Caption

Hunting for Boston butt in the Holy Land

Somewhere on the outskirts of Nazareth, Israel, our gray Lexus SUV turned off a main road, descended a hill past a set of low-slung buildings, and crunched over the gravel that was attempting to swallow the narrow strip of pavement. A lone Arab man walked along the road, and we pulled up alongside him. Yudy rolled down the window and began a long, seemingly contentious conversation with him in Hebrew. Yudy’s daughter, sitting in the car with us, gave me a running translation.

We were looking for white meat, Yudy said. Someone had said there was a butcher near here that might sell it.

The man scoffed, his arms flying. White meat? Why would he know about such a thing?

The man informed us he was Muslim and not, like so many residents of Nazareth, Christian. He stonewalled us for a while before caving. There was perhaps a Christian butcher up the hill. We would have to get to a roundabout, take a right turn and …

“Yudy, for God’s sake,” I implored as we lurched forward on the next leg of our strange Holy Land odyssey. “We can eat something else. I don’t have to make pork.”

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“We’ll find it,” he said, determination in his voice.

How did I end up here, literally traversing the unlikeliest country on earth for a Boston butt? Why was I looking for a food so repugnant to that country’s citizens, both Jew and Arab, that it didn’t even have a name in either Hebrew or Arabic? It announced itself via euphemism — “white meat” — and only showed up here and there. In a Russian-owned supermarket. In an ever-dwindling cohort of restaurants willing to alienate patrons. In Tel Aviv’s lone barbecue food truck. You might find a frozen chop or package of sausages. A bone-in pork shoulder? Good luck.

While on a recent trip to Israel, former AJC food editor and dining critic John Kessler and a longtime friend went in search of a pork shoulder for a special meal. He finally found the white meat at Kibbutz Mizra in the Jezreel Valley. CONTRIBUTED BY JOHN KESSLER (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In a way, this quest began over 40 years ago in a 9th grade biology class. That’s where I met Yudy, shortly after his diplomat father moved the family to a suburb of Washington, D.C. There is nothing like that friendship you make when you are 13, and you stay up all night at sleepovers, raiding the kitchen. In his, there was falafel, fried eggplant and hummus, foods I never before had tried. In mine, there was leftover Chinese carryout, bacon and breakfast links. One night, we decided to eat olives and ice cream together, which Yudy, in his colorful English, called “a war in your mouth.” (Let’s just say that middle school in the ’70s was a time of experimentation.)

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Two years later, Yudy’s family moved back to Israel. We finished high school as pen pals. I went to a cushy liberal arts college with dorm-room maid service. He went to the army to fight in Lebanon. His letters were harrowing and morally conflicted, and, so, I became a bad friend. I stopped responding until he stopped writing.

But, real friendships are resilient, and ours spontaneously repaired itself years later when he was living in Berkeley with his wife and kids, working on his doctorate. I was just starting my career as a food writer (and was a couple of years away from accepting a job with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). He picked me up from my hotel, drove me to the Berkeley Bowl market, and told me I’d be making dinner for his family.

“Make something with lots of sauce,” he said. I made a strange meal that he loved: Persian chicken stew, with pomegranates and walnuts, Thai green curry, sesame noodles and rice. I left the refrigerator filled with leftovers, hugged my friend tightly, and vowed not to wait more than a decade before seeing him again.

We’ve seen each other three times since, always in Israel, usually around a table filled with his friends and family, and my cooking. He takes pride in my career, and likes to show me off — much in the way I keep the Hebrew-language books he has written about the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan prominently displayed in our bookshelf, despite the fact that neither I, nor anyone who comes to our house, could read them. I’m not sure I could understand Lacan in English.

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On my trip to Israel in July, Yudy planned a dinner party around my visit. We spent as much time discussing the menu as our tourist itinerary. I proposed a Japanese dinner with miso soup, rice, sashimi and fried chicken karaage. I considered a braised dish to add to the mix, and then had my wonderful, awful idea. “Can we get pork anywhere?”

We decided to go to Nazareth the next day, an hour and a half from his home in Tel Aviv. Ostensibly, we were going to see the Church of the Annunciation and eat at a famous kabob restaurant. Not coincidentally, the city was home to numerous Christian butchers who purportedly sold the finest pork in Israel.

Here, the long sought-after white meat that John Kessler was searching for in Israel is ready to braise. CONTRIBUTED BY JOHN KESSLER (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Yet, we struck out again and again. We walked in and out of the small city’s absurdly numerous butcher shops. Most were Muslim. Some weren’t. A few had signs advertising hazir, the Hebrew word for pig. Hazir, huzzah! But, they were closed. For lunch. For the day. For the afternoon siesta.

Yudy questioned passersby and shopkeepers. We followed dead end after dead end. “When did it get this hard to find pork?” he muttered.

In fact, the pork scarcity is relatively new. Eastern European immigrants to the new nation-state largely were secular, and brought both a taste for swine and pig farming with them. It was not uncommon to snack on grilled pork pitas in 1950s Israel. Yet, by the 1960s, the anti-pork forces had gathered strength. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion tried to push a bill through the Knesset to outlaw pig farming in Israel. Since then, Israelis like to repeat the apocryphal claim that all pigs must walk on wooden flooring to prevent their cloven hooves from touching the soil of the Holy Land.

The laws of Kashrut prevent observant Jews from eating many foods, including shrimp, insects, catfish, camel, eggs from nonkosher hens and the sciatic nerve in a leg of lamb. Why does pork feel so much worse than the rest of them? Chaim Davids, an Orthodox chef and food entrepreneur living in Jerusalem, suggests “not eating it is a badge of commitment to peoplehood, because of its mass popularity.”

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We left Nazareth swineless, descending into the Jezreel Valley, where Yudy informed me of one last-ditch stop. Kibbutz Mizra, founded by Zionist Jews during the British Mandate in 1923, long has made its collective living as a meat processor. The town supermarket greeted us with huge murals of glistening meat. Inside, the dairy and dry goods sections were dwarfed by massive deli counters and freezer cases. I found pork, but only sausages and frozen skewers. I tried to divert Yudy with a chicken, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He summoned a butcher. I Google-translated “Boston butt,” which confused everyone, and so I pointed to my shoulder, bending over like a quadruped. The butcher disappeared into the back and moments later emerged, cradling a shrink-wrapped pork shoulder like a baby.

That night, I braised it with soy sauce, sweet sake and fistfuls of fresh ginger. Guests arrived, and the meal went down in the books as a great one, another scene in our life-sustaining narrative of friendship.

The next day, family came over for leftovers. Yudy’s precious little granddaughter turned to me and said something in Hebrew.

“What’s that, sweetie?” I asked, looking toward her mom.

“She says she loves the chicken,” her mom responded, eyeing the dish of white meat and winking.

“It is,” I said, “my favorite kind of chicken.”

John Kessler worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997 to 2015 as a food writer and dining critic. He now lives in Chicago. 

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