As Israeli Independence Day approaches, lines at the butcher shops get longer and the national parks prepare for a full-scale invasion. On Thursday, tens of thousands of Israeli families will celebrate their freedom by participating in the Jewish state’s national pastime: roasting cuts of meat (and industrially made frankfurters) over a charcoal fire.
The unrestrained feast sees Sabras consuming quantities of meat that defy both belief and nutritional guidelines. This is the festival of meat, and no one had better get in the way.
A few weeks ahead of the carnivoric festivities, The Times of Israel stands with Prof. Nir Avieli in front of the display case at M25, a popular grill joint located next door to the Meat Market butcher shop in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. In front of us, the restaurant’s cooks are roasting thick steaks on a large grill.
Food anthropologist Avieli looks at the trays containing mammoth cuts of prime rib, sirloin on the bone, ribeye, lamb chops, a mountain of merguez sausages and dozens of skewers containing sweetbreads, leg of lamb, beef liver, and kidney. A tough choice.
“Meat is the ultimate expression of power and control,” says Avieli, explaining mankind’s obsession with its favorite protein. “You take a knife and slaughter a living thing. You take its life and put it into your own body. Also, there is an assumption among human beings that if you eat meat, you are taking its power into yourself. These are beliefs that have a nutritional basis as well, but it’s mostly a social issue.”
Avieli, a senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, is an expert on the history and politics of food. He has conducted ethnographic research in Vietnam, Thailand, India, Singapore and, of course, Israel. In 2017, Avieli published “Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel,” which analyzes the intersections of nationalism, ethnicity, gender and class in the Israeli kitchen.
During an in-depth conversation ahead of Thursday’s holiday, the professor offers a series of unexpected explanations for the genesis and continuing trend of Israel’s Independence Day barbecues.
Times of Israel: How common is the barbecue in history?
Avieli: Throughout history, eating fire-roasted meat was a rare thing, limited to the wealthy and powerful. Roasting meat is something that rich people do. If you take a kilogram of meat and cook it in 10 liters (roughly 2.6 gallons) of water, you get dozens of portions of soup. If you roast the cut over the fire, it shrinks, loses about half of its weight, and is enough for maybe two or three people. Roasting is a process of strengthening and concentrating all the characteristics that we are talking about.
And now that’s how we mark our independence. Are we the only ones who do this?
The United States, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa celebrate their independence day with a barbecue. Ask yourself what they all have in common, and why roasted meat is at the heart of their national identity. These are colonial immigration countries, where men used cattle and sheep to take over an area. It’s the conventional method: Grab grazing land away from the natives, and whatever you fence in is yours.
Frederick Jackson Turner, the important American historian, claims that the American barbecue is a negotiation with history. American men conquered the area with the help of cattle. The American icon — the Marlboro Man on a horse — what does he do at night beneath the star-filled sky? He lights a campfire and roasts a piece of meat over the flame. In other words, he uses cattle to conquer the area, and eats the meat of the cattle in order to gather strength that will help him go on with the work of conquering and controlling. Therefore, says Turner, roasting over a flame, the barbecue, is a manifestation of power, masculinity, and control over the space.
What’s special about the Israeli mangal (barbecue)?
Supposedly it’s the same story — power, violence, control over the space. But with us, it’s not huge herds of cattle, but rather “one more dunam and one more goat.” Few people fulfilled this masculine ethos: [early Jewish defense organization founder] Alexander Zaïd, [lauded Israeli commando] Meir Har-Zion, and [former prime minister and general] Arik Sharon, who became icons of the shepherd-warrior.
So what replaces that?
As part of my research I went to Sacher Park in Jerusalem year after year for a decade, on the eve of Independence Day and on the holiday itself. The park, which is at the foot of the hill where the Knesset, and now the Supreme Court building, are located, is iconic of the Israeli barbecue. It also has its own arrangement, a set order of roasting the meat: frankfurters, chicken wings, hamburger, pullet, and then maybe steak and lamb chops.
It sounds like a progression of the cheapest to the most expensive.
It’s that, too. But the explanations I heard were different. The children’s food is roasted first, since the children are impatient and can’t wait. I was also told that “women and children like soft meat.” I remember talking with hirsute, shirtless men with beer bellies who stood next to the grill, telling me what the proper order was and why it was based on consideration for children and women — as they stuffed themselves on the soft meat that was supposed to be for the women and children, straight from the grill.
The gentlemen of our dreams.
Who really needs high-quality protein? Women and children. The nutritional benefit for adult men is low.
So what’s with this desire to be king of the steaks?
Independence Day is a hegemonic event of masculine control. On the day before, Memorial Day, the country stands at attention and remembers the young men who fell for the sake of the state, and to ensure freedom and independence for their wives and children. The next day, the men bring back the proper order of things, restore the system of patriarchal power and claim the masculine privilege over meat for themselves. Any woman who holds on until the steaks are put on the grill is marked as one who eats like a man.
So where does the pullet come from?
