Schmaltzy Spotlight / Ron Arazi: Couscous and the American Dream
When he was growing up in Israel, Ron Arazi’s mom made couscous. His grandma did, too. Every Wednesday at her house, she’d make hand-rolled couscous, and everyone would come for dinner. (This might blow your mind, but couscous does not have to come from a box. In fact, the best couscous is made from scratch, preferably by someone who loves you.)
As part of a close-knit Moroccan-Jewish family, Ron never found himself at home alone in the kitchen, cooking for himself. Meals were big, elaborate affairs, and involved many family members. When he and his wife, Leetal, both chefs, moved to New York City nearly 5 years ago, it was an adjustment. Their first Passover in the States was just Ron, Leetal and her aunt and uncle, who lived above them. A Passover table for four felt strange to Ron, a little empty. Ron and Leetal realized that if they wanted community, they would have to make it.
But when they’d invite people over for dinner, Ron and Leetal would get funny looks. New Yorkers, it seemed, prefer to meet out at restaurants and bars. Around the same time, Ron and Leetal were thinking up what they should do for business. The first thing that came to mind was couscous. It had such a personal significance for them both, and it was still hard to find the homemade stuff in New York. It was so fundamental to them that it seemed obvious.
They set up a stand at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, a hipster food bazaar where popular foods might include gimmicky things like ramen burgers. People who actually tasted their couscous loved it, but Ron and Leetal still felt a bit misunderstood—the public didn’t seem to get it. That is until a French-speaking man in his 50s came over to them and asked, “Are you making couscous? From scratch? Like grandmas do?” Ron said yes, of course, and made him a plate. The French man stood there and ate the dish. The look on his face was difficult to describe. Like he was traveling in his mind. From that day on, he kept coming back to the couscous booth.
Ron performed his story live on March 7, 2017 at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City as part of the Schmaltzy storytelling event.