When you boil it down to its essence, Candies from Heaven is a book about longing. I met its author, Gil Hovav, to talk about his book when he was in town to give a talk at the AIPAC conference. We chatted at a bakery in downtown DC, touching on so many themes: identity, values and family, love, Hebrew and, of course, food and cooking, especially our shared Yemenite heritage and recipes. The conversation was also full of longing—for both of us.
Hovav clarifies right off the bat, “I did not study cooking… I am always introduced as a chef; it is simply not true.” Chef or not, he is an Israeli food celebrity, with his hands in many pots. For 30 years, he has written cookbooks and restaurant reviews, starred in food shows on TV, run a publishing and production company and lectured about Israeli food around the world.
With ancestry from Russia, Morocco, Spain and Yemen, Hovav is a byproduct of the Israeli melting pot. His great-grandfather, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, is credited with the revival of Modern Hebrew. His father, Moshe Hovav, was a celebrated newscaster known for his eloquent delivery and distinct diction, true to the biblical pronunciation. This is Israeli aristocracy, if there ever was one, but Hovav downplays it: “Part of the humor in the book…is that this is a family that thinks of itself as aristocracy, but mainly [just] wants to have Formica-laminated kitchen cabinets. And this contrast is full of humor, but also full of humanity. So this is what the book is about,” Hovav proclaims.
In the recently translated Candies from Heaven, his third in a trilogy of bestselling memoirs, Hovav brings to life the elements that shaped who he became. Love, candor and humor are the threads Hovav uses to embroider his stories of a 1960s and early ‘70s childhood in Jerusalem, a city that, he says, is long gone.
The book is not simply a peek into life in Jerusalem of that era. Hovav grew up in a large family and was always surrounded by eccentric people who embraced him and made him feel like the “king of the world,” no matter how he felt about himself. But the anchor of his childhood is his maternal grandmother, Leah Abu Shdid, or Mooma, as he called her, who lived with his family.
Mooma’s daughter, Hovav’s mother Drora Ben Avi, was a career woman, a department manager at the Israeli radio. “When I came home from school in the afternoon, there were two servants, and there was food that my grandmother cooked. It was really poor people’s food: rice and okra. I’d still die for it; I am addicted to okra.”
Though it is not a book about food per se, Hovav insisted on including recipes at the end of every story because he remembers best “with the help of flavors.” For example, when he tried to recreate a soup Mooma used to cook for him, which she called “Butterfly Soup” (because it includes rice, whose grains open up into a butterfly shape in the liquid), his version was tasty, but not quite right. “Then, out of the blue, I remembered that she used to grate carrot into the soup to sweeten it a bit. So…I did it and…as soon as I tasted it—boom!—tears went into the pot.” He believes that this is the power of cooking and reason we must preserve old basic recipes. He calls himself a “food nostalgic,” rather than a historian.
Mooma not only taught him about food, but also about what is right and wrong. He still lives by the three rules she had: Do not eat before the poor, do not eat before the servant and do not eat before the birds on the balcony. He understood this to mean that our role is to take care of the weak and those in need and to be aware of others’ needs.
As Yemenites inevitably do, we also talked about Yemenite food. A discussion ensued about a Yemenite fish dish. Hovav shared he does not eat fish because he is Jerusalemite (Jerusalem, after all, isn’t near water). However, he cooks fish for his partner and daughter: “God takes revenge on us through the people we love most… They love fish, so I have to cook fish for them.” Despite not eating it, he shares the recipe for Mooma’s Spicy Fish in the book. He thinks she loved to cook it because his father, her son-in-law, hated fish.
Hovav says he wrote the first story in the book, for which the book was named and which tackles the distance a brother goes to cheer up a despondent sister, at a time of preoccupation with the theme of longing. In general, Hovav says the book was born of a sense of longing for what seems lost these days: the togetherness that enveloped him as a child, giving him confidence in the world.