Saturday, January 24, 2009

West Bank Story

A musical comedy about Jews and Arabs and fast food. It took more than a little bit of cajoling to convince the members of my household to watch West Bank Story with me. They were understandable skeptical. After all the genre of musical comedy tends to lend itself to simple story lines and absurd grand gestures and as even my 8 year old knows there is nothing simple or grand about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The success of this film is embedded in the exploitation not only of the stereotypes of the conflict but also the genre of the musical. From the start both the actors and the audience know that the story line is absurd, it is impossible and yet it will end well; it must after all, it is a musical. The film relies both on the genre of the musical for its context and structure, lavish dance numbers and sappy songs. Moreover, musicals thrives on archetypes, the perfect excuse to skip over the nuances of the political reality.

The real life conflict in the West Bank has been compressed into a 21 minute battle between two rival fast food kiosks, the Israeli Kosher King and the Palestinian Hummus Hut. Complications set in when David an Israeli soldier and Fatima the cashier at the Hummus Hut fall in love.

Throughout, stereotypes and assumptions about Israelis and Arabs are exploited for laughs and often pushed to the limits. Director Ari Sandel explained in an interview with the Mid East Press Club that he attempted to balance jokes about both sides making sure that if he made a joke about Palestinians he would make one about Israelis as well. While I do not feel qualified to judge his even handedness, many of the jokes made us laugh even as others made us squirm.

In 2007, Sandel won an Oscar for his efforts. In his acceptance speech and in interviews afterwards he spoke about the film being a piece that hearkens to hope for reconciliation between the two warring factions in the Middle East. Watching the film while the latest hostilities raged in Gaza, I found it hard to be so hopeful.

We all know that the original Shakespearean story of star crossed lovers did not end well. Neither did Bernstein lovers for that matter. At the end of the West Bank Story, Fatima looks into David's eyes and wonders if they will be able to make their romance work. Not to worry he says, he knows of a place where Jews and Arabs can coexist easily side by side, Beverly Hills.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Drink of the Macabees

The people at Jones Cola have a real sense of humor. They put pictures of regular people on all their bottles and are quite adventurous with their flavors. Still this one takes the cake, or the oil in this case.

I had to laugh when I saw this in the store the other day. Reprising the success of last year's Hannuka flavors, the company has put out this special edition Hannukah four pack. The packaging is ingenious appeal both to the kosher and the kitch clientele. There is everything you need to gather three friends and start the Hannukah celebrations, a cut out menorah, a cut out dreidle and a paper yarmulke so you can "Party Your Yarmulke Off." There is a promise of a real dreidle inside. To gage from the box I took home as compared to that found on their website, there are different Hannukah themed photos on the bottle, kitchy menorahs anyone?

But the best part of all are the flavors, Chocolate Coins, Jelly Donut, Applesauce and Latke!

I'm waiting until Hannukah to dip into these refreshments so I can't comment on the taste (I'll admit I'm a bit skeptical) but either way I'm going to pick up a few as hostess gifts!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cooking and Conversation

Adventures in eating and thinking about food!

We are glad to announce the formation of a new student food group at the University of Chicago. We are planning to meet weekly, alternating opportunities to cook and eat with cooking and discussion of issues relating to food and culture.

Our plans to date include conversations about sustainability, baking bread, meeting with cookbook authors, making soup, considering foodways from a gendered perspective and uncovering some of the food treasures of Chicagoland.

Join us for tea and cookies at our planning meeting will be taking place on Thursday December 5th at 8pm.

Our first official meeting, featuring chocolate fondue and mulled cider will be on Thursday January 8th, 2009.

for more information contact Nathana O'Brien at or Ruth Abusch-Magder at the challahmaven button on the left.

photo credit:,,,

Monday, November 24, 2008

The $5 Meal Challenge

Can you make a meal for five bucks?

Of course!
For how many people?
Do spices count?

