For two years, from 1984-1986, I lived in Jerusalem. I went to learn Hebrew, to work as a writer, to break up a relationship without facing the breakup.
I had been living in San Francisco after college, typing out plays and freelance articles. I was trying my best to be a starving artist, except for the fact that I landed a job as a baker at a new place near Union Square called Il Fornaio. It was the first American branch of the Milan-based bakery, and everything they taught me to make was novel, and delicious.
My day began by creaming 20 pounds of sweet butter in a stand up Hobart mixer the size of a Datsun. When it was fluffy and white I poured in quart pitchers full of white sugar, then egg yolks, cornmeal, flour, lemon zest and vanilla. I extruded the thick batter onto sheet pans from conical pastry bags to form crumiri, a polenta butter cookie. You can’t be a real starving artist when breakfast is a quarter pound of raw cookie dough, followed by warm, fresh crumiri.
I liked the job, and I was good at it. This was in the days before every dishwasher had a culinary degree, so the crew was as aimless and hungry as me. The dark, handsome main chef, also an Italian import, had a reputation, and when he wasn’t showing us how to stir risotto for 100, he was kneading the narrow, muscled shoulders of the head baker, the most attractive woman on the staff, who also happened to be his American protégé. Every once in a while his very pretty, dark-haired Italian wife would stage snap visits, and they’d lock themselves in the small office and scream Italian at each other.
I strongly believed that the entire staff was going out after work without me to drink and get high and sleep together—boys, girls, Italians. They showed up for work tired and smiling and ravenous. Their breakfast of choice was espresso along with handfuls of nuts from the bulk bins. To this day it’s a miracle to me Il Fornaio survived long enough to expand across America, when the company must have lost thousands of dollars in pine nuts alone.
After work, I rode my bike over the hills back to my apartment on Duboce Triangle, where I read classics that for some reason I chose not to read in college, and wrote those plays, and nursed my sourdough starter. I also got involved with a woman, a food-lover, and fell in love, and it all happened like most things did to me in my twenties, as if in a dream, and when I awoke I thought: Jesus, get a grip, she’s married….
My first roommate in Jerusalem was a South African woman, also in her twenties. She rented me a room in her flat, and was pleasant when she had to be, but otherwise greeted me with a constant look of disapproval. She was more observant than me, which is to say, she was observant. And she was in graduate school, and busy, and I seemed to her to be wasting my time.
I started freelancing, and it paid just enough. And just as in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time finding new food to try, and eat, and cook. I fell in with a group of young Israelis who were in love with the actual land of Israel. On weekends and holidays we traveled and hiked the tiny country, so long before the first feta and watermelon salad or za’atar flatbread immigrated to America as “Small Plates,” I tried them at the farms of their relatives, or in homes of friends in neighboring Arab villages, or at ramshackle cafes overlooking the sea in Jaffo.
I shopped for the ingredients to these things in the open market in Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda, and brought them back to the small, shared kitchen. My roommate ate toast, marmite and, on Shabbat, sweet kugel from a local takeout.
Meanwhile I bought a cutting board and made Israeli salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and chopped fresh mint. A friend in the village of Ibelin showed me that proper tabouli is-- mostly parsley, mint and romaine, with just a handful of bulghar wheat-- so I went through bushels of those greens. I made tea from lemon verbena which, like manna, grew in Jerusalem parkways, while in winter I steeped long, blue-silver sage. I ground cilantro—kusbara— with chilis and fenugreek leaves into a green hot sauce, schug, which I ate with everything. And I dumped handfuls of fresh bay leaves, basil and oregano into chopped tomatoes for sauce.
“Robert!” my roommate said one day. I was in the kitchen, at the cutting board, and she had burst out of her room, not able to hold her disgust, or her tongue any longer. “What is it with you and…and……and LEAVES?”
She pointed to the counter, which was covered in bunches of cilantro, parsley, sprigs of verbena and spears of bay.
“They’re herbs,” I said. “I cook with them.”
“They’re just… leaves,” she said. "This kitchen is always full of leaves."
With a South African accent, it sounded particularly disgusting, as if I had spread garden refuse all over our home.
I moved out a few weeks later, and fell in love again not long after that with an Israeli who, for one thing, shared my love of leaves.
Two years later, I came back to America . I had learned Hebrew. I was writing about the kinds of things I cared about. But I hadn’t learned enough about breaking up to be able to stay on the same continent when I did it.
In my garden, in Venice, I grow every leaf I ever ate in Jerusalem. Verbena, parsley, basil, oregano, cilantro, sage. My favorite is the bay laurel I planted outside our family room window 15 years ago. The foot-long shoot is now a 40-foot tree, thick with fragrant California bay laurel. I use them in sauces, I tuck a dozen in a pan of roasting potatoes, I braise them with my artichokes, I grill them under fish filets, I crush them into my gin and tonics.
California bay is a coastal native. The ones in Israel are the smaller Turkish variety, which cookbooks will tell you are less pungent and more refined. Don’t believe it. These beauties carry the essence of the Santa Monica Mountains right into your food. Before I start cooking a big dinner, I go outside and cut a branch, stripping them off as I need them, happy to see my countertop adorned in a crown of leaves, leaves, leaves.
[RECIPE] Cucumber and Bay Leaf Gin and Tonic
Muddle 6 fresh California bay leaves and a 3-inch section of cucmber in a cocktail shaker with a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar or agave syrup. Add two jiggers of of gin and ice. Shake vigorously. Pour into highball glasses filled with more ice, and top with tonic. Garnish with a fresh bay leaf and a slice of cucucmber.