The Hummus Wars

Hummus and Pita - Erin J. Bernard

Hummus and Pita – Erin J. Bernard

I used to hate hummus. I mean, like, really, really abhor hummus. Considering my Middle Eastern heritage, my intense dislike of the beige stuff was pretty much sacrilegious, and intensely baffling to everyone around me. And I guess that was sort of how I wanted it.

Hummus was available by the vatful at every family gathering we ever had when I was a kid. And I summarily shunned it. I’d turn my nose up at my Lebanese grandmother’s ministrations, preferring instead to dip my carrot sticks in nasty-ass ranch dressing; to smear my Syrian bread with spicy mustard, or cheese dip, or anything, really, so long as it wasn’t that vile, lemon-tinged spread.

But it wasn’t personal with me and hummus. Looking back, I suppose both my initial hatred for and eventual veneration of it had more to do with being contrary than it ever did with the actual dip itself. Cause honestly, what’s not to like? It’s a cheaply made and entirely unassuming concoction: toss two-bucks-worth of beans, tahini and garlic into a blender and you’re in easy meals for month.

But I hated the smell of hummus. I hated the texture of hummus. And most of all, I hated being constantly strong-armed into “just giving it another try” by my garbanzo bean-gobbling brethren.

“You’re crazy,” they’d announce as they loaded heaping spoonfuls onto black olives, onto cold lamb, onto green radish salad, onto anything in reach, really. It didn’t matter what the food was: it functioned merely as a delivery mechanism for the great globs of hummus.

But I cared not a whit. I’d glare back, reach for the French’s and defiantly splooge a watery dollop onto my flatbread.

They’d merely gaze over at me like I was an alien, then continue with their garlicky repast.

By the end of such a night, my grandparent’s entire house would begin to reek of reconstituted garlic. And as I was the only one abstaining, I was also they only one who could smell it. The windows would fog up and the afterglow of the hummus glut would seep through everyone’s pores and out of their slackened mouths as they dozed on the flower-patterned davenports, platefuls of olive pits quivering atop their distended bellies. The smell would drive me out to the darkened backyard garden. There, I’d station myself among the bowling trophies on metal stakes that my grandfather had driven into the dirt at irregular intervals. And I’d pout. These people were crazy. I was sure.

I grew. Things changed. In the mid-1990s, hummus fell into sudden fashion in urban pockets across the U.S., including Portland. The freewheeling and ultra-polarized culinary landscape of the 80s was in its death throes: McDonalds, Easy Cheese, Twinkies, were déclassé, even trashy. But so was the lofty egocentrism of haute cuisine: People wanted to eat well, but they certainly didn’t want it to make them fat or broke.

Hummus made that dream attainable by acting as a sort of great equalizer. Unlike sushi or snails, it came cheap. And unlike veal or caviar, eating it didn’t make you feel like an asshole. Spoonfuls of cilantro hummus spread onto a plate of saltine crackers for din din allowed broke hipsters to maintain both their (questionable) ethics and their (immutable) dignity. What’s more, the opposite sex found hummus charming, bad breath be damned: out on a date, ordering a hummus platter appetizer in place of chicken fingers or crab cakes made a person seem worldly, health-conscious, adventuring. And bringing a tub of kalamata olive hummus and a bag of tortilla chips to a party was a popular and economical solution for any cool kid short on coin, or creativity, or both. Just like that, everybody was eating it, because they wanted to. And because they could.

Everybody except me.

The meteoric rise of this gustatory giant coincided neatly with the slow burnout of my childhood, although I suppose at the time I only vaguely noted that either of those particular constellations had begun with its irrevocable shifting. I was too busy being rash and impressionable and entirely infatuated with the New Guard of Older and Wiser scenesters I’d begun to spot out and about in Portland. I was a comet’s tail, chasing after a set of re-imagined ideals that both perplexed and intrigued me. The city was changing. And I wanted to change, too. Sort of.

Smart little tubs of hummus appeared in the deli section of the grocery store, next to the brie and the prosciutto. Friends started insisting we eat out at an ethnic-without-being-too-ethnic Hawthorne Street café called “Garbanzo’s.” I began to reconsider. Perhaps the nougaty, fibrous pabulum was more than just a foul-odored throwback to the Old County. Perhaps it was something worth rethinking.

