Table prepared for a wedding reception in Beit Hanan, Israel, June 26, 2014. (photo by FACEBOOK/Assaf Torrez Event Planning)
In the past, weddings were different. In the first few decades of the State of Israel, most communities still prepared the food at home. Sometimes even the bride participated in the preparations on the night before her wedding.
Such an evening is even described in the book “A Quarter Chicken: Recipes for a Successful Wedding,” recently published by Lunch Box Press. “Nehama, née Serbriansky, then only 17, found herself sobbing in the middle of the night while she was still plucking the most stubborn feathers off a chicken: ‘Is this what every bride does on the eve of her wedding?’ she wailed bitterly while wrapped in her mother’s arms.”
That frustration could well be the reason why Israelis abandoned the tradition. Who wants to be cooking just hours before his or her wedding?
Like so many Israelis in the ’60s, Yaffa and Shimon Paranian-Pour got married in their home in Tehran. In the book, Yaffa, who now lives in Haifa, says, “The food for the wedding was prepared at home.” Guests were served “eight courses representing the best of Persian cuisine.” The main dish was “javaher polow,” which translates as “jeweled rice.” Obviously, the “jewels” were edible ingredients such as pistachios, almonds, red currants, raisins and saffron. The rice symbolized joy and fertility for the young couple, while the “jewels” represented prosperity. No self-respecting Persian would forgo this dish on his or her wedding day.
Today, however, Israeli wedding food bears no special significance. To a large degree, the transformation that wedding food has undergone here represents the process that Israel as a whole has gone through.
Yaffa’s granddaughter Zehavit will probably include the dish in her wedding meal, “because tradition is important to her and a presence in her life,” assumes Ofer Vardi, one of the owners of Lunch Box Press. Vardi, together with Naomi Abeliovich, wrote this unique cookbook about the traditional dishes served at Israeli weddings. “The days have passed when wedding food was prepared at home, and each dish represented something,” Vardi told Al-Monitor. “Weddings these days are all the same, with everyone eating the same thing.”
In the early years of the state, the meal at weddings often consisted of little more than sandwiches and juice. “In Kfar Yehezkel, an agricultural village in the Jezreel Valley, the custom for years was that the wedding meal was prepared by all the people in the village. Everyone prepared the mythological potato knish at home and brought it to the event,” says Vardi.
Event halls began popping up across the country in the 1970s. That was where the popular (or for some people, “horrible”) tradition of serving a quarter chicken with burekas pastries began. These sub-par dishes were served in a theatrical setting featuring waiters dressed in white.
“Don’t be mistaken,” says Ran Shmueli, owner of the prestigious Shmueli catering company and the chef at Claro restaurant. “There was always caviar, and there was always international cuisine, but it wasn’t always available to everyone. People planned weddings based on what they could afford. They didn’t always try to jump higher than their navel. When I started doing catering 27 years ago, there was no arugula in Israel. There was no asparagus. I remember the general great excitement when they started selling cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. Today, people want restaurant food for 500 guests, even if they can’t afford it.”
In general, food at the modern-day Israeli wedding is a lot like all the other components of that festive event. It is a fantasy doomed to failure. On one hand, the very essence of the typical Israeli wedding is an effort to make everything original and unique. On the other hand, all weddings look essentially the same. Young Israelis fled in horror from the rigid tradition of burekas pastries in mushroom sauce and chicken in plum sauce, only to embrace the no-less rigid traditions of the focaccia bar, sushi bar or assortment of artisanal cheeses from the Galilee.
The big change came in the 1980s, when Israel switched from socialist economic policies to neoliberal ones. People started traveling overseas. They saw the world and wanted what they saw. “The first pioneer was Michael Stern, a creative genius who knew how to turn every wedding into a story,” Shmueli recalls. “They started serving things that people really didn’t eat every day.” Like everything, that trend started trickling down to the middle class.
“The main thing for Israeli middle class weddings is simple tastes,” says Dana Kaplan, a cultural sociologist with The Open University. “It is the contradictory combination of demonstrative modesty. Young people want to be considered authentic and natural, but at the same time, they want to be classically sophisticated. They want to distinguish themselves from the old wedding foods of their parents’ generation. That means fewer courses, but of higher quality, presented elegantly on simple large white dishes. They want fresh food prepared on the spot, using the finest unique local ingredients. They want a connection with the land, which is often expressed by serving gourmet hummus, artisanal cheeses from the Galilee or boutique olive oil.”
“Food is a trend,” says Shmueli. “People wanted to move away from being served by waiters, so they switched to buffet style. From there they moved to separating the different courses, with one stand for beef and another for chicken, each with their own side dishes. The trend now is Mediterranean-style with a hint of Palestinian. It is back to basics. Next year, I’m going back to burekas and a quarter chicken, but these will be burekas stuffed with veal kidneys and spinach that I grew myself, and chicken in honey and lavender.”
The bottom line is that most Israeli weddings are far from being a culinary celebration. “Better to have less of something but of good quality than a lot of something of mediocre quality. Newlyweds have a hard time with that,” Shmueli says.
Kaplan has a fascinating explanation as to why young couples prefer “simple” foods: “They are fed up with the old-fashioned image of a quarter chicken and event halls. In the consciousness of the middle class, it is connected to the lower classes and incorporates a critique of their tastes, including overly extravagant settings with glitter and a buffet featuring 70 different kinds of salad. People getting married today grew up in an Israel that was already privatized, and a significant component of neoliberalism is individualism. They see the sanctification of personal consumer decisions as the epitome of self-realization. This perception of the self as a unique individual almost always leads to standardization. Simple tastes are ostensibly a paradox in which people seem to be extricating themselves from existing social codes, but are in fact embracing them.”
The transition from home cooking to event halls to celebrations held in enormous and extravagant gardens with meticulously planned menus is a reflection of the changes that the State of Israel has undergone. It has evolved from cooperative socialist austerity, even if somewhat exaggerated, to anachronistic elegance that lacks any real quality, directly to a capitalist mentality, in which the passion to stand out is really just a step toward becoming a part of the herd.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Vardi misses the classic recipes, and Shmueli fantasizes about a contemporary version of the much maligned quarter chicken and burekas.
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