Washington summers I remember sipping honeysuckle nectar from countless blossoms, chewing pungent onion-grass and harvesting mulberries into paper cups, plucked from trees in our back alley. But it wasn’t until I moved to an agricultural village in the Galilee 27 years ago that I truly discovered the potential for sustenance among the “weeds” in my front yard.
On walks in the hills around our village, my husband and I often encountered Bedouins from the nearby villages, gathering seasonal edible wild plants. For him, they were a natural, if unremarkable, part of the landscape—but I was fascinated! Here were local people, practicing one of the most ancient foodways on this earth, as part of their traditional culture. I was determined to learn more.
It took time, but I finally spent an entire winter learning from Bedouin men and women what to pick, how to prepare it and what its medicinal properties are. I became acquainted with mallow, wild spinach, chicory, wild asparagus and the potent “luf,” valued as a delicacy and wonder-drug, but only (I found out the hard way) after its toxin is properly neutralized.
What I also found was that asking a perfect stranger “What are you picking?” or “What are you cooking?” was often the beginning of a fascinating conversation that easily spanned the pernicious Jewish/Arab divide. I was invited into people’s homes to learn how to prepare the greens we’d gathered, establishing friendships that continue to enrich all of our lives.
This experience inspired me to research the indigenous foods of the Galilee, to understand how they were used in the distant past, how they are described in the Hebrew Bible, and to seek out the farmers, herders and cooks who still use those foods in traditional ways.
I cultivated a new appreciation of the Galilee landscape of “hills and valleys, that soaks up its water from the rains of heaven,” as well as the traditional agriculture that is supported by this unique topography and climate.
I learned that za’atar (Syrian marjoram), which grows on the hills around my home and is the main ingredient in the eponymous seasoning mixture, is also the Biblical herb “ezov,” sanctioned for use in purifying the Temple. And I met fellaheen (Palestinian traditional farmers) who harvest and roast green wheat to produce farike, the “new ears parched with fire” referred to in Leviticus.
The result of my explorations was a culinary memoir, entitled Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land, published last year. Washington and the Galilee are worlds apart, yet I believe that it is my “outsider’s” eye, combined with hard-earned Hebrew fluency and a smattering of Arabic, that has enabled me to see beyond the modern supermarkets and shopping centers, to document those ancient culinary practices that, miraculously, still survive.