Israelis are celebrating their 64th Independence Day and for many citizens this means one thing: beef.
Meat, steaks and kebabs and plenty of them, preferably grilled outside among friends -- shirtless men fanning the flames, the women setting out the side dishes and the children darting in and out of streams of smoke. Rib eye, T-bone or sirloin? Beef, chicken or fish? Rare, medium or well done? It doesn’t matter as long as it’s on the Bar-B-Que.
“On Independence Day we don’t stop eating meat for a minute because it’s a celebration. The people of Israel have a wonderful thing -- we’ve got independence so we eat and drink and rejoice,” says Nissim Levy as he was examining the offers at a meat stall in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market days before the holiday, which this year falls on April 26. “It’s not important what kind of meat you eat, but who you eat it with.”
The rest of the year Israelis are actually not big meat eaters. And yet, compared to the rest of the world, it turns out that Israelis are not among the big meat eaters at all. Meat consumption is 13.5 kilograms per capita a year. In Argentina, which tops the list, people eat 65.9 kilograms of meat a year per capita.
But Israelis become carnivorous once a year. Last year, the country consumed some 102,650 tons of meat, which came to about 282 tons a day, according to the Israeli Meat Council. Based on past years, the people of Israel will throw more than four times that daily average on their grills for Independence Day .
“Everybody has a Bar-B-Que in every open space,” says Etiel Sharabi, his arms loaded down with cuts of every kind. “We are ready we have done our shopping and have bought a lot of meat. Every year we do a Bar-B-Que with all of our best friends. It‘s a tradition.”
Shopping for beef, poultry and so on is expected to increase by 15 percent to 20% in the days ahead of the holiday.
“Israelis like meat and chicken and lamb chop and entrecote steak, like kebab. This is kebab from lamb,” says butcher Eli Simantov, holding a plastic bag full of freshly ground meat. “People take it home and put pepper, salt, parsley and onions and make very good kebab.”
Simantov says most of the meat in Israel is kosher and imported from Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. The Meat Council says that some 40% of meat sold in Israel is fresh and grown by Israeli ranchers.
It turns out that the protests over the increasing cost of living and high food prices will have little impact on the holiday meat purchases in a country where it is almost sacrilegious not to eat meat on Independence Day.
“The people want meat. The people say gimme, gimme, gimme. The price goes up 30% to 40%, you know. But not me, eh,” Simantov adds with a wink.
One woman haggled with a butcher over the price of chicken wings, spread out to show her they were fresh.
“On Independence Day, we make a Bar-B-Que and eat meat with all the family and kids and friends and have a great time singing and eating. We eat a lot, and I really like the chicken wings,” she says.
In some butcher shops, fresh cuts of fillet hung on great hooks, while in the back butchers whacked at cow heads and mixed offal. The most popular cuts of steak for the Bar-B-Ques that will pop up in parks and parking lots are fillet, entrecote and sirloin, according to the Meat Council. Some 1,230 tons of meat are expected to be devoured on the one day.
“People like shoulder, sirloin, the good cuts, like this,” says one butcher fondling a hunk of meat on a hook. “People like to be happy so they eat meat.”
It wasn’t always like this. A generation ago meat was too expensive for the masses.
“The first steak that I ever ate was when I was in the army, about 20 years old, which was about 30 years ago. I think that since then it has become part of the tradition, or part of the rules of this day,” says Avi Rosenbaum, owner of the El Gaucho Restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. El Gaucho specializes in steaks prepared Argentinean style.
He says that one of the reasons eating meat has become associated with Independence Day is because it is one of the few holidays in Israel that is not religious in origin. Jewish law restricts the use of fire for many holidays, as it does for the Sabbath.
“During the years the only rule that became part of this holiday is to go out, to bring your friend, to bring some good meat and some good wine a little bit of vegetables and celebrate all day long,” Rosenbaum says. “I think this is the only time during the year that people go out with the Bar-B-Que and celebrate for hours and not just making the steaks and run back home.”
So much meat is being grilled on Independence Day in Israel that it can almost be renamed National Bar-B-Que day.