Ownership is a really interesting concept. When I start thinking about the world in a purely materialistic way, my mind starts to delve deep into a conundrum that makes thinking about basic concepts a challenge. In a purely idealistic context, I would love to be guided by what my mother would always say to me: ‘what’s mine is yours’ (Mom). When you are 22, though, and you wear the same shoe size as her, this ideology can become a problem, and the same applies to the world, I guess. People need to have ‘things’ and keep those things in their own command, in order to keep the peace. Interestingly enough, though, when it comes to food, sharing ownership of it – all aspects of it – seems to be the norm. This thought specifically came to my mind as in Yotam Ottolenghi’s culinary journey, Jerusalem: A Cookbook, he describes how one of his favorite recipes, also happens to be one of his friend, Sami’s favorite recipes. And then this inspired a question: how does something that belongs to someone, also belong to everyone else? This is what I will be exploring in this paper.
Ottolenghi’s culinary journey is a nostalgic journey to his childhood. He begins the book by describing how one of his favorite recipes is also one of Sami’s favorites: “Over on the west-end of the city, Yotam had a pretty similar experience: school-day end, a massive falafel sandwich, tahini-stained shirt, no appetite, angry mother” (Ottolenghi 98). This beginning is representative of Jerusalem, as, in one sentence, it is able to explore the city’s vibrant culinary history as one that is shared among individuals, specifically relating to what is consumed. So, how can something that belongs to someone belong to everyone? Quite simply, if something is consumed by more than one individual – despite, and in spite of any cultural, religious, or geographic boundaries that may alienate one from the other – the unanimous act of eating, and specifically consuming these particular foods is something that both ‘own’ as part of their lives and their physical bodies. They say that ‘you are what you eat’ – I would argue that if you eat the same things, then perhaps, in some idealistic way, you are both the same.
The idea of shared ownership continues through the idea of a shared consumption of foods in the way that Ottolenghi speaks of salad in Jerusalem: “Arab salad, chopped salad, Israeli salad… Wherever you go in the city, at any time of day, a Jerusalemite is most likely to have a plate of freshly chopped vegetables” (Ottolenghi 32). The ubiquity of salads on the table of Jerusalemites speaks to the nature of not only ‘owning’ a food – but reproducing a tradition. Perhaps, for many in Jerusalem, a meal is not complete without the presence of a salad. This idea penetrates any exclusionary ideas of ownership. More specifically, the way that he describes ‘beets’ is very distinctive to me: “beets also cross cultural lines with the flexibility of an acrobat” (Ottolenghi 32). They are such a simple root vegetable, but the fact that they have the power to ‘cross cultural lines’, makes them powerful in a way that some humans or institutions are unable to. Beets do not ‘belong’ to me or to you; they belong to everyone and anyone who wants them on their table.
On a personal note, these thoughts of sharing dishes and the ownership thereof reminded me of the stuffed grape leaves, kipes, that my Dominican grandmother made on special occasions. While conducting some research on Arabic cuisine, I came across a similar recipe, which led me to learn about the Arabic influence on the Dominican Reoublic. In essence, the Arabic influence on me. So are the kipes Dominican or Arabic? According to Ottolenghi, “…nobody ‘owns a dish’ because it is very likely that someone else cooked it before them and another person before that” (Ottolenghi 16). I argue that everyone can ‘own’ a dish – meaning – incorporate it into his/her diet, but that this ownership is fluid, as it was with the Arabs who brought their culture to the Dominican Republic, and similarly, in the way that Italian and Lybian food have a shared morphology: “A dish just like Michael’s is part of the Jewish Tripoltan cuisine. It is called shorba and is a result of the Italian influence on Lybian food during the years of Italian rule of the country…”(Ottolenghi 8). A place like Jerusalem is attractive for large groups of religious and cultural individuals hailing from all corners of the globe. This contributes to the development of shared cuisines like the shorba, and even the sharing of food shopping processes: “you can see people shop together in food markets, or eat in one another’s restaurants” (Ottolenghi 18). The geographic concentration of individuals – eating similar foods, but also migrating and food shopping at the same places is conducive to the geographical concentration and amalgamation of foods all falling under the umbrella of ‘Jerusalemite cuisine’. In fact, simply the usage of the word ‘Jerusalemite’ implies unison and shared ownership.
In addition to the consumption and preparation of similar foods, an arguably shared ownership of cuisines occurs when shared practices of preparation and etiquette are used. I often hear people speaking passionately about what a dish cannot live without – ‘it’s not a true _____ if it doesn’t have ______’, said every passionate cook, ever. For Jerusalemites, this shared passion is towards salads, “everybody, absolutely everybody uses chopped cucumber and tomatoes to create an Arab salad or an Israeli salad” (Ottolenghi 10). I read this as: ‘I don’t care what you call it – or what ethnicity claims to own it – it is not a salad unless you have cucumbers or tomatoes!’ Perhaps I am being a bit reductionist in my interpretation here. I am sure that there are other Jerusalemite salads that do not contain or require these two ingredients, but the shared ownership of importance applied towards these specific ingredients is pervasive and significant. By the basis of being together geographically in Jerusalem, and the citizens there sharing the delicacies of their culture, it becomes their mutual culture.
Relating to process, locality is key. For example, “Jerusalemites tend to eat seasonally and cook with what grows in the area” (Ottolenghi 12). Again, the usage of the word ‘Jerusalemite’ implies that all people in the land ‘own’ the practice of be eating locally grown produce. Shared ownership even applies to etiquette and the values instilled around the process of eating:
“…in the way that Jews and tabs shower guests and relatives with delights…for Jews and Arabs alike, the idea of dining alone is abhorrent. Eating is a celebration, a feast, it is about breaking bread and about conviviality. It is about abundance and sharing” (Ottolenghi 12, 60).
Again, shared practices of processes and the etiquette surrounding all-things-food create a shared ownership of being. It is not what ‘I’ do, or what ‘they’ do, It is what we do. The specific usage of the word ‘abhorrent’ specifically implies an unacceptable, almost offensive act that may be limited to a very small population. In large cities, for example, this is a norm, but these two cultures both ‘own’ the idea of sharing food as the norm.
Food is engrained in our DNA – it literally creates us – it owns us. So how does it allow us to ‘own’ something that is by definition not ours? Well, in Ottolenghi’s account, I reveled in his examples of geographic ownership, leading to shared food and etiquette practices that procreate a unanimity of ownership – and a fusion of existence.
RE: Ottolenghi, Yotam, and Sami Tamimi. Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2012, Print.