Forum urges Jews to think how did this food get to my plate?

'Knowing how food reaches one's plate should be just as important as a traditional kosher certification.'

food88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
David Frank graduated from New York's French Culinary Institute without ever tasting a single morsel. As a culinary student, he braised, flambeed and sauteed - then stepped back to allow his classmates to taste and judge the food over which he labored. An Orthodox Jew from Forest Hills, NY, Frank is a sales and events manager and consulting chef for a kosher caterer. He always dreamed of becoming a chef, but feared his traditional lifestyle might get in the way. Not to worry. Frank consulted his rabbi, who - perhaps recognizing that the kosher world could use more culinary talent - told him that handling unkosher food was not a problem. "Make everything, taste nothing," the rabbi said. "I got marked down on my midterm for underseasoning," Frank said. "But I redeemed myself with my final exam. I made a wild mushroom consomme that made my instructor's jaw drop." Frank now dreams of opening his own upscale kosher dairy restaurant in New York. But in addition to having the traditional kosher certification, Frank wants to use locally grown produce, organic when possible. He was among 150 people attending a recent conference at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center here titled "From Latkes to Lattes: Hazon's Conference on Jews, Food & Contemporary Life." An organization that made a name for itself with environmental bike rides in the United States and Israel, Hazon now is trying to change the way Jews think about food. With Tuv Ha'aretz, its community-supported agriculture program, Hazon has five synagogues in cities across the country supporting local farms. Five more, plus one in Israel, are scheduled to begin next year. Synagogue members buy shares in the farm and receive a box of organic produce each week. In some locations, subscribers must work several days a year on the farm, ensuring that they have not only a direct connection with the farmer who grows their food but the place where the food grows. Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz, the conference's only Chasidic participant, said the community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, has biblical roots. Simenowitz, who gave up a successful career in entertainment law to be a farmer, runs Sweet Whisper Farms in southern Vermont, which has been described as "Vermont's only shomer Shabbat, organic, horse-powered maple farm." Speaking of the biblical brothers Zevulun and Yisachar, Simenowitz said that while they recognized the value in devoting oneself to Torah study, only Yisachar had the mental fortitude to do so, while Zevulun's strength was in commerce. "So they make a deal in which Zevulun says, 'You sit and learn for me and I'll go travel the world.' The CSA embodies that agreement, not only in financial support but in spiritual support as well," Simenowitz said. "Yes, you can live on the Upper West Side" of Manhattan, "but join a CSA" to have a direct connection to your food, he suggested. Knowing how food reaches one's plate should be just as important as a traditional kosher certification, suggested Rabbi Natan Margalit, a teacher and writer from Newton, Mass. Citing Michael Pollan's recent book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," as an example of how disconnected most Americans are from their food, Margalit asked, "Can I look at what is on my plate and take it back to where it was grown? Can I take that journey with it and feel good about it, or if I can't, what am I saying with my bracha," or blessing? While Simenowitz was often humorous, suggesting that farming was perhaps the only way one could be "gored by an ox," as the Talmud contemplates, he also sounded a serious note. "I'm more right-wing than Attila the Hun, but we cannot ignore global warming," he said. "It's bigger than all of us, and it is why I'm doing what I'm doing." At one workshop, an expert offered startling statistics about the growing problem of child obesity. At another, participants practiced eating as meditation, paying attention to the texture of a carrot slice, the crunch of a potato chip, the juiciness of a grape. Eli Rogosa of the Israel Seed Conservancy spoke about her work restoring nearly extinct Israeli food crops, while some 20-something hippies offered a workshop called "Fun with Fermentation" at which participants sampled homemade sauerkraut and beer. Jay Weinstein, a New York-based chef and cookbook author, demonstrated at one workshop how to make wild rice pancakes with cumin sour cream, and spoke at another about how disposable chopsticks are depleting the rainforests. Simply refusing chopsticks at restaurants is one small way to make a difference, he said. Many participants expressed surprise to learn how many Jewish farmers there are now, with many of the farmers tracing their work to its biblical roots. Leah Koenig, Hazon's conference coordinator, has overseen the growth of the Tuv Ha'aretz program in the past two years. "All of Hazon's food work, plus the work of our friends, is a hopeful testament that we are standing together at the foothills of a national movement around the intersection of Jewish life and contemporary food issues," she said. "Together we are working to bring joy, cooperation and positive change around food, and doing so in a way that is rooted in core Jewish values and community." While Jewish Renewal coined the term "eco-kashrut" some 20 years ago, Hazon Executive Director Nigel Savage asked whether his organization should adopt the term or work to ensure that a traditional kosher certification includes the new parameters as well. Indeed, such issues in food awareness have reached new heights, Savage said. "More and more Jews are thinking about not only kosher food but more contemporary issues, like where our food comes from, how it's grown and how healthy it is," he said. "We think this is a beginning of a new Jewish food movement." As if he needed more evidence, the Conservative movement last week announced that a commission is working to create a tzedek hechsher, a certification for food produced in a socially just way - particularly with regard to safe and fair working conditions - which would be used in addition to traditional kosher certification. Such news would be welcome to Naftali Hanau, who after spending a summer in Adamah, a program at Isabella Freedman in which 20-somethings live off the land, grow organic vegetables, collect eggs from free-range chickens and milk goats, had a real dilemma when he returned to Manhattan to finish college. At New York University's kosher cafeteria, he said, "The meat is kosher, but it's not sustainably raised or ethically treated, so I can't eat it." In addition, many of the foods served there are overly processed and, since they're not organic, Hanau cannot be sure they weren't grown without pesticides. "I spend a huge amount of time each day thinking about how to feed myself," he said.