Hummus Among Us

I sometimes think that three of the 20th century’s most enduring conflicts – Arab vs. Israeli, Greek vs. Turk and, well, Lebanese vs. Lebanese – could have been resolved had all sides been persuaded to agree on how much they love hummus. To the haunting strains of John Lennon singing “Imagine,” everybody could have gathered around a big table and signed the so-called Hummus Accord, with me as historical footnote for suggesting it, and peace would have reigned in the valley.

In fact, ALL those sides claim to have invented the recipe – the grinding of chick peas with a sesame paste called tahini and the flavoring of that paste with an ever-changing ratio of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and seasoning. Still, since they all claim hummus as their own cultural treasure, it might be best if we don’t bring it up, after all.

In America, as recently as a decade or two ago, virtually no one knew what hummus even was. And now it’s for sale, in a host of flavors no less, in any and every grocery store, usually in cahoots with either pita bread from the same part of the world or at least baked pita chips – whose main reason for being seems to be looking less bad for you than potato chips. What once was an ethnic food, enjoyed only in ethnic households and by folks who frequent ethnic restaurants, has become an all-American staple. For the super-healthy, it has even replaced ranch dressing and onion dip alongside carrot and celery on the buffet tables at parties.

We’ve obviously come a long way from Plato and Socrates, who wrote of a paste made from chickpeas based on reports from ancient Palestine and from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, where so much of human culture was said to begin. The dish’s origins might be even earlier, some historians say, going back to similar foods in ancient Egypt. By the 12th century, we know, hummus was well established in the Arab world and ready for spreading (literally and figuratively) throughout the Ottoman empire based in Constantinople. That covers Greece and Turkey, and Lebanon as well, with fingers reaching into Palestine.

In today’s Israel, hummus is a “national food symbol.” It is equally popular among Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs, not least because it fits conveniently into many Jewish dietary laws concerning what can be served with both meat and dairy meals and be kosher. Considering the centuries-old history of conflict in these hummus-loving parts of the world, I still think it would be appropriate if hummus was the very thing that brought the sides together.

Story by John DeMers

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