Whenever I happen to wake up with a definite craving for all things Israeli, I hop into my car and drive to a supermarket located in the heart of Summerlin, Las Vegas. This supermarket is the only one in the area that features the “Kosher Experience,” where I can find the types of foods that represent some of the tastes and flavors of my childhood years in Israel. When I push my shopping cart in-between aisles festooned with Israeli goods, I, like most Israelis living abroad, grab a packet of frozen burekas (puff pastry stuffed with mashed potato or cheese etc.), a tub of hummus, garinim (sunflower seeds), Milky (pudding), shamenet (the best sour cream ever!) and 9% cream cheese for baking a cheesecake that might compare to the one from back home. Pita is not included in this list; it’s not fresh enough at the supermarket, so I veer even farther to an Arab restaurant where their pita is superb, soft and chewy—pretty close to the real deal.
The last time I followed my cravings all the way to the supermarket, I placed a bag of mixed beans in my cart and just then, an old man parked his cart right next to mine and reached for my bag of beans. My reaction was one of pure curiosity: Why my beans? I couldn’t wait to find out. I didn’t say a word though, so I remained standing there in complete suspense. I could tell that he was reminiscing; he looked like a man engrossed in nostalgic thought, something to do with beans I presumed.
“Are you going to make cholent today?” he asked with such a sentimental timber in his voice.
I told him that indeed I was, and he gasped, as though I had just mentioned something incredible. Before I could inquire any further, he asked whether he could also join me for dinner. Could I refuse such a request? I told him that of course he was invited to join me, but my cholent would be vegetarian, not exactly the traditional version. He said that as long as the bag of beans was going into the pot, he didn’t care how it was prepared. I could tell he was salivating, savoring something from his past. He explained that his wife refuses to prepare cholent. “Never prepares cholent?” I uttered, clearly feeling sorry for this old man. “She hates it!” he said so sullenly. “But who would hate cholent?” I exclaimed with profound haughtiness, even though he had already explained.
I asked him whether he would like the recipe, I could easily teach him how to prepare it; however, his response was that his wife would not permit it, would never allow it in the house, ever, because she even hated the smell!
After our strange, heartfelt exchange the old man returned the beans to my cart and continued walking down his own food-filled memory lane. I could not easily forget about Cholent Man, and his words weighed heavily on my mind. I thought about how some people cannot let go of certain tastes from their past, including me. I specifically remembered that as a little girl growing up in Israel, I was privy to many of my grandfather’s stories about his youth in Yemen. I would listen intently, completely captivated by a life so foreign to anything I had seen around me. My grandfather pined for specific tastes and flavors that my Yemenite grandmother dutifully recreated for his enjoyment, but this was not such a feat because, although granny was already first-generation Israeli, the only food she knew how to cook was Yemenite cuisine. But grandfather would always say that in Yemen it tasted so much better; the dates were bigger and sweeter, the burgul (cracked wheat) with honey and samne (ghee) tasted sublime, their kubana (steamed bread) had a different flavor completely, and the lamb—that meat was incomparable. He would always smell his food before eating, as though trying to retrieve a familiar aroma from his life in Yemen.
We would joke about this; we thought that he must be delusional because the food in Israel happens to be of the finest quality. Everything is remarkably flavorful; vegetables are so tasty that salad dressing is considered overkill.
It took a few years before I realized what my grandfather had been talking about, it’s also the reason I could easily sense the yearning look in the old man’s eyes. He didn’t have to say anything, I totally empathized. I am also responsible for imparting to my children a vision of my old life, which always revolves around tastes and flavors, as well as fragrances that have furnished me with a deep-rooted memory of something that I absolutely loved. In many ways, I am just like my grandfather and probably “Cholent Man,” hanging on to the past by virtue of my taste buds and a vivid memory of specific scents. It’s not such a bad thing per se, but interesting to note the powerful impact that food and smell can have on one’s recollections whether good or bad. When it rains in Las Vegas, the smell of dusty, wet soil is exactly the way the earth would smell after a rainfall in Israel. Rainy days in Vegas make me happy. The food-propelled memories are the reason that I’ve always packed a pita lunch in my children’s lunchboxes I suppose, and why they grew up eating Bamba instead of regular cheese puffs.
We’re all guilty of extending a romanticized notion of our past, trying to capture remnants of a time that we miss, and what better way to do so than by recreating those very dishes, hanging on to those recipes before they’re gone, or buying the very snacks or other foods that are suffused with wonderful recollections from a faraway land, or just a long time ago.
My grandmother would also prepare cholent, or hamin, which is an alternate name, though Sephardi Jews — or Yemenites, in this instance — prepare it with a few variations. I bet the next time I prepare the dish, memories of Shabbat meals at savta’s house will stream through my mind, but I will also be thinking of that poor old man who is probably still pining after his bean stew.