I managed to interview Yehuda Avazi, the owner of the Avazi restaurant chain, before he died. He said that he had invented the pullet in the late 1980s. A pullet, by definition, is a young chicken whose feathers have not yet grown in. Notice the English word — chick — and the Hebrew word for pullet, pargit, are both slang for a young, smooth-skinned woman whom men would like to prey upon.
Now see what happens here. An “Israeli pullet” is an old hen with large thighs, which are filleted and cut into cubes.
The essence of Israeliness, the flagship Independence Day meal, is a fraud. It’s a lie: it’s not a pullet, but an old hen. At the same time, the power story is undermined. Parents tell their children: “Eat meat and you’ll be as strong as an ox.” But what happens when it’s actually an old hen that you’re eating? What happens to the dimension of physical and symbolic power?
An allegory of the new Israeliness?
This is what leads to the big question: Are we strong or weak? On the one hand, we’re the strongest on earth. According to foreign reports, six well-armed submarines and the best air force on earth can destroy the world.
On the other hand, we’re the weakest. Three members of Hamas with balloons or plastic kites can walk all over us and put the whole country into shelters. We run a great grill on Independence Day, but what’s the star of the menu? The pullet. For me, this ambivalence is the unique thing about the Israeli barbecue.
As hard as it is to believe, the national barbecue is a fairly recent concept.
Until the early 1980s, families — particularly Mizrahi ones [Jews with origins in Arab or Muslim lands] — who barbecued did so in private space. When did the Independence Day barbecue become a public event? After the political upset of 1977 and the solidification of the Mizrahi sector’s political power. When the Mizrahi sector got formal political approval to be here and celebrate itself, it went out into the parks. And with the anthropological theory of proper food — and food comes before other arenas — then that’s the future.
And where do the Arabs fit in?
The word mangal [which describes the Israeli barbecue] is Turkish. It’s a bowl in which charcoal was placed to provide heat in winter. The Palestinian place is denied. Skewers were once referred to as shishlik, another Turkish word. Today, that word has disappeared. We have made the mangal Zionist. We’ve Judaized it.
Another Zionist appropriation?
Let’s look at it in depth. This Israeli celebration, like all the other Jewish celebrations — it’s not clear whether it’s really about satisfying hunger or feasting. That’s because in the existential Israeli view, life here can end at any moment. We’re under threat; everybody hates us. And this perspective is prevalent in all layers of Israeli society. And when there are 7 million Jews against 200 million Arabs, then force is the only thing that works, and that’s why we need to eat meat.
And to do it in the open, for all to see. Look at what happens in the parks.
The main motif of the area is to grab a place. Sacher Park is a gigantic grassy area open to the sun, with a few trees at its borders. Independence Day falls in May, at noon. There isn’t any shade. There are only three drinking fountains to serve the tens of thousands of people who show up. How do you get a good place? Some people arrive the night before and put up canvas. Some send a child to run ahead and grab a place. I also met a family who goes there every year. They put up a small city near one of the drinking fountains, with couches and tents.
You negotiate over the space. This is my space forever — or until the end of Independence Day. People here stab one another over a parking space! In the United States, the barbecue is held in the backyard. [Here] you see how extreme the phenomenon is: People barbecuing on traffic roundabouts!
How do you explain the obsession?
I ask people: Why do you barbecue on Independence Day? The classic answer is: Because it tastes great! But taste is the product of a social construct, so you ask again: Why barbecue? And you get a hundred answers, which boil down to three and a half explanations.
If you belong to the old-time Ashkenazi elite [Jews with European roots], you suggest that it’s a development of the kumsitz [bonfire] from the pre-state era. At one time, we made campfires with potatoes. Years later, we added pita bread with hummus, and now a barbecue. People sit in a circle and prepare coffee over the fire.
And the second explanation?
Israelis, including new immigrants from Western countries, say, “Here it’s like America, except with skewers instead of hamburgers and pita bread instead of rolls.” Israelis’ identification with America isn’t surprising. Who’s our best friend? Where does every Israeli want to immigrate to?
The third one?
The members of Bnei Akiva [an international religious Zionist youth movement] say that it’s like [the ritual sacrifice conducted] in the times of the Temple. But to me, they’re still a small group despite their dominant voice in the political space.
And the last one, the “half”?
The Mizrahi celebration. Old-time Mizrahi people say, ‘This is how we celebrate.’ Do you know what the biggest barbecue in Israel — and maybe in the whole world — is? The celebrations at Mount Meron on the holiday of Lag ba-Omer. They’re attended by more than half a million people. There’s even a slaughterhouse there where people go with cattle and sheep.
It’s a “sacred meal” in the North African style. It’s a meal that enables closeness and intimacy with the saint [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai], and sometimes even with God himself. In Sacher Park, the closeness and intimacy are with the state and the nation.
Four groups, each with a different interpretation of the same event.
Then you ask them: Why crowd together? They answer: In order to be together with the whole nation of Israel on Independence Day. Together — but the whole time, they put up boundaries.