By Kendall Vanderslice
On September 30th, a rainy Wednesday evening, Dr. Ari Ariel presented the second Pepin lecture of the year, titled “Hummus Wars: Buying and Boycotting Middle Eastern Foods.” The new head of the Gastronomy program began his presentation with a slideshow of the Guinness World Record competition between Lebanon and Israel, each vying for the award of producing the largest hummus dish. A 9,000-pound dish in Israel was quickly defeated by a group of Lebanese chefs. After a few rounds of back and forth battling, the record for largest dish of hummus was won by Chef Ramzi Choueiri and students in Lebanon for their 23,000 pound serving.
While this might sound like nothing more than friendly competition between neighboring countries, Dr. Ariel says he views the hummus record as an extension of the political climate. It is set, he explains, within “a rhetoric of violence that turns cooks into combatants.” Since 2008, Lebanon has been seeking a legal claim to hummus. By trademarking hummus in the European Union, they aim to regulate the proportions of ingredients allowed in the tasty dip and require Lebanese recognition on every label.
The history of hummus is largely unknown. In Arabic, the word simply means “chickpea,” but the dish hummus bi tahini has become so popular around the world that it is commonly referred to as simply hummus. The exact origin remains a mystery – the earliest recipe is found in a 13th century cookbook – yet several countries claim ownership of the dish. Because hummus exists between multiple foodways and constructions of identity, this attempt to trademark the dish raises questions of authenticity and gastro-nationalism. Who has a right to regulate claims to authenticity? Is authenticity a product of, or a producer of, identity and nationality?
According to Dr. Ariel, the hummus wars prove that, while food can serve to reconcile, it can also push things in the opposite direction. Far from a bridge to peace, this culinary rivalry creates a new space within which political conflict can work itself out. Whether this non-violent space will remain such is yet to be discovered. So the next time you reach for some hummus, remember that the dish is a little deeper than you thought.