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Culinary culture and “Table Manners” of Tel Aviv

In recent years, appreciation of the social positioning of food and cuisine has become sophisticated and searching. Culinary culture, it is understood, can be a rich repository of knowledge, manifesting the rituals and habits that define a time and place. Take Tel Aviv.

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Ostensibly, it’s a modest mid-sized seaside city, with a population of just under half a million. But it’s also home to a rich culinary culture, domestic and commercial. Eating out, for example, one is spoilt for choice, restaurants offering world-class culinary offerings from Mexico, Japan, Yemen, Italy, France, Ethiopia, Argentina… a range and quality that bely the size of the city.

Presenting the city’s cultural diversity
What does this tell us about Tel Aviv? First, it presents the cultural diversity of the city. Tel Aviv is a young city, founded a little more than a 100 years ago by Jewish migrants from eastern Europe. It has ever since been defined by the “immigrant” — Jewish migrants drawn to the homeland from far-flung parts of the globe, native Israelis attracted by the city’s charm. Tel Aviv stands as a reminder of the surprising breadth of social and cultural identity that can find expression beneath the broad rubric of “Jewishness”. It’s a plurality that underpins Tel Aviv’s status as the cultural and commercial heart of Israel.

Culinary culture is not only a means for presenting identity, but for negotiating it too: it is a site for processing the social, cultural, and economic influences that define a place. In this sense, Tel Aviv’s culinary culture has a lot to say about the city at large.

Rejecting hierarchy
Let’s start with informality. Dining out is usually associated with dress codes, ornate etiquette, a hierarchy separating diners and service staff. The event is replete with formality and ritual — some may say stuffiness. Tel Aviv is much the opposite. One would be hard put to find a restaurant, even the most elegant establishments, with anything as conformist as a dress code. Tel Avivis, the denizens of the city, proudly refuse to stand on ceremony. This rejection of hierarchy cuts across the dining experience — from diners picking out of each other’s dishes, to a waiter sternly informing a diner that they’ve made a poor choice, and suggesting the alternative that should have been selected in the first place.

Politics played out on plates
Given the contentious political history of Israel, it’s no surprise that tensions between communities sometimes spill onto the dining table. One long-running argument, for example, proposes that many staples of the Israeli table — chickpea Hummus spread, grilled Halloumi cheese, finely-cut Mediterranean salads drizzled with olive oil, for example — have been appropriated, without acknowledgement, from the Arab world. Perhaps. But also, it has been suggested, might it be that similarities in Israeli and Arab cuisines could hint at a closer fraternity than the two sides acknowledge?

Innovation alongside tech start ups
Tel Aviv is often described as the “start-up city”, home to the brains behind countless technological innovations. Start-up culture has a place in food as well, reaching back to the earliest days of the country. “Israeli” couscous for example, the toasted pasta balls that are now a staple of Mediterranean-region cookbooks, started off life as a 1950s government-sponsored initiative, a nutritious meal designed during a rice shortage.

Today, the contemporary middle-eastern cuisine of Israeli restaurants, anchored around Tel Aviv-based chefs like Eyal Shani and Meir Adoni, retains the spirit of innovation — and, interesting, tends to embrace the shared cultural origins of the cuisine it celebrates. Good food need not be limited by political boundaries, after all.

Tel Aviv reflects on food and culture
Given culinary culture’s place in Tel Aviv’s multifaceted identity, it is apt that the city is hosting a fascinating exhibition about food and culture for which Julius Baer acts as main sponsor. Table Manners, at the University of Tel Aviv’s Genia Schreiber Art Gallery, takes a close look at the role that food plays in shaping and reflecting cultural behaviour — the adage “you are what you eat” played out on a larger than usual stage, one might say. Curated by Sefy Hendler, Sharon Aronson-Lehavi, Nirit Nelson and Ronit Vered, the exhibition blends food, the visual arts and the performative arts in an ingenious tableau.

Dr. Sefy Hendler: “Our exhibition tries to link the global and the local aspects into one coherent approach.”

“The place food culture occupies in Tel Aviv is complementary to the role of the city as the culture capital of Israel,” Hendler, who is a senior lecturer in early Modern Italian art at Tel Aviv University and writes social and cultural commentary, principally for the Israeli daily Haaretz, explains. This, he argues, was key in the city becoming the culinary capital of Israel: “[Tel Aviv’s status] was inevitable, as food has always been a part of a vibrant culture in Paris, New York, Madrid and many other cultural centres Tel Aviv looks upon to.” This shared connection between food and social norms across cultures informed the curation of the exhibition. “Our exhibition tries to link the global and the local aspects into one coherent approach.”

Discover works by artists such as Mircea Cantor, Cindy Sherman and Tsuyoshi Ozaw

Micha Laury: Don’t be a Chocolate Soldier

A standout is Micha Laury’s Don’t be a Chocolate Soldier. Sculptures of soldiers made out of chocolate, it is sardonic commentary on Israel’s militarism. Its first iteration, in a 1968 Israel flush from its successes in the previous year’s Six-Day War, was controversial — not least because the artist invited audiences to eat his soldiers, and they duly complied.

Two plays by the French playwright Jeannine Worms complement the exhibition. “The breadth of social meanings and contexts we give to food and cuisine make it uniquely suited for collaborations between theatre and the visual arts,” explains Aronson-Levi, head of the university’s Theatre Arts department.

This collaboration is presented in the form of two plays, The Recipe and Coffee and Cake, performed on a stage within the gallery. They use food as a metaphor with which to critique social concerns like gender and class. Performed and produced by students of the university, the performances intertwine with the principal thrust of Table Manners — food as an instrument with which to interrogate social norms and habits. Much like Tel Aviv’s culinary culture, Table Manners reveals unexpected truths about the way we live today.

’Table Manners’ is ongoing until 30 July 2018 at the Genia Schreiber Art Gallery, University of Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv-Jaffo