Shana tova u-metuqah! Happy New Year! As an advance notice, I am going to be posting a little bit less in the start of 5779. I am applying for urban planning school, and need to focus on applications. That said, you should still see some updates from me! And I could not let the holiday season go by without at least one post.
So as some of you know, fish heads are traditional in many Jewish communities for Rosh Hashanah. Like so many other Jewish food traditions, it is a pun. Rosh Hashanah is the “head of the year,” and the fish head symbolizes that we are at the start of the year. Fish are also traditionally a sign of parnasa, prosperity, in many Jewish legends. So the fish head symbolizes that we should be at the head of our luck and prosperity in the year. That is the simple explanation. In a historical context, we probably picked up this tradition from pagan and Christian neighbors in Europe and the Middle East in the early, pre-Islamic Middle Ages. Many food traditions then (and now) were iconographic: people ate in a way that imitated what was commemorated. Another culture probably had a fish head tradition, and we adoped it.
Fish heads also happen to be year-round food for some Jews. Including me, and my grandmother. No, we are not from communities where fish heads are celebrated fare, such as the Kerala Jewish communities or some Turkish communities. My grandmother is a South African Jew who grew up in the Afrikaans-speaking countryside outside of Cape Town, where fish was plentiful and part of everyday life. In Afrikaans, the word for fish head is viskop. Viskoppe are at once a very rustic food – associated with fishermen and down-home meals in fishing towns – but also refined, and elegant, and symbolic of the Cape. Jews happily adopted eating fish heads, in all sorts of ways – like anything South African, there is no one recipe for it. My family is among them.
My grandmother is 91, and still insists on making fish heads whenever I visit. I tell her she does not have to, but it will happen anyway. (After all, she is also making them for herself.) My grandmother is a happy user of industrial foods, and has recently embraced sweet chili sauce as her preferred seasoning for her fish heads. It is delicious. It is perhaps not authentic, but it would not be out of place in South Africa, where the so-very-irritating fetish for authenticity is thankfully not indulged. I have also had fish heads made by her over the years with a variety of seasonings. Find what works for you. But take my grandmother’s advice: get a fresh fish head, preferably salmon, from the fishmonger. Do not use any old fish head, and make sure that it is very fresh. And enjoