You tried hummus for the first time while visiting Berkeley in the early 1990s. The server behind the counter pronounced it HUM-iss. It was part of a sandwich that also contained sprouts, shredded carrot, roasted beets and slices of avocado. You didn’t immediately recognize that she meant the Arab food: chOH- moos. When you heard her, you thought, instead, of ‘humus,’ the kind of soil (though that’s pronounced HYOOM-iss). This earthy image fit with the crunchy Berkeley vibe; you ate it happily.
You grew up in suburban New England, where “dinner” meant “meat,” and not liking it was weird. “Lunch” was a deli-counter of meaty sandwiches, too, with, at best, a token bowl of egg salad moaning with mayo, slightly crusted over. Asking for the vegetarian option invited eye-rolling. You absorbed the message that you had no taste at all.
But Berkeley! Decades later, you remember nothing of Berkeley but being, for the first time, dazzled by sandwich possibilities offered not as a weak afterthought for the oddball who doesn’t like real food, but as legitimate victuals.
Back in Philadelphia, a week later, having identified hum-iss, you had new appreciation for the food truck you walked by for years, which advertised “FALAFEL – HOMOS” (or, “FALAFEL – HMOS” if a sliding window was ajar; either way, when people walked by, they observed that in Philly you can really buy anything at a food truck). The falafel were huge and green (lots of parsley, not the Egyptian falafel made with fava beans). The hummus was loaded with tahini and very smooth.
That you grew up without eating hummus is a testament to how food options have changed in the past few decades. That you had walked by that truck so many times and never entertained the idea that it could be for you is the kind of xenophobia that, perhaps, many of us were weaned on.
Your home-made hummus doesn’t come out well. After you soak the chickpeas, you need to peel off the skins – every single skin of every single little chickpea. You don’t have the patience for this. But you live in New York City, so there is Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli hummus readily available, each a little different.
“Israeli hummus” is a new concept. It’s an Arab food, first.
Israelis hail it as a national food. This was a calculated decision designed, in part, to help a melting pot of wounded, wandering immigrants let go of centuries where their “Jewish” foods were just the borrowed foods of host countries that tended to evict or exterminate them.
But it’s also true that calling hummus an Israeli food is a way to strengthen the connection to the land, to say “this local food is ours—more than, say, borscht—because this place is ours, finally.”
And some would go farther and say, it is ours and always has been meant for us; it is no one else’s. And by implication, say that the Palestinians, and their hummus, did not really exist prior to 1948 and don’t matter now.
Of course many people would not say that.
Likewise, others say that there is no such thing as Israeli hummus, that hummus is quintessentially Arab. That dignifying so-called Israeli cuisine with an honorable Arab name is an appropriation that parallels more than half a century of catastrophic ethnic cleansing. Some would go further and say that Israelis and their so-called hummus should be driven into the sea and wiped from our collective memory.
Of course, many would not.
Humm-iss and choh-moos are separate things: Humm-iss can be grainy or even chunky and may be “flavored” with olives, cilantro, pumpkin spice in October. Choh-moos is flavored only with tahini, smeared onto a shallow dish, adorned with olive oil, and sprinkled with sumac.
Except it isn’t, always. Arab hummus can be chunky or smooth, lemony, or lemon free, topped with meat, even made without tahini; people are fierce about authenticity, but like the language Arabic, authenticity coexists with major local variations. This much is clear, though: choh-moos is not accompanied by julienned jicama, or smeared, as a sandwich condiment, on multi-grain sprouted wheat bread—that’s humm-iss.
You like them all.
There may have been “Israelite” hummus long ago when there were Israelites. Mashing chickpeas with sesame and oil may even predate the historical term “Israelite” and the ethnicity “Arab,” and be, instead, a “Semitic” food. Semitic—an ethnicity that generated both Arabs and Jews. But looking for millennia-old common ground doesn’t smooth the hackles of anyone grievously injured today. Common ground is the problem.
Israelis pronounce it chOO-moos, which is so close to chOH-moos that you have to listen closely to hear the difference. Sometimes this reminds you of that Star Trek episode with the guy with half his face painted white and half painted black, whose enemy’s face was half painted black and half painted white. They ran around and around the Enterprise after each other. You can’t remember how it ended.
It’s weird that we call The Middle East “The Middle East.” The earth is a sphere; “east” can only ever be relative. To describe the whole region that way is like describing Arab choh-moos as “a food similar to the American chickpea dip served with carrots or on vegan sandwiches.” On the other hand, everyone looks at the world from their own vantage point.
Store-bought hummus is only ever humm-iss. It tastes of citric acid and not much else; it is the American cheese of hummus. And yet you are eating some, cold, with sliced peppers and spelt pretzels, right now. A warm plate of freshly made choh-moos, dotted with oil, with steaming pita alongside would taste better, but you would not eat that absentmindedly at the computer.
Cuisine aside, should you eat it? If you buy the brand whose name means “a native-born Israeli,” are you endorsing a view that hummus is not just a food but the very evocation of the Jewish relationship to that piece of land?
The other major hummus brand is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nestle, which has made disregard of human rights their bottom line.
Or you can buy a hummus mass-made by a company that is famous for sliced deli meats and has just recently branched out into this new “middle eastern health food” thing—‘Murica hummus. Are these any better?
How much personal responsibility do you have to world peace via your hummus?
The year you lived in Israel was the year that Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. You watched the ceremony on a tiny TV with a roomful of young Americans newly arrived to Israel, and an old woman named Vera who helped take care of the laundry. Everyone was crying; you looked around for tissues and Vera handed them to you, her arm, outstretched, showing the faded German number tattoo. Vera didn’t cry. Vera once told you she cried enough in Germany for a lifetime.
You felt hopeful that day, half a lifetime ago. In retrospect it’s hard to believe you were that naïve; there are layers in the conflict that you couldn’t see then. It strains your ability to hope.
And yet, you want to believe that hope is not just a fairytale; and that there can be peace even when two peoples recognize the sublimity and splendor of one place.
Without hope, how can you go on?
Your two rules about hummus:
(1) A paste made of other beans must not be called hummus. There is no “black bean cilantro hummus.” That is like calling something something mashed potatoes when in fact it is mashed yucca. The word hummus means “chickpeas,” not “mashed legume.”
(2) If you’re white, you can serve it with crudites. Although that’s not authentically choh-moos, it’s acceptable since white people fear carbs.
Not everyone agrees that “black bean cilantro hummus” crosses a line, and not everyone agrees that serving it with carrots is acceptable. Once, at a casual get-together, you served hummus and carrot sticks. A woman you barely knew gave you a really hard time about it. You stammered a little, unsure what to say:
Some of my favorite hummuses are Arab?
Humm-iss is my food, too?
You became immediately stuck in an overthink trap, ashamed that you hadn’t known her family was Arab until she told you, surprised at how much hostility she aimed at you, and annoyed that she was accusing you of being “such a white girl,” which you are. Except to the millions of people who don’t think Jews are white.
You wished you could say, “I’m willing to learn. I’m trying to see you. But I’m so worried you don’t see me, either.”
But, after what she’d said, it was hopeless to imagine she’d engage that way.
Or: you didn’t have the courage to try. It’s hard to know.
Meredith Fein Lichtenberg (@amotherisborn) is a writer and board certified lactation consultant, who consumed rather a lot of hummus while writing this piece. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, The Mom Egg, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City with her husband and two kids.