I have been wondering how students might make the most of $5 at the University of Chicago. So I have been asking around. There seems no question it can be done but lots of questions about how it can be done well.

In trying to answer the question I'm going to be running an experiment of my own, a contest of sorts. Students from any of the schools at U Chicago are welcome to contact me with suggestions for meals that they envision creating for under $5. If your idea gets the nod from me and my panel of experts, we will give you the $5 to make and document it. All the chosen entries will be featured on this blog.

How will we decide?
Creativity will be a big factor. Sure you can make $5 of beans and rice but the question is what can we do beyond the obvious. Or on the other hand how can the obvious be stretched in unpredictable ways? How far can you stretch $5? Can you get fancy? Is it ethnically authentic? What is the best fast food you can buy for a five? What does five buy you in the cafeteria? What if you only do organic? Or try to feed five? We will be choosing those who push the boundaries in these and other ways and hopefully learning a great deal about eating at the University of Chicago.

Already people have suggested that it might be hard to make a vegan meal or kosher meat meal. Many have wondered about the spices. My criteria for spices will be prorating. If you grab a teaspoon of salt from the closet (much cheaper than buying a whole jar of the stuff) then you'll have to estimate how much it costs. On the other hand if someone donates a little pack of the stuff, you might be able to say it was free....

Beneath all of this lies the question, what is a meal? When the issue came before the Senate in 1896, "a number of persons were asked to give their opinions and the answers for the most part declared it impossible to fix on any standard amount of food," according to the New York Times. If all you eat for lunch is Doritos and dip, is that a meal? Whatever you choose to make, you'll have to make a case.

To qualify, you must be a student. Please send me an email via the contact the challahmaven button on the left hand side of the home page. Make a case for your proposal. I'll let you know if you are chosen. Those who are chosen will be making guest appearances throughout the academic year. So check back and see what the U of Chicago is eating for $5!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Israeli Foods Not To Be Missed: Bamba

Snack food is always a good measure of a culture, after all it is not too hard to imagine an anthropology dissertation about American life based on what’s available in the chips and dips isle of the local Stop and Shop? So if you are headed to Israel or just want to get a taste for Israeli culture, I recommend some easy exploring of the world of Israeli snack foods - many of which can be found in the US and Canada and most of which are available via the Internet. Israel, for many years culinarily isolated from the snack foods of the west, developed its own quirky versions of munchies. Sunflower, pumpkin seeds and watermelon seeds are very popular as are sesame crusted pretzel known as bagelach or little bagels. Potato chips on the other hand are not an Israeli strong suit not taking off until the early 1990s when Israeli food producer Elite contracted with Pepsico to produce Ruffles potato chips.

One of the most unique and classically Israeli snack foods is Bamba. Made by Osem one of Israel's oldest foodstuffs manufacturers, bamba crunches like a cheese puff but is fully peanut in its flavor. According to the company website, when this snack was introduced in 1963 it was sprayed with cheese, but the following year, presumably because of less than stellar sales, Osem changed direction and found a hit with a peanut puff.

Despite the fact that the peanut butter sandwich is almost completely unknown in Israel, this peanutty snack is a favorite among children and parents alike. Parents have generally bought into the marketing that suggests that this vitamin enriched sugar processed foodstuff might actually be good for the little ones. (In a lovely ode to Bamba on The Jew and the CarrotJeff Yoskowitz touts the virtues of Bamba for the glutton intolerant.) But it seems likely that the kids like it for the mouth feel, crunchy and mushy all in one bite.

On the other hand it could just be the heavy marketing. In 1992, Osem introduced the Bamba Baby who along with his signature song permeates the airways and visual space of childhood culture. Bamba Baby may be found on balls, games, crayons and so on.

