On the Farm

On the Farm

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Culture shock: groceries

Pretty mundane task, buying groceries, but here in Jerusalem it takes some getting used to. I think that's a polite euphemism for believing that Israel is a kind of like home except for the Hebrew, the weather, the buildings, the plants, the Ultra Orthodox, the views and the drivers.

The truth is that buying groceries in Jerusalem is an experience. I haven't decided yet if it is good or bad, but when I get home I always have a nap afterwards.

Here's what I find:

Israelis love tuna salads and tuna sandwiches so you'd think buying tuna would be easy. Yes, they have it on the shelves in the stores, but oh my god it's Starkist. Starkist Tuna, the first of the tumbling scandals that finally destroyed the Conservative Party in Canada in 1993. That skunky tainted tuna from Canada that wasn't good enough to eat at home so it all got shipped off to other countries especially Israel if what I see on the shelves is anything to go by. The tuna scandal that got Fisheries Minister John Fraser fired. I decide to try one can. Inside is what I feared - brown, fumey tuna in chunks. Ugh. I scrape into a foil pan and take it downstairs to the garden, home of five wild cats led by one-eyed Winkie who all fight over it.

The meat and fish in most of the grocery stores we've been to - including the big fancy supermarkets - is almost all frozen and it's all kosher. It lies there in grim, unappealing slabs. To our relief, our Israeli friends tell us not to buy it. They've told us where to buy non-kosher meat so we trudge over to the German Colony where a chunky old guy in a tiny shop called Diplomat has some meat in his big stainless fridges. He demands to know what we want but doesn't let us see what's in there - he opens the door a crack, edges sideways and reaches in to pull out some steaks or a bit of chicken. He says he has ham, salami and bacon too. It takes him thirty minutes to find, wrap and sell 250 grams of salami, 250 grams of ham and two chicken breasts.

There are a few supermarkets around and hardware stores, but I can't find the one thing I crave - a Swiffer. Our apartment has pale stone floors, beautiful crud magnets. David goes home and brings back a new Swiffer and two boxes each of wet and dry cloths. I have a happy morning Swiffering every room. He brings back the biggest jar of Skippy I've ever seen; we can buy it here but it's like gold dust. To make a pot of tea for one, I have to use six Israeli bags so David also brings Canadian tea bags, three times the size of the ones here.

Cereal comes in boxes so small that four bowls uses it all up.

We can use a VISA card here for anything. At the supermarkets we hand over a VISA and they ask if we want the payments spread over three months. We spent a couple of hundred dollars at an Office Depot last week and again, did we want to spread the payments? Apparently before big holidays, they'll spread payments over ten months. That way lies perdition.

What's good makes up for what's bad. Israeli jam, whatever kind it is we're buying, is extraordinary; sometimes we go through two jars a week. Same goes for fruit juice. Fruit and vegetables are the pride of every grocery - always fresh, gorgeous, plentiful. Because they're growing the bananas just a few miles away, they aren't banged up and bruised. The grapes, melons, oranges, passion fruit, baby pineapples and pears are all delicious; only the strawberries, fat and perfect like those from California, are disappointing but that's because we live in Ontario which has the best strawberries in the world.

Dairy products are just fine. We buy great Turkish coffee from Danny next door, a grocer who runs one of these little hole-in-the-walls stores you see all over the city - you could walk by and miss it but inside his little cave there are fresh sesame crusted rolls every morning, good yogurt, that fabulous jam, dishwasher detergent and the International Herald Tribune. Danny doesn't do fruit; the guy at the other end of our street does fruit.

Everyone also does pistachios, salted pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Taxis drivers seem to do nothing but chew and spit seeds all day as they drive; when they stop for a snack it's more seeds. Coffee wherever is wonderful - rich, fresh, dark and with hot milk and foam everywhere including gas stations - but in their homes, people here seem to have an appalling fondness for instant. Arab pastries are weird to our taste but quite fun to buy because of the excitement of buying them off hot grill pans and eating them with a thimble of Turkish coffee.

Here's what everyone seems to eat when they go out for lunch: salad. A salad in Israel will feed a family of eight. Most of the ones we've ordered come with stuff we're not used to which doesn't mean it's bad. Such as sauteed sweet potato, shredded, sliced, chunked. A wide variety of seeds. Raisins. Cheese, nuts, who knows? Or salad can mean a salad buffet so you choose a spoonful of shredded this or fried that. Then there is the endless discussion about the best hummus and where to buy it.

What we love to do is go to the Arab quarter of the Old City or the Jewish Market, Mahane Yehuda (rebuilt and rather fancy since the bombing a few years ago), and buy from vendors. We hunt for places where they're grilling lamb on a spit or twirling shwarma; they'll add diced tomatoes and cucumbers, some mild pickles, shredded lettuce, mayo and hummus, stuff it all in a pita and send us on our way, happy.

It's still not summer here; the evenings are cool and breezy and our apartment radiators bang and whistle every night trying to keep us warm. But people tell us we're only a week away from hot weather and that means vendors with freshly squeezed orange juice every fifty feet.

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