some people call this staple “kibbutz salad,” since everyone who has ever eaten supper in a kibbutz dining hall is familiar with the ritual of taking a cucumber, a tomato, a chunk of pepper and a wedge of onion from the buffet and dicing them on your plate, to eat with yoghurt and/or cottage cheese and/or a hard boiled egg.

Cut in spears, Israeli cucumbers are suitable for dipping and appear on any standard buffet; eaten whole they are a perfect snack, and often show up in packed lunches. Not to mention the pickling possibilities.

Hard as it is for us to imagine getting along without tomatoes, especially in Middle Eastern cooking – and, as Jews with roots in Eastern Europe, without potatoes – it turns out that both of these vegetables were unknown in this area in ancient times. But cucumbers have been with us forever – it seems (see text above) that they even comforted us during our years of slavery in Egypt.

If you were looking for a good reason to make aliyah, now you have one.

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