Me, I don't much care for the taste of Bamba or maybe it is just that Baby Bamba with his eerily large head jus
t creeps me out?

photo credits:,,

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Israeli Foods Not To Be Missed: The Israeli Breakfast

Israel is a bit of a ways from Chicagoland and its local food culture, but in just a few weeks, the second University of Chicago Birthright trip will be leaving for Israel. Among the highlights of last year's trip was the food. It is easy to eat well in Israel but I thought I'd add a little flavor to the obvious by providing a bit of history and background on some of the foods the students are likely to encounter or at least should be on the look out for.

The first meal of the day, the Israeli breakfast is a good introduction to the history and flavors of Israel. In the early 1900s, young Jews from Europe came to renew the ancient connection of Jews to the land of Israel. In a radical departure from the lifestyles most had known growing up, many tried their hand at agricultural work. Among the greatest innovations of these pioneers was the founding of kibbutzim, collectives where members lived together and worked the land. They would set out to the fields early in the morning in order to avoid the heat of the middle eastern sun and would return ready for breakfast with an appetite whetted by the exertion of hard labor. Breakfast was comprised of whatever came to hand, fresh vegetables and fruits, eggs, and olives. They learned from their Arab neighbors about making soft cheese and yogurt. Not concerned with the religious taboos against mixing milk and meat, it was nonetheless unlikely to find meat or poultry products. Meat was rarity in the pioneer diet and was unlikely to be squandered on the first meal of the day.

In the early years of the State of Israel (founded in 1948) food was heavily rationed and fruits and vegetables were not always easily available. Visitors to the kibbutzim could luxuriate in the lavish breakfasts that were served in guest houses open primarily to government workers. In the 1960s and 70s as the tourist industry grew, hotels looked to the kibbutzim for inspiration as they set out breakfast buffets for their visitors.

Today, the pioneer's dream of making the dessert bloom has come to pass. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful in modern Israel. Hotel breakfasts range from simple to lavish but generally remain faithful to the early kibbutz fare. Eggs, salads, cheese, and yogurt remain the centerpiece. The Arab cheeses like labneh are still favored but growing diversity of locally produced cheeses may show itself in a variety of cheeses; hard and soft, cow's milk and goat's milk. There is likely to be an ample bread basket, representative of the diverse culinary traditions that meld into Israel cuisine. It is common to find Russian rye sitting along side along side pita bread. The traditional Israeli salad, a mix of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, will doubtlessly be on show but it may be joined by any number of savory eggplant salads, as well as innovative vegetable mixes. Be sure to try out some of the local yogurt. As I will discuss in a future post, yogurt is a critical element of Israeli cuisine and no breakfast buffet would be complete without it. Of course, many hotels catering to tourists have added breakfast cereal to the menu and coffee and tea are always available as well.

So those who are traveling to Israel should begin their days well sated and filled with Israeli history and culture.

photo credit,, kibbut vered hagalil

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The debate that REALLY matters

In 1946 a crazy group, of likely drunk, Jewish students on the campus of the University of Chicago campus got a little hot under the collar and starting debating the merits of the latke over the hamantaschen. When the Manischewitz ran out they thought the whole thing would blow over but low and behold, these 62 years later the arguing continues. Through the years, Nobel laureates, politicians, lawyers and thinkers from all disciplines have debated the pro and cons of the triangle cookies and the fried potato disks. Each year more than a thousand people line up to and stand for an hour in the frigid Chicago cold to hear the masters defend their food of choice. Many schools, synagogues and community groups have attempted to replicate the grandeur and significance of this U of C tradition but few have the traction, the depth, the texture or the bite of the debate in its purest form.

If you are in the Chicagoland area on the 25th you can come out and have your say. The pre-debate show promises to be top notch with spoken word poet Kevin Coval weighing in and song writer Alan Jay Sufrin sharing a battle ballad of his own. Yours truly will be on location, demonstrating the best technique for making a hamantaschen and showcasing my favorite recipe.

But even if you can't make it down to Mandel Hall don't miss out on South Side election fever. Over on the left side of the page you can have your say. Latkes or Hamantaschen?