And you will eat, and be satisfied, and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you. -Deuteronomy 8:10
So there I was, in the business district of a sleepy development town on a hotsummer day at 1:00 pm, with my scheduled meeting with a local school principal suddenly delayed for half an hour. The heat, the dingy surroundings, thecracked sidewalks, the number of people sitting around on the steps and on thechairs in front of the kiosks with nothing to do - the setting was somehowfamiliar, a depressing slice of a certain aspect of Israeli culture that seems not to havechanged in 60 years, and can still be encountered in small towns like this onescattered through the landscape from the northern border to the heart of theNegev. The scene seemed lifted directly from "Turn Left at the End of theWorld" or "The Band's Visit" (two recent Israeli films set in developmenttowns(.
One could see the half hour I was destined to spend there as a dismalprospect - or as an opportunity; I was hungry, and it was lunch time, so Ichose the latter, confident that I would find a falafel stand nearby. Sureenough, there it was, and the tables were all occupied, with a line at thecounter, suggesting that the falafel would be freshly made. The pita was soft, the falafel balls hot and lightly crispy. This place had a nicepalette of salads - all the "regulars:" fine-cut cucumbers and tomatoes, freshgreen cabbage and red cabbage and sauerkraut, marinated hot peppers and sweetpeppers, finely sliced onion seasoned with sumac, fried eggplant strips, pickled babyeggplants swimming in bright purple brine, sliced pickles and bitter olives and hot sauce, andof course a squeeze bottle of diluted techina. Falafel may be the national fast food, but every eater gets to make his/her own individual combination; you have to answer quickly as the vendor's tongs hover briefly over each section of the salad table. I happily settled down at ashared table with my falafel, a plastic cup of olives, and a sweet grapefruitdrink. I would say I enjoyed people-watching, but eating a falafel successfullyrequires concentration: to avoid dripping techina down your shirt, and toprevent stray components from falling out, and to assure that you maximize themixture of tastes and don't get left with three plain falafel balls in dry pita, you must plan the geometry of your attack and constantly recalculate the angleof the next bite. It was delicious, and I was grateful to the principal forletting me know he would be half an hour late for our appointment.
This little gastronomic interlude brought back a long string of memories, ofsimilar meals eaten in similar surroundings, central bus stations and "downtowns" in Kiriat Shmona and Safed, Beersheba and Dimona, Acco and Afula. In my first stay in Israel as a high school student, falafel was a staple partof a trip down to the Hadar or the Port in Haifa. And subsequently it remainedthe treat I allowed myself when travelling the country for work or pleasure. When I did our weekly shopping at Machaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem, my compensation to myself for carrying the heavy baskets in the heat or the rain was falafel at "Blondie's" (the proprieter of which, of course, was a Yemenite). Falafel stands have become fewer over the years. First there was the GreatPizza Invasion of the early 70s, and then Macdonalds and KFC, and now the waveof boutique sandwich shops with their avocado and goat cheese andmulti-grain bread. Recently my daughter and I decided to go out for falafel on a Saturdaynight near her apartment in Ramat Aviv, an upscale neighborhood near TelAviv University. No luck; we had to settle for pizza.
There is somethingabout falafel, spicy, nutritious, cheap; it seems to taste the best when you buy and eat it in the most unpretentious surroundings, a sort of proletarian comfort food that keeps us connected to a simpler time.