At the age of 20, I left home to move to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was still very religious in those days, having been raised in a strict Non-denominational “born again” household, and so I quickly set out to find a church I could call home. To my delight, I discovered a Messianic, or Christian Jewish, congregation that met in The City*. While that may sound like an unusual landing spot for a shiksa, I had grown up eating latkes and matza bread, celebrating Passover, and listening to “The Liberated Wailing Wall”, a musical group sprung from the ranks of Jews for Jesus, all thanks to my father’s enduring fascination with Judaism. (Dad even wrote and published his own Haggadah, or Passover Seder script.)
The congregation, warm and welcoming, gathered on Shabbat, Friday night, in a small church building in the Richmond district. Coming, as I did, from a branch of the faith whose creeds were sometimes fluid and dependent on the whims of the current administration and their interpretation of scripture, I took comfort in the deep sense of tradition I found in my new spiritual abode. The idea that there was a certain, prescribed way of doing things, that they had been done the same way for thousands of years in many cases, offered a measure of stability I hadn’t known I was craving. I loved celebrating ancient holidays, with all of their ceremony, singing the Sh’ma during services and hearing the blessings, spoken in Hebrew, over the lighting of the candles and the wine and the challah.
After services each week, there was a period of fellowship where we would mingle, spend time chatting, and nosh on food furnished by various members of the congregation. Here, as well as at dinners I was graciously invited to, I was introduced to a whole new world of food, including the above-mentioned challah, matzo ball soup, rugelach, knishes, gefilte fish, Manischewitz wine (snobs may balk, but I still think the blackberry is a real treat!), and of course hummus.
Now, I had to have eaten hummus before then. After all, Falafel’s Drive-In in San Jose has been a family favorite since before I could walk, and they do a lovely hummus, as I would later discover. The odds that this was my first experience with the stuff are not good. Still, for whatever reason, and not to disparage anyone else’s flavors, the first time I remember eating it, the first time it made an impression on me, was during one of those after-service fellowship sessions. I was so impressed with the beige concoction that I tracked down the woman who’d brought it, praising her handiwork up one side and down the other, and begging to know how it was made. She seemed almost incredulous, as if it was ludicrous that I should find her humble bean dip so moving. Still, she complied, nonchalantly rattling off a list of ingredients: garbanzo beans, tahini, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. She gave no proportions, just components; nonetheless, I felt confident I could replicate it.
This all took place in the days before online recipes were as plentiful as they are today, and I wasn’t terribly kitchen savvy back then, but that didn’t stop me. I hunted down garbanzo beans and tahini, and one sunny Saturday afternoon threw them in a blender and waited for the magic to happen. Some friends came to visit, and I proudly offered them a taste. The first brave soul to dive in gasped almost immediately and, fighting watery eyes, exclaimed, “WOAH, there is a LOT of garlic in there!” Needless to say, I ended up throwing that batch out, and the next and the next…. No matter how I adjusted what I was doing, I just couldn’t get that pesky garlic right. It was meant to be used raw, but that gave it such a bite that even one lonely clove would overpower the other flavors.
I gave up for a while after that, not attempting the dish again for many years. When I did, it was as a more seasoned cook, and while I came closer, even using powdered garlic instead of raw, I just couldn’t get it right. Then one day, on a whim, it occurred to me to try roasting the garlic instead. Bingo! It took an entire head of garlic, but roasting it brought all of those deep, sweet notes to the party, allowing it to pull together with the creamy bitterness of the tahini, the nuttiness of the garbanzo beans, and the tart tang of the lemon juice, instead of fighting them, to create one cohesive, crave-worthy dish. Hooray!
Recently, a friend who is on a hummus kick asked if I’d share my recipe with her because she was tired of spending money buying the stuff. I caught myself starting to shoot off a list of ingredients, as the woman at the Messianic congregation had done all those years ago. Then I remembered that it had taken me about 15 years and a lot of binned ingredients to get it to taste the way it ought. Surely I didn’t wish a similar fate on my friend! So I made a couple batches of dip, measuring and writing down proportions as I went. Out of curiosity, I looked up some recipes online, and mine is extremely similar to several of them. So basically, I reinvented the wheel, but I’m kind of proud of having done so. Rather than follow someone else’s map, I stumbled and bumbled my way there, wandering my own personal culinary desert, if you will, and ended up with a more intimate understanding of hummus and its ingredients than I might have otherwise.*Locals refer to San Francisco as “The City” or “SF”. Daring to call it “Frisco” or “San Fran” might get you jumped.
Sheila’s 15-Year Hummus (Hee hee!)
2 (15-ounce) cans of garbanzo beans
Cook’s note: If working with dried beans, you’ll want 2 ¾ cups soaked beans.
1 whole head garlic, roasted
1 cup retained garbanzo bean juice or water
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup tahini
Juice of one medium lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons salt
Open cans and drain juice into a measuring cup. Retain one cup of juice (if there’s not enough to make one cup, water can be added). Discard any extra juice.
In a blender, combine garbanzo beans, garlic, olive oil, tahini, salt and lemon juice.
Blend until smooth