The legacy of Kibbutz food in modern Israeli kitchens

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The kibbutz was an influential cultural icon of Israel’s development, and the heart of the kibbutz was the dining hall. The very bedrock of the nation was formed in these large communal halls where kibbutz workers would fortify themselves for the day with a well-rounded breakfast, socialize over a shared brunch or lunch and end their days with dinner and conversation along with their families and peers in these large, boisterous halls. While the kibbutz of today looks a lot different from the farms of the early Israeli settlers, the impact of kibbutz food can still be felt today.

In popular Israeli culture, kibbutz food is a little bit of a punching bag.  People like to make jokes about how bad the food could be, and those who are old enough to have first-hand experience of the early kibbutz often enjoy swapping horror stories of their most loathed meals. And there is some truth to that. After all, if you need to quickly make food for over 100 people with limited resources, you’re likely to have the occasional "it will have to do” dish.

But this is largely an exaggeration of the actual history. The kibbutz dining hall has consistently been a place of experimentation and cultural growth that has developed right alongside Israel as a nation. As diaspora chefs returned to Israel to join the kibbutz experience, they brought with them recipes and techniques from around the world that were reflected in those kitchens. And as the state of Israel developed and changed over the decades, changing what types and quantities of food were both available locally and for import, the style and kind of food served in the average kibbutz changed along with them. 

Despite the reputation, the kibbutz was THE place to go for quality ingredients and food in the 1950’s. As austerity measures gripped the rapidly expanding state, forcing rationing and limitations on many common ingredients like butter, meat, and some types of vegetables, Israelis faced a dilemma. They could either go without, turn to the black market to stock their pantry (and all the risks and costs associated with that), or go to their local kibbutz which produced those rationed items and often had an abundance to spare.

As a communal experience that was served by trolleys and trays wheeled from table to table, choice was not a priority for the kibbutz of the 40s and 50s. This has been described as the "instead” period of kibbutz dining. If you didn’t like the main dish for the meal, no problem, you could have whatever else was made instead. This was generally a less elaborate (and often less appealing) alternative. And if you didn’t like either option, well, tough luck. This is likely where a lot of the less pleasant memories of kibbutz food comes from and it’s not hard to imagine why. 

This improved over the 60s and 70s however as most kibbutz transitioned from serving members table to table and instead opted for a self-serve system similar to a cafeteria. Take your plate up to the buffet and make your selection based on what was available. This allowed for more choice in the average kibbutz meal plan while still keeping the logistics simple enough to provide for a large group quickly.

The 90s marked a period of privatization for many kibbutz.  Meals went from being freely provided to paid services. Naturally this led to increased selection and quality, after all if you’re paying for a meal it better be what you want. But this has led to the kibbutz dining hall experience losing some of its identity.

And it’s hard to describe how valuable that identity is to Israel. The kibbutz was where entire generations of Israeli’s grew up. It was the system that helped to develop the nation and form it’s national character. Many kibbutz chefs became local legends to those who ate their food, for example Yankale’s Yeast Cookies were so beloved and requested in Kibbutz Na’an that the recipe was engraved on the chef’s tombstone when he passed!

Today so called "kibbutz foods" have become a staple in Israeli homes. Late evening snacks and hearty kibbutz style breakfasts are popular across the country, focusing on salads, olives, eggs, yogurt  and cheese.  Meat is never included, but various types of fish are, and the preparations vary depending on where you are in the country. Different pickled foods are also directly inspired from kibbutz kitchens and enjoyed as a snack. And of course, no kibbutz breakfast would be complete without a healthy helping of bread products, juice and a steaming cup of coffee.

The kibbutz breakfast is so popular it’s become a mainstay of Israeli hotels. Included with your stay at most hotels is a hearty kibbutz approved breakfast offering. It’s become so ingrained in the culture that any attempts to swap to (less expensive) continental breakfast offerings in the early 80s were met with widespread derision and ended in failure. The kibbutz breakfast has remained a mainstay since.

The heyday of the kibbutz has long since passed, and of the roughly 270 kibbutz remaining in Israel, only a select few still offer the classic cooperative dining experience. Despite this though, the legacy and impact of this food and style of life can still be felt in Israel today, from home breakfast tables to restaurants. A connection to Israeli heritage that is still alive today.

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