Peace on earth goes the old holiday chestnut, and some families take it to heart.
There’s some discussion about the pronunciation of “hummus.” For Reem Kassis, author of the cookbook The Palestinian Table, the word starts with something like a sigh, “haahmus”—a lyrical, open-throated hum in Arabic. The same word rumbles when it comes from Michael Solomonov, the Israeli chef behind Zahav in Philadelphia. “Chhhhummoooz,” he says, the Hebrew letter heth catching on its way out. There’s a clucking of tongues, two friends pinching a live wire. Is it a hum or a rumble? Palestinian or Israeli? This, of course, will not be resolved today.
Kassis and Solomonov are tucked into a breakfast nook at Congdon’s Point, a grand, rambling cabin occupying a notched peninsula on New York’s Shelter Island. It would be glib to say that it feels unlikely to find them at the same table this morning, and maybe too small to say that it feels special. After all, the flavors of their respective cultures may overlap, but that’s a common thread pulled precariously taut. Tug a bit and complicated questions emerge: Where did the culinary traditions of the Middle East come from? How did they get there? Where did they go next? Who owns them?
“The first time I ate at Zahav, I was a student at Wharton,” remembers Kassis, who grew up in a Palestinian family in Jerusalem. “There was freekeh on the menu, something I missed from home. I remember feeling frustrated that the best Palestinian dish I ate in the U.S. was at an Israeli restaurant.” When she released her cookbook last fall, she sent Solomonov a copy with a note about the freekeh. “I think food is a way to have a conversation where other things have failed,” she says of the decision. “Food is a way to hold on to your identity, especially when you are threatened. As Palestinians, when someone says, ‘You don’t exist,’ our food is something we can point to. It connects us, and it ties us to our roots.”
Solomonov received the book the night before he was set to deliver a speech about Israeli cuisine, and it changed his perspective. “I could not look at this person and say, ‘It’s OK for me to have independence as an Israeli, but you cannot,’” he says. “I’d had all these achievements in my career, and I realized that this was by far the most important moment.” From there, something took root. Not diplomacy. Friendship.
A year later and here they are at Congdon’s Point, architects of a collaborative holiday feast for their two families. Kassis’ husband, Albert Muaddi, made the trip with their kids, Hala and Yasmeen, plus his brother Jawad with wife, Christine, and daughter Violet. Solomonov brought his sons, David and Lucas, along with friends and collaborators: Dorothy Kalins, who produced his two cookbooks, including the just-released Israeli Soul, and her husband, filmmaker Roger Sherman, who featured the chef in his 2016 documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine.
It’s 9 a.m., but already the kitchen smells of lamb fat and fenugreek, the perfume a heady contralto riff that intensifies throughout the day. The five kids are chasing each other around the house in an endless Tom and Jerry loop. “It’s corny to say it, but even in moments when Reem and I disagree, seeing how well our kids get along makes it hard to throw in the towel and say this isn’t worth it,” says Solomonov. “Compromise is life; that’s what we have to do.”
But for now it’s just about sharing counter space in the kitchen, and there’s a lot of work to be done. Kassis is soaking jasmine rice for hashweh, the grains suffused with her nine-spice mix—the cinnamon bark and lacy blades of mace, the coriander and cardamom. Solomonov is rubbing short ribs with hawaij, a Yemenite spice blend of turmeric, cumin, and black pepper, before sticking them in to roast with Kassis’ lamb. They work on the grape leaves together—stuffed collards, actually, steamed in the Persian style, with cranberry juice instead of pomegranate. “We wanted to make something that was both Israeli and Palestinian, but also neither of those things,” Solomonov says. “This dish is what would happen if we dropped off an Ottoman soldier in the American South.”
She drenches cheesy knafeh (shredded phyllo pie) in fragrant orange blossom syrup. He cranks Beck’s Midnite Vultures and rolls out dough for bourekas, savory pastries stuffed with sweet potato and feta. It’s nearly dinnertime, and the lamb is resting, a great glossy haunch on a mountain of hashweh rice. Solomonov breaks off bubble-pocked shards of salty, sizzling fat to crunch while he spoons spicy schug over those short ribs.
The clouds are hanging low over Gardiners Bay, filtering the last of the daylight when Solomonov and Kassis bring their showstopping meats to the long table. Kids are squirming; bellies are grumbling. Platters are passed along, dishes are piled high, and no one wonders who made what.
Two families around the table tonight. One shared home.