Israelis are known for heading out into nature and eating “al ha’esh” or “mangal” (Hebrew for “barbecue”) on Independence Day. Israel’s backyards, parks and picnic areas are filled with families fanning the flames of the grill as they cook up burgers, steaks and kebabs.
But it wasn’t meant to be this way. Back in 1955, seven years after Israel became a state, the Education and Culture Ministry’s nutrition department put out a specific menu for Israel families to follow on Independence Day. The idea was to get citizens of the new country to recreate — through food — the experiences of the tumultuous years surrounding independence.
There had long been traditional meals eaten on Jewish holidays such as Passover, Purim and Rosh Hashana. So, went the thinking, why couldn’t the same be done for the new holiday of Independence Day?
The government employees who put together and circulated the menu (with two versions to choose from) aimed to highlight local ingredients and link to specific experiences of the not-too-distant past. For instance, mallow (known locally by its Arabic name, khubez), a hearty weed that grows out of sidewalks and walls all over Jerusalem, featured prominently in the appetizer. It was the only green that besieged residents could come by during the 1948-1949 War of Independence.
The menu, which juxtaposed Mizrahi dishes with Ashkenazi ones within a single meal, also tried to emphasize the concept of the Ingathering of the Exiles. In one version of the menu, a Middle Eastern-style appetizer of mallow patties in tehina was followed by an Eastern European-type meat loaf stuffed with poached eggs. The other version had mallow patties in tomato sauce followed by a small chicken stuffed with bulgur or rice, with a side dish of steamed carrots and peas, and zucchini fried in lemon juice, a dish considered at the time to be more identified with Middle Eastern cuisine.
Both menu versions included clear broth with beef dumplings, and both end the meal with a cake that was meant to be highly representative of the Land of Israel. The recipe for “Seven Species Cake” (calling for flour, oil, dates, figs, raisins, sugar, salt and eggs) included most of the seven species of the Land of Israel.
It seems, however, that Israelis never took a liking to the cake (nor to the entire holiday meal menu, for that matter). It’s doubtful you’d find many baking it to serve at an Independence Day get-together this Thursday.
The recipe also instructed citizens to cut the cake in square pieces to symbolize the immigration of Jews from “all four corners of the earth,” as the Jewish liturgy states. You’ll find that these days Israelis — not inclined to be told how to do anything — cut the cakes they serve on Independence Day any which way they like.
More information about the 1955 Independence Day menu, along with artifacts about the culinary habits of Israelis and the instruction of Israeli housewives during the state’s early years, is available at an online mini-exhibition entitled “For the Woman and the Home,” curated by the National Library.