So, come 1998, I grudgingly set aside the curio of excuses I’d been hurtling at relatives for a decade-and-a-half (It’s too mooshy, it gives you butt-breath, it tastes like the inside of a man’s dress loafer smells) and I purchased a package of Athenos-brand roasted red pepper hummus from the Safeway near my house. Ounce for ounce, that round little tub cost a good ten times more than my grandmother would have shilled to make the homemade version. I brought it home and spread a thick layer onto a piece of toast. Standing alone in kitchen, I scrunched my eyes and took a bite. And … something was different. I was different. I ate and I ate, and as my belly expanded, all those nights sulking alone in the gardens of my malcontented youth fell away and I rose up, a (kind of) new person.

Of course, my grandmother was overjoyed when I informed her of my culinary deconversion. She started bringing me quarts and quarts of her version of the stuff, delivered always in a repurposed cottage-cheese container, and made extra salty, just how I liked. In the early-aughts, when I was a destitute, vegetarian university student, she also taught me how to make it. Our family recipe, I discovered, was runnier, lemonier, and imagined from a more spare spread of ingredients. My grandma insisted it was more “authentic.” It was a vague word, crowded with opposing possible interpretations, but I’d learned by then -from my close observations of Bigger Kids that it connoted something of infinitesimally high worth. I ditched the French’s and the ranch. I did not look back.

Today, I’m almost 30. My grandma will turn 85 this October. We still make hummus together. It’s now on the starter menus of at least 80,000 Portland restaurants, and a covey of competing labels do battle with Athenos in the deli case. Scads of culinary trends have come and gone, but this particular one has endured, at least in Pacific Northwest. And why not? The stuff is simple, inexpensive and healthy, with just a touch of the exotic. Eating it is sort of like a vacation in a tub, and shoveling down a humble meal of pita and hummus in front of the TV some Thursday night with the lights dimmed, a person could imagine himself fantastically transported: seated upon a mirrored pillow in some Bedouin tent in the Moroccan desert, perhaps, where the hookahs bubble well past midnight, where dancing girls gyrate their browned bellies in the shadows of a low-burning fire, where endless silver platters of hamos lay spread across low, rough-hewn tables and some friendly, dark-eyed stranger with garlic-breath crouches nearby, whispering, “Yahalla! Eat, eat, habibi!”

I recently had the misfortune of spending two years in the Midwest. As cultural trending tends to incubate on the coasts and bleed slowly inward, hummus was just coming into fashion there. Same for Pabst. At the time, I was a vegan, but I was also extremely poor and had no car, so I subsisted largely on hummus. In spite of or perhaps because of my checkered past, I took to the task of seeking converts with great zeal.

I taught a roommate my family’s recipe and we’d spend hours concocting new takes: sundried tomato and feta hummus. Green-olive hummus. Extra garlic and chives hummus. Salsa hummus. Our fridge was packed with the little Tupperware containers. Everything began to smell like garlic, including the soy milk. One of the recipes even ended up in the local paper.

Not everyone was sold. I often found myself stationed by the snack table at boring Midwestern birthday parties, coaxing the faint of heart with the self-same kit of proddings that had so enraged me during my childhood:

Just try it. Have one more bite! You’ll get used to the texture.

Sometimes they did. And sometimes they merely wrinkled their noses and turned back to their platefuls of catsup and curly fries. I couldn’t blame them. A little hummus is a healthy thing, life and value-affirming, even. But so,too, is the free exercise of a sturdy incertitude. I get that.

I really, really get that.

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One thought on “The Hummus Wars

  1. Lisa says:

    Yum! You are making me hungry just by reading this. I too spent a couple of my “healthier” years subsisting on different flavors of locally made hummus (King Harvest brand)- give me a tub of it and some carrots and cucumbers from the farmer’s market and that would be my dinner. 🙂 Oh, how I miss those delicious, simple meals. Then I found out I’m allergic to sesame seeds!! Which I’m wondering is due to consuming too much hummus?! Is that even possible? I still love it, but now I rarely ever eat it…unless it is the authentic stuff made by Doris. 🙂

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