Culinary Anthropology Fail

One of my most pleasurable memories from archeology field school in 1997 at Haluza, Israel is the morning meal. I would ascend from the shaded site I was working on, out of the stifling dust into searing heat, then up to the shaded picnic tables at the top of a rise. It was still blisteringly hot, but the air was clear and I could wash my hands and face. I had been working already for four or five hours, and it was always a welcome break.

Breakfast at the dig was a small loaf of bread with exquisite hummus, tomatoes, and cucumbers as well as some fresh yogurt or cheese from the dairy at the kibbutz. It was cooling and filling without being heavy. This remains one of my favorite meals, but it’s hard to find really great hummus unless it’s homemade.

The cuisine of Israel available on a college student’s budget seemed largely similar to the food I ate at home, except it was a bit heavy on tomatoes and cucumbers. One item of note is that the Israelis drink lemon juice in their water with the idea that the lemon aids in digestion and allows one to drink plenty of water without stomach upset. One legacy of the British is that nearly everyone drinks tea with milk. Kosher rules were a little new to me, but there were no opportunities to break kosher laws because taboo foods and food combinations were simply unavailable.

Much of the food at the kibbutz and in larger cities on weekend excursions was familiar, or at least identifiable. There was even a McDonald’s on the walking route from the youth hostel to the Old City in Jerusalem. The hostel in Jerusalem offered Nutella with our morning toast, which was a delightful culinary discovery.

Anthropologists are supposed to set aside any bigoted ethnocentric ideas about food and eat any food offered, thus avoiding offending the host. It’s one marker of a True Anthropologist to graciously eat undercooked offal and what not. This is one reason I chose to specialize in forensic anthropology rather than in cultural anthropology. I’m fine handling human skeletal remains, but don’t ask me to eat balut. An incident at the dig provided one more piece of evidence that I'm better suited to working with dead people.

Haish was our Bedouin guard at the site. I don’t speak Arabic, and my Hebrew is limited to archeology-specific phrases like, “Where is the bucket? Where is the hammer?" and to greeting the friendly dog at the dig: "Kelev tov!" I did eventually learn how to greet Haish, and said hello to him every morning on our arrival at the site.

It’s difficult to overstate the July heat in the Negev. Haish wore all black, including tight black Levis in the 110+ degree heat. He spent most of his time out under the direct sun looking over the various excavation areas. No doubt Haish was acclimated in a way I would never be. I was a dusty, exhausted, sweaty mess by the time I left the site in the early afternoon, and I worked in the shade. 

As I was leaving the site on the last day of field season, I said goodbye to Haish. He said something nice back in Arabic, and reached into the left front pocket of the ubiquitous black Levis. He pulled out a grimy handful of pumpkin seeds and handed them to me. They had been roasted over a fire and seasoned with salt of his evaporated sweat. The seeds had been steaming with heaven knows what else for god knows how long inside the pocket of his pants. Next to his penis. 

Sadly, I’m no Andrew Zimmern. I didn't fully appreciate the artisanal aspect of this particular delicacy at the time. I had someone help me thank him profusely and tell him the lie that I would save them to savor at the evening meal. Despite having been the lucky one to stumble on a Nabatean coin that further confirmed the age of the site, I left feeling like I had failed miserably as a nearly-minted anthropologist.