Dr. Uri Mayer-Chissick, Neve Eitan, 06.02.14
I went to Neve Eitan to meet Uri in his deli and was fortunate to meet his crew as well – Tali, Anat, Roman and Ifat – together they make this place what it is: tasty, interesting, easygoing and fun. I also joined them for lunch that Uri and Roman whipped up in 15 minutes. We had wrapped hummus, freekeh, salad, cured lemon spread with garlic and parsley, homemade mustard spread, cashew yogurt and sourdough bread. Yummy!
Can you please tell a little about your background and how you came to food research?
I worked in education and loved cooking. My wife Tali and I went on a trip to the US; in San Diego I was in a second-hand bookstore and found a book called A History of Food, so I bought it and that’s how it all started. Since then I’ve been researching the history and traditions surrounding food and medicine. I made a deal with Tali that every time I finish a book she buys me a new one.
What’s your agenda or the main goal that motivates you in all your activities?
In my research I discovered that as we get farther away from our food, on the one hand our diet becomes poorer and on the other we harm our health, our environment and our society. This process has begun during the agricultural revolution. When people were gatherers they were very close to their food; they picked something and immediately ate it. The agricultural revolution created a small gap as the food was grown and stored, then rural communities, towns etc. have developed, and today we have no idea where our food comes from. I believe that in order to improve our quality of life in general, not only nutritionally but socially as well, we have to get closer to our food. In many different ways I seek to draw people nearer to their food and spread the knowledge – where the food comes from, who grows it, why do we eat sugar and how it affects our body, getting to know the local traditions that have developed over thousands of years – those are the issues that are the most important to me.
You’re involved in many different projects: promoting small businesses, teaching courses and workshops, cooking, the deli etc. Which of your projects do you like the most, and which is the most important to you?
I like the balance between the different activities. I like to be in the kitchen and cook; I like teaching cooking; I like the foraging trips, and I like to give lectures. If I were to do only one of them exclusively, I wouldn’t have enjoyed them so much.
Currently I’m in charge of the “Health Leadership” program in the Dao College. I have amazing students; we meet once a week and for nine hours I mess with their minds in order to create a learning group that would cope with all the topics of my research. This is the best day of my week, and every week I look forward to it – being with the students and beating our brains out. This is my most important project – teaching people to pass the knowledge on.
What has to happen/change for you to say: “I’ve succeeded!”?
I don’t have aspirations to change the world. I’m satisfied if somebody implements any part of the knowledge s/he received from me and makes a small step: stops consuming sugar or white refined flour or starts buying the white flour in a local store instead of a supermarket. Any step is significant; I’d like to get to people so they could make the change by themselves.
What do you know today about food/nutrition that you’d have preferred to know earlier?
I believe there is no such thing. Gradual learning is natural. I teach people to make gradual changes, and the same goes for me. I wouldn’t have liked to know everything from the start. As a child I’d have preferred to be a person that eats healthy, nutritious and high quality food, but the culture was different then. As far as the development of my knowledge is concerned, I’m glad that it developed gradually and in a balanced manner. On the other hand, I’m happy that my girls receive this knowledge and traditions from infancy.
Any tips how to impart healthy eating habits to kids?
One must start very early in childhood and to inspire by personal example. It’s impossible to expect from the child not to eat chocolate when there is some in the fridge for the parents. On the same note, it’s absurd to tell the child that white flour is bad while keeping some in the pantry. First thing is removing all the harmful foods from the house and serving as a positive example by snacking on fresh fruits and vegetables, for instance. As parents our role in setting an example is paramount; our children watch and imitate our behavior even if it doesn’t look like it.
What do you like to cook, and what do you like to eat most?
I like cooking for Tali, because I enjoy cooking for someone I love. I’m not sure I have a favorite food. Maybe a salad. Sometimes I feel the urge to eat fresh vegetables; I stop by the road and gather some greens from the field. Salad would be my choice.
What do you think about organic food?
Organic is a brand name, some of the products it encompasses are good and some not. Even half-conventional organic is better than the conventional cultivations that are treated with pesticides almost uncontrollably. Organic can mean ‘treated with approved pesticides’, but organic can also mean ‘permaculture’ that doesn’t use any pesticides. What really important is to know where the food comes from and how it was cultivated than to call it by some name. Local food can also be very harmful. The main concern should be what ‘local’ or ‘organic’ essentially stand for. I’d like to base the meaning in knowledge. So it’s not enough to say that something is organic in order for me to buy it. I need to know who’ve grown it, how it was grown, is it nutritious or harmful. Using brand names is not enough.
What, in your opinion, is the connection between consumption of local produce and eco way of living?
It depends what you call ecological. I think ‘sustainable’ is a better word. We can call ecological only something that supports the environment – earth, trees, air – but ecological also supports the community. Local foods travel less, and crops that are compatible with the local environment need less irrigation, less pesticides and support the soil. If you’re buying from your neighbor, you’re supporting your community and invest in it. That’s why ‘local’ is more environmental.
Which special products do you have in your deli that I couldn’t get anywhere else?
There are lots of good products, but especially those we make ourselves – the spices blends and the fermented foods like sauerkraut, cured lemons, mustard and hot chilies. They are fermented here in barrels, unpasteurized, and unsterilized; those are pretty hard to get in regular stores. The idea behind the deli is to show that it’s possible to make good, nutritious, high quality, inexpensive and local food without being dependent on the supermarket. The deli is relatively new, but slowly it grows. There is always something new – today we made the cured lemons spread.
In the “MekoMeet” project you’ve been working on a directory of local producers/growers. Is it already accessible?
Currently we have a table with this information on our site. We’re trying to make it more accessible, but it’s a long and complicated process. We believe that it’s important to get to know the artisans and craftsmen in your area that are making local and high quality food and other products. Get to know your neighbors and what they do. There are so many talented people that are making good things; just open your eyes. Every day we’re in a hurry, so we just ignore what surrounds us – a neighbor that makes cheese at home, or olive oil, or rag dolls. That’s much more important than going to the supermarket. We lose our community and society that way by not paying any notice.
What do you hope to achieve in 2014? Do you have any new plans?
I hope to carry on with what I’m already doing. There are lots of projects, for instance, I’m working with my students on a project of ‘laws of nutritious food’. Similar to Jewish Kosher Halacha (kosher food laws), we’re writing a book of nourishing food principles to help people decide which food is nutritious the same way you decide what is kosher. It’s a very interesting project. In addition I’m going to continue developing other ongoing projects – teaching, workshops, foraging and the deli.