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18 april 2022

I never even heard of hummus till I was in my early 20s; now, even in flyover chain supermarkets, it is a deli staple.

The first hummus I ever had was homemade. A friend of mine ground together the various components and kept tasting to see if she'd gotten the balance right. I offered to taste and advise. She told me that it would be better if someone who'd ever tasted hummus before offered such direction.

Hummus is a fine art to many of its creators, but it still comes down, as Harriet Nussbaum establishes in Hummus: A global history, to chickpeas, tahini, garlic, and lemon – and the latter two in sparing quantities. After years of hummus acclimation, I have tried making my own on occasion, but I've never had an adequate food processor. The result is pretty grainy stuff; it tastes fine, but Nussbaum argues that the best hummus is exquisitely creamy and light, and I have to agree.

Hummus as a global phenomenon really is something that arrived in my own lifetime, and about halfway through it, at that. I grew up in the 1960s in the US; Nussbaum, growing up in the 1990s in the UK, places herself in "the first generation in Europe for whom hummus was an ordinary, everyday childhood food" (7). Earlier, hummus was ubiquitous in the eastern Mediterranean and an exotic-restaurant item anywhere else.

I lived in a Greek neighborhood in New York City in the late 1980s. There, hummus was a standard appetizer, usually paired with baba ganoush, its eggplanty, tahiniless Greek cousin. You'd get a small portions of light, thin hummus and baba ganoush, each elegantly swirled on a separate small plate. Nowadays, in middle America, hummus is most familiar as a stocky tub of goo.

But Nussbaum says that ancestral recipes for hummus make an even heavier concoction. Medieval hummus, from what she can tell, came in blocks of paste and was cut into portions. It sounds a bit like savory halvah. Tahini is crucial to both hummus and halvah, but taken in very different directions.

Nussbaum wryly discusses the "Hummus wars" of the early 21st century. These were serious but nonviolent national competitions, particularly between Lebanon and Israel, seeking an outlet for tensions that have too often gotten bloody. Lebanon won. Their hummus of 10,452 kilograms, created in 2010, sustained a later Israeli challenge, though somewhat on a technicality when the Guinness folks were uneasy about judging the Israeli contender given supposed security concerns. Anyway, nobody has produced a sanctioned hummus larger than the Lebanese entry, so the record stands.

One imagines these colossal hummuses as purist exercises. Hummus inevitably comes in a dozen different flavors at the local Kroger these days, from spinach to snickerdoodle – like everything else in America, including spinach and snickerdoodles. Nothing will probably ever top some ephemeral wisp of hummus that I ate with pita bread in Astoria, Queens, in 1987. But it's nice to see a nutrient-laden, vegan snack become a mass-market superstar.

Nussbaum, Harriet. Hummus: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2021.