JOPLIN, Mo. —
I had no idea there was such controversy behind hummus.
There's a lot more that I should be geeking out over, thanks to all the tech-related news that's out there right now. I should be writing about the new Apple systems, how they are trying to look like Windows 8 and how Apple fanboys are OK with that; or how Microsoft and Sony are squaring off in the next-gen console war (Microsoft's Xbox One is losing badly to Playstation 4).
But I'm absolutely fascinated with the controversy behind hummus. Mainly because I love hummus. It's delicious.
I don't even know why I like it so much, because it's basically a paste made out of beans, and I hate beans. Something about the tahini, lemon, garlic and olive oil removes all the beany texture, and leaves it tasting wonderful.
I chow down on it with toasted pita, throw extra minced garlic in it and eat it with chips, and even spread it across steaks and chicken. One of the main reasons I get the Mediterranean platter so often at M&M Bistro is because of the helping of hummus.
In fact, I'm writing this at about 3 a.m. in the morning, and I am so tempted to drive to Food 4 Less and pick some up right now. It's that good.
A brand named Sabra has taken off stateside. Its tubs of hummus are probably not very authentic, but they are selling well -- 60 percent of the market, according to a report from Saki Knafo of The Huffington Post. The company announced an $86 million expansion of its Virginia factory, including 140 new jobs.
As it turns out, Sabra's company leader, Ronen Zohar, has been walking a delicate line between expanding American palates to the dip while downplaying some of the company's more controversial aspects, including a direct tie to some of the Middle East conflicts that have ripped the region apart.
- Pro-Palestinian activists are boycotting Sabra's parent company, Strauss, for backing a branch of the Israeli Army accused of committing human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. Sabra has pillaged Lebanese culture, they argue, by spreading hummus across the pita of the world. Zohar, an Israeli who doesn't mince words, responded by saying, "I am very happy if Lebanon is going to fight about the hummus and not about anything else."
- There is a culture war to claim the creation of hummus. Lebanese industrialists have pushed the European Commission to grant the same kind of protected geographical status rights to hummus that some olives, wines and cheeses have. Different countries have also sparred over who can serve the largest platter of hummus -- Lebanon owns the record by serving about 23,000 pounds at once.
According to Knafo's report, there is an intense culture around hummus restaurants, known as hummusias.
To put it in perspective, imagine a group of food critics who debate the merits of which fast-food restaurant serves the best cheeseburger. They debate everything -- whether the bun is toasted or not, the condiments on the burger, whether it is grilled or fried, etc. Now imagine that nothing less than America's cultural identity should be assigned to one particular combination of all of those points of argument.
That's kind of what happens around the hummus culture of Jerusalem, according to Knafo's report.
So Sabra's Americanized flavors -- supremely spicy, Asian fusion, spinach and artichoke, chipotle, Tuscan garden -- might be viewed as abominations.
I feel comfortable declaring a side in only one facet of this battle: I think Athenos' roasted garlic hummus is much better than Sabra's. But I can't find Athenos anywhere in this area, so I'm stuck with Sabra's glop of garlic in the middle. That is the real hummus controversy, as far as I'm concerned.