And then we entered the home.
It smelled the way homes do when something good is about to happen.
As I've seesawed for weeks about which stories to tell and when to tell them, I've soaked up your wisdom. One email, in particular, knocked me back to my senses.
Not an easy decision, but the more we see each other as individuals and recognize what we have in common, the harder it becomes to justify hatred and violence... When I think of Israel now, I see a stocky man in a restaurant serving up delicious treats and encouraging you to enjoy the sauce as well as the main course. What I don't see is a vague sea of faceless individuals.
Balkees Abu-Rabie is a mother of four who lives in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city, a city filled with curvy roads and homes perched up and down steep hillsides.
We're here in Balkees' home for lunch, and for an intimate, if all too brief, introduction to Israeli Arab food, family, and culture.
Balkees is lovely.
She shows us the wooden paddles she uses to make cookies, and breads. Each one has beautiful, deep-set grooves to stamp dough with intricate patterns and swirls. She grabs a mound of dough, makes a fist, and shows us how to press it into the paddles.
A minute later, Balkees brings out more risen dough rounds, each one puffed, swollen, and speckled with sesame and nigella seeds. Maury, Hugh, Ben, and Viet take an excited, almost collective, breath. We're only a few days into the trip, but they miss their kitchens, miss playing with, touching, creating food with their hands.
Ben, intense, shapes his dough, then lays it gingerly next to the others.
Balkees carries the dough, now on trays, into the hallway, where she slides them into the oven.
She returns to teach us more, and to make the rest of the meal.
There's fresh yogurt, a staple, which she stores in a blue plastic bucket. She explains that once the yogurt is thickened and strained, she can roll it into balls. She stores the cheese balls in an olive oil-filled jar, which helps preserve them.
She then makes fatat makdous, a casserole of eggplant, toasted pita, tomatoes, garlic, yogurt, and tahini. She tosses toasted almonds over the top.
Soon, the bread is ready.
One of Balkees' daughters sets the table.
The other, a university student, looks on from the corner of the room.
Balkees sits at the head of the table. This is clearly her domain.
When lunch ends, and it's time to go, I think we all wish we could have stayed -- that the next stop on the trip could be postponed, if only for an hour.
Or maybe three.
Because when you see someone in their own home, when you eat food they have cooked for you, when you learn by watching, by doing, and by sharing space, time, and sustenance, the world becomes very, very small.
And that's something you take with you.
I can still taste that bread.
I hope to taste it for years.
Deep thanks to Abbie Rosner, an American who has lived in Israel since the 1980s, for introducing us to Balkees and her family. Abbie takes visitors on tours of the Galilee and has written about its foodways, most prominently for Gastronomica and in her new book, Breaking Bread in Galilee.