Food is Home; Modesto California
Words by Giora Yefet
Photos by Giora Yefet and Tamar Yefet
Written by Rafidah Rahman
The State of California has long been home to the largest number of immigrants in the United States. This is due to European explorers arriving at its coastal ports as far back as the 17th century. Immigrants now make up more than a quarter of the state's population and a third of the labor force. As neighbors,
Giora Yefet, 2021 | Photo Credit: Tamar Yefet
entrepreneurs, taxpayers, and workers, immigrants are an integral part of California's diverse and thriving communities. They make substantial contributions that benefit everyone.
A native of Israel, Giora Yefet currently lives in Modesto, California with his wife and eldest daughter. He immigrated to the United States in 1990. Giora is trained as an engineer, but by profession, he works in the sales team of a company focused on solar and heating efficiency and energy systems. However, his true passion lies in the kitchen. "Food is home," he shares in this personal interview, where he discusses his love of cooking and baking, a passion he inherited from his grandmother and has passed down to his two daughters. Besides cooking, Giora is also passionate about farming. Over the years, he has grown much of his own vegetables. He has, however, had to take a backseat due to severe drought problems in California and the time constraints associated with them. Since then, Giora has supported small-scale farmer's markets as he believes that they provide the community with fresh food that is not only healthy but also reasonably priced.
Both of my grandparents were born in Vienna, Austria, and came to Israel during World War II. They were both very young, just teenagers when they first came to Israel. They played a big part in building some of the settlements after the war before Israel became a state in 1948. Both were farmers and raised cattle.
Agriculture is huge in Israel. We have fertile land and abundant produce there. Flavors like those in Israel aren’t available in California or anywhere else in the US. We've tried growing vegetables ourselves, but it's been a challenge. The soil is not as fertile, so farming takes a lot of time and attention.
I have an engineering degree and worked for almost three years in microelectronics in an American company back in Israel. I also worked for the same company in Singapore. However, after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the company laid off approximately 3500 engineers. At that point, I thought to myself that because everything starts in America, I might as well go there. Because I had my extended family here too, whom I had never had the chance to visit before, I stuck to the plan. And that's how it all began!
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to apply my degree in engineering here so I had to make a career shift to home sales. I am currently employed by a company that focuses on solar and heating efficiency. Since I get to work on my terms, I'm happy with my decision. I do not need to sit in a cubicle, I am almost always outside, and I can meet and communicate with people in their homes. This provides me with plenty of exposure to different cultures. I believe I have been quite successful in my career. Not only because of my background, knowledge, and experience but also because I am open to talking and listening to people. In my books, this is what it takes to climb up the ladder.
Preconceived notions about the United States lead to the belief that its streets are paved with money. I have a funny story about this. In the story, two Israeli boys see a 100-dollar note lying on the ground. They look at each other, but one of them becomes overconfident. One of the guys takes a look at it, kicks it into the air, and says, "we will start tomorrow" as he thinks that there is money everywhere, just lying there waiting to be picked up. But this is far from the truth!
It takes a lot of effort and determination to reach your desired goal here. This is no small feat. No matter what, the United States is still the land of opportunities. You can do whatever you want if you put your
heart and mind into it. I believe immigrants and foreigners are so successful in this country because they don't have inhibitions about introducing themselves to others, getting out there, and starting from scratch. Most locals aren't willing to do that.
The sense of community and belonging, however, is missing here, unlike in Israel. Back home, we lived in close-knit communities with many households nearby. It took only a knock on a door to gain a friend.
"I love cooking, as it brings people together and makes them happy."
Here, it is unheard of! You can't just show up at anyone's door unannounced. There is a lot of privacy here, which I do respect, but this also explains why immigrants and foreigners form their own communities. That sense of connection is missing. The locals aren't easy to get along with here, and it's
"I have always been the cook in the food system. Even at 10 pm, I can cook from scratch. My favorite quick dinner is to prepare shredded potatoes and zucchini."
difficult to form new relationships. Cultural clashes often result in boundaries in most interactions. It gets better over time though.
It is because of this reason that I love cooking, as it brings people together and makes them happy. It creates an atmosphere like none other. I have always been the cook in the food system. Even at 10 pm, I can cook from scratch. My favorite quick dinner is to prepare shredded potatoes and zucchini. I do not like TV dinners like they are popular in the US because they do not have the right sodium content. I prefer home-cooked meals. I also enjoy baking, especially savory items. I prefer to make my bread from scratch. Pita and Yemeni bread are among my favorites.
Growing up in the kitchen with my paternal grandmother was the happiest time of my life, as I acquired my love for cooking from her. My favorite food memory involves her making me this decadent lamb soup that literally melted in my mouth. I can never forget the taste. It was spicy, perfectly seasoned and so thick that it almost passed for stew. Whenever I ate it, I would dip it in my favorite Yemeni bread and savor it. Yemeni bread is also tasty, rich with different seasonings, and as spongy as a cake.
At the age of 98, my grandmother passed away while cooking in her small kitchen. She cooked till the very end, such was her passion! Hospitality was a profound part of her life. She inspired me to keep experimenting in the kitchen instead of blindly following recipes. My daughters too were exposed to that. They both share my love of cooking and are extremely independent.
During the holidays, we spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking together as a family. For Thanksgiving, we spend hours and hours cooking, and then it's all over in less
Giora Yefet, 2021 | Photo Credit: Tamar Yefet
than an hour. Though I find the fast-paced eating a bit underwhelming, the idea itself is much more significant than that. This is about enjoying quality time with each other whenever you can. Cooking builds bonds.
Making Challah, 2021 | Photo Credit: Tamar Yefet
Although I have never worked in the food industry professionally, I still like to contribute to my food community in my own way by hosting our annual Passover dinner. This is done for our friends and family every March and April. It is a special occasion for us as we celebrate the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt. We invite a lot of people over, especially those who haven't experienced it before, and
prepare very traditional food. Latkes (potato fritters), chicken with a special seasoning, hummus, shakshuka, and knish are some of our specialties. Traditional knishes are filled with mashed potatoes, kasha (buckwheat groats), or cheese. Sweet potatoes, black beans, and spinach can also be used as fillings.
My advice to the young generation would be to grow your own food. That is the true secret to self-preservation. I think it is a useful and healthy lesson to learn. Growing basic foods that we eat every day like potatoes, tomatoes, zucchinis, squashes, and so on does not take a lot of space.
“My advice to the young generation would be to grow your own food. That is the true secret to self-preservation.”
"I believe localization is not a geographical term. Localization is a human term."
Also try raising cattle, especially goats since their milk is extremely healthy. Support small-scale farmer's markets since they provide food that is both healthy and reasonably priced. It would be useful if there were more resources available and if everyone in the community was taught how to grow their own food.
Nowadays, eating local food is a hot topic. I believe localization is not a geographical term. Localization is a human term. Maintaining your food
heritage and family traditions is more than just passing on recipes - it's a way of understanding the culture and history of those who came before you. It makes sure that you do not lose your locality no matter where you go."
Challah Recipe by Giora Yefet
Since baking is one of my favorite activities, I would like to share a special Challah recipe I inherited from my grand mother.
3.5 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tbsp. plus 0.5 cups of sugar
0.5 cup vegetable oil
5 large eggs
1 tbsp. salt
8.5 cups all-purpose flour
Secret Viennese seasoning
Combine the wet ingredients and whisk them well
Combine the dry ingredients and mix them well
Add the dry and wet together
Knead the dough together for 7-10 minutes until the dough gets very sticky
Dust your hands and work surface and knead the dough into a soft and smooth ball
Set the dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let rise for two to three hours