Life on the Other Side: Sharing and Schmearing

I’ve had to make lots of adjustments living in Israel. Not the least of them is coping with native eating customs. One such common custom is the act of sharing and schmearing. Don’t you just know I have something to say about this?

When I refer to schmear, I am not referring to the time-honored New York tradition of “Gimme a bialy with a schmear, Sam.” What I am attempting to explain here is a totally different species of schmear.

Locals love doing it – taking pita in hand and twirling it around a sauce-filled plate.

From humus to hazilim to tehina (the “chuh chuh foods,” as I call them), these folk just love swiping, mopping and slopping it up. The problem is, they’re not doing it on their own individual plates. No siree, they’re doing it on a communal plate – shared by all at the table! A nation of sharers and schmearers! What a shanda!

So what exactly is my problem? I’ll tell you. It’s not that I mind the shared schmearing shtick – as long as you follow the common courtesy rule of no double dipping. For the uninformed, double dipping means that you swipe with a large piece of pita, put it in your mouth, then swipe again with the remains of the same piece – ich! What I mind is what this can lead to – all kinds of relaxed regulations that create offensive table behavior.

Now before I get into it, I’ll admit that this is a dilemma for me. Let’s call it the Communal Plate Cultural Conundrum. Do I, having grown up in America, have the right to say what is polite and acceptable in public company? Who granted me the privilege to judge Israeli behavior and say it is rude and disgusting? Should my Western cultural preferences be given more weight than Middle Eastern ones? The answer is, I don’t know.

My Western background always clashes with my current environment when I sit down to eat in a Middle Eastern restaurant. Your meal is often started with a cornucopia of dishes – offering every salad known to man, on tiny plates. And as soon these mezze arrive on the table, my internal conflict flares up. They do not arrive with individual cocktail forks – like hello? We’re in the Middle East! You’re expected to dig right in and help yourself. It’s the rare person who scoops up a portion with a clean spoon onto his or her plate. The more common tendency is from fork to mouth and back again into the communal plate with same fork. When I’m with my husband, I don’t mind at all. But when it’s done in the company of others, I get a little edgy.

There are those who swear that this sharing phenomenon is the secret to a healthy immune system. All that mixing of germs has just got to be strengthening our kishkes. Just think about all that bacteria from so many different sources prancing around our intestines – doesn’t it increase our resistance to disease? Well maybe, but since I didn’t do very well in high-school biology I’m not venturing an expert opinion here. I’m less concerned with the medical advantages and disadvantages than I am with how it looks – and in my humble opinion – IT LOOKS PRETTY BAD!

If we, as a nation, accept the concept of sharing and schmearing and all that it entails, do we not open ourselves up to other forms of boorish behavior? If we accept sticking one’s fork or pita into a communal plate when there’s humus or tehina involved, why not apply that culinary conduct to pastas and salads and anything else that’s on the table? I actually sat through a lunch at my home where my husband’s friend (notice the stress on husband) continually stuck his fingers into the Chinese cabbage salad in order to pick out the pecans. As a good hostess I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to embarrass him or alarm the other guests. But really! This 50-something-year-old zhlub was having a ball with my cabbage salad while totally oblivious of his faux pas. What’s even worse? No one else at the table even noticed!

How about we put that guy at a dinner party in Portland or London or Cape Town. The table is set with lovely linen, crystal wineglasses and elegant china. The hostess caters the meal family-style, with serving plates on the table rather than buffet style or plated service from the kitchen. Each serving platter and bowl comes with its own dedicated utensil – be it fork, spoon or ladle – so there’s no question as to how the food should make the trip from communal bowl to individual plate. The conversation flows, the wine is drunk, the food is enjoyed and everything is going along smoothly, until the inevitable. The Israeli at the table sticks his fork into the casserole dish and helps himself to a portion.
I’ve seen this phenomenon happen again and again with teenagers to grownups. I’m not talking about children, who perhaps don’t know any better (although, shouldn’t they?). I’m referring to people who have traveled extensively and have cultural intelligence. Shouldn’t they know better? But there I go again, judging.

My objections to this behavior have not been received well. Admittedly, my campaign of Dining in Dignity has not caught on. I, and those like me, are considered too Anglo, too fussy and too out of touch. Our comments are brushed off and our dining companions go right back to their misguided ways.

Perhaps I am wrong. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans. I suppose the sharing and schmearing will continue through future generations. Unless one of you wants to start an offshore branch of the “Dining in Dignity” movement. Count me in for an editorial or two.

Until then, I’m going off to double dip some pita into a plate of humus – no one’s looking.

Anne Kleinberg is a born and bred New Yorker who moved to Israel when she had an epiphany (lobotomy?). She’s the author of “Menopause in Manhattan” and several cookbooks, and she lives with her husband and two mutts in the Garden of Eden (also known as Caesarea). More about her on: www.annekleinberg.com.

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