David Lebovitz plans to go home to Paris and make shakshuka.Kerstin Rodgers is determined to try her hand at making halla back in London.And Cambria Bold is eager to find some of her favorite new ingredients – including Israeli white cheese – back in New York.
Lebovitz, Rodgers and Bold – along with Erin Zimmer and Pille Petersoo – made up a group of five food bloggers from four countries who toured the country for the first time last week, eating, tweeting, shopping and... eating.The group, brought here by VibeIsrael – a project of the educational nonprofit Kinetis – explored Israel as a culinary destination, from the lively outdoor market of Mahaneh Yehuda in the capital to the cholent and kugel of Bnei Brak and the spiced lamb at Haj Kalil restaurant in Jaffa.They traveled from Jerusalem to Acre, the Galilee and Jaffa, meeting with chefs, farmers and local food bloggers along the way. “Before coming here, I think had a stereotypical notion of what Israeli food was – humous,” says Bold. “And now... I’m really excited to cook with [Israeli flavors] and see what I can do with it.”The five bloggers come from diverse backgrounds but quickly became fast friends somewhere between eating humous in the Old City of Jerusalem and tasting beers in Tel Aviv. Rodgers – known as Ms. Marmite Lover online – runs underground supper clubs. Petersoo, an Estonian native and mother of two, gets about 120,000 visitors a month to her blog, Nami Nami.Bold and Zimmer are both New York-based editors at large food websites – The Kitchn and Serious Eats, respectively. The sites, which are run by multiple contributors and editors and can update over 20 times a day, have more than three million monthly visitors each.Lebovitz, arguably the most famous member of the group – he has over 120,000 followers on Twitter – is a native Californian who now calls Paris home. He has written six books on baking and pastry, the most recent of which is titled Ready for Dessert.“I hadn’t thought of [Israel] as a separate culinary destination in its own right,” says Petersoo, “and I’ve been very surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the food [and] how interesting it’s been.”In her hometown of Tallinn, she says, people mostly think of Israel the way they see it in the news – “which is the Golan Heights, the Palestine issue and the settlements.”“I had quite a few friends who said they wouldn’t actually take their tourist money to Israel for political reasons,” she says.“But the whole point of the trip was to introduce Israel from different vantage points.”The week-long culinary tour is the fourth such trip VibeIsrael has arranged for what its website calls “online opinion leaders and makers.” The participants are encouraged to go home and blog about their experiences – as well as to post thoughts and photos to Facebook and Twitter along the way.The organization previously brought groups of parenting, design and music bloggers to experience areas in which Israel “is offering creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Joanna Landau, founder and executive director of Kinetis.“Some people say we’re doing hasbara [public diplomacy],” she says, “but we’re not doing any hasbara, because we don’t feel we need to explain anything... this is just an experience. And if they see good and if they see bad, we’re fine with it, because that’s Israel. I believe in Israel and what it has to offer, warts and all, because no country is perfect.”The food bloggers unanimously agree that they would love to come back, and second Zimmer’s belief that “a week just wasn’t enough.”“There are definitely a lot of places I would recommend to our readers to come back to,” says the Serious Eats blogger, adding that with so many stories and over 1,000 photos from the week, she’ll have to think hard about where to start when blogging her experience.For Lebovitz, the week was a chance to explore a country and a cuisine he sees as having a lot to offer.“I came for the food, and that has nothing to do with the political situation,” he says. “People try to politicize it, but food in any country is a mix of cultures, Israel as well.”He adds that “there’s a lot of discussion about people taking trips like this because, ‘Is it publicity for the country?’ and ‘What are we doing here?’ But I always think of it as doing things for my readers, I’m always looking for stories to share on my website... and I have actually too much to write about.”And while most of the group’s blog readers and followers have been eagerly following them along their journey, they’ve inevitably received some negative feedback.“It’s been kind of funny to read negative comments people have sent me regarding the situation,” says Lebovitz. “I’m like, you know what, I don’t care, that’s not what this trip is about, it’s about eating felafel, seeing agriculture, drinking wine.”Every destination on their route, he says, has had “its own story – every bakery, every restaurant.”Which is exactly the image Kinetis is looking to project.“When people talk about Israel, it’s always in the context of conflict,” says Landau. “And we don’t want to talk about conflict. We don’t want to avoid it, we don’t want to say it doesn’t exist, but we think that the conversation needs to be expanded.“It’s not that the world is for or against Israel, the biggest groups really just don’t care,” she continues.“They don’t care because we’re not offering anything interesting, anything they can relate to. It’s impossible to relate to this country if all you see is war. It’s not about winning a debate, it’s about winning hearts and minds. When you connect to people on an emotional level, you become their friend, and when your friend does something wrong, then you give them the benefit of the doubt.”And a week eating lamb shwarma, stuffing grape leaves and sampling tuna sashimi has already won over the stomachs of this group.“It was amazing to see how fresh and vibrant the food was here,” says Rodgers, “and also how many times a day you can eat humous.”“I haven’t had enough, actually,” says Lebovitz.“We’ve had it like, three times a day... humous, humous, humous,” adds Bold.After packing and repacking their suitcases to fit in all the swag they’ve picked up along the way, the bloggers headed home this week, but not without a few final thoughts.“Farewell Israel,” tweeted Bold from Ben-Gurion Airport. “You have filled my stomach with good food + my life with good people.”As for Lebovitz, he was just relieved he made it on the plane without a weigh-in.“Thank goodness they didn’t put me on the scale,” he tweeted before taking off. “Still astounded by how great the food in Israel is. Will miss the vegs, soft cheeses & herbs.”