The Connection. I read To the End of the Land during lunch breaks while eating a favorite sandwich from Clover, a local vegetarian eatery. At some point, I made the connection that this scrumptious, hot, crispy, creamy eggplant sandwich is probably an Israeli recipe. I was correct: it was brought to Israel in the 1940s–50s by Iraqi Jews. Also, it sounds like a lot of work, but the hummus and eggs can be made much in advance, and the Israeli salad lasts at least a couple days.
Sabich (Egg and Eggplant Pita Sandwich)
1 can of chickpeas
2 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper
1/2 large cucumber
Salt and pepper
1 small eggplant
First, make or buy the hummus. Making hummus is an excellent way to feel like a chef (that is, to feel released from the onus of following a recipe step by step, terrified something might go awry), because it’s simple and made largely to taste. The base recipe I use is: puree 1 can chickpeas with half the water from the can, 2 tablespoons tahini, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. To that I added a minced clove of garlic, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and about 12 cranks of fresh black pepper, but these last ingredients can vary according to taste or what’s in your fridge—roasted red peppers, olives, various spices, or feta all make scrumptious additions. If you serve the hummus as a dip, reserve a few chickpeas for garnish, along with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of paprika.
Next, hard boil the eggs. There are roughly a gazillion strategies to make perfect hard-boiled eggs. I prefer a method of average complexity and reliable results: place your eggs in a saucepan and fill with cool water 2 inches above the eggs. Crank the heat and wait for the water to come to a full boil. When it does, turn off the heat, cover, and let sit for 13 minutes. Put the eggs in a colander and run cold water over them until cool. When cool, peel and slice into 1/4″ coins. (Tip: eggs that are at least a few days old are easier to peel.)
While the eggs are cooking, make the Israeli salad. There are many variations of this, so again, make according to taste. I diced half an onion, half a large cucumber, and one tomato, added a splash of olive oil, a large splash of lemon, and a few generous shakes of salt and pepper. I suspect adding feta would be delicious, too, although that might be encroaching too much on the traditional Greek salad. Not sure. Anyway, make and set aside.
The eggplant comes last, because it should be hot and crispy when it goes into the sandwich. Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch slices and salt generously. Microwave 4 minutes, drain, and blot dry to reduce absorbency and bitter liquid. Heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat, and add the eggplant in a single layer. Cook, turning infrequently, until the dry whiteness has disappeared completely, the eggplant is glistening, and the edges brown and turn slightly crispy.
Finally, assemble the sandwich. You can’t really go wrong, but here are a few tips: (1) fry the pita and the egg in the frying pan after you remove the eggplant for extra deliciousness; (2) use a very generous layer of hummus; (3) add layers of egg and eggplant next; (4) blot the salad dry with a paper towel, or at least drain it very thoroughly, before piling it on; (5) sprinkle a pinch of salt, pepper, and maybe cayenne or paprika on the finished sandwich; (6) eat immediately while the eggplant is still hot.
“Happiness is always premature.”
The Plot. When Ora’s son volunteers for a dangerous military operation, she sets off on a personal pilgrimage across Israel. For companionship she kidnaps Avram, an old, damaged friend who had cut himself out of her life years ago, and leaves home immediately, stubbornly clinging to the idea that the military can’t notify her of her son’s death if she’s not around to receive the notice.
Why you should read it. This isn’t the kind of book I usually read, and I probably wouldn’t have read it if someone hadn’t thumped all 581 pages down on my desk one afternoon along with an enthusiastic recommendation, but I did. And I couldn’t put it down.
The whole story is in the dialogue that Ora and Avram share as they hike the Israel National Trail together, reliving and reconstructing their lives through conversation. The chronology jumps around a bit, but the narrative is always easy to follow and engaging. That being said, there is very little actual action. Read a few pages after the first chapter, and if you don’t want to read more, put down the book. It’s not going to change.
The characters, each one a thoroughly and carefully rendered human being, make the book. Grossman introduces the most ordinary flaws carefully and thoughtfully. Instead of just listing them, he shows how each manifests in a life, and, in doing so, he redefines what tired old attributes like impatience, mother-henning, and frugality mean in an individual.
Also, To the End of the Land is a heart-wrenching story about the need for peace. It strips away the politics and tit-for-tat justifications, focusing on a single, moderately wealthy family. They are loving. They are ordinary. Thus far, the war has not claimed any lives. From the outside, they are the lucky ones; they have really barely been scratched by the conflict. But individually, on the inside, they have each been defined and, in some cases, broken by it. Grossman shows how deeply the conflict is affecting the narrative of his country and altering the lives of even the luckiest.
I should note that although this is the story of a Jewish family and their suffering, both sides are portrayed sympathetically. As much as is possible, this is a story about war, peace, and family, not politics.
- Grossman wrote the novel while his own son was serving in the army, adding poignancy and weight to an already moving story. Just before he finished, he received notice that his son had been killed in service.
- Having a solid understanding of the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict would probably enhance the reading, but it’s not at all required. And yes, I just linked to Wikipedia. Please do go read a proper book instead if you feel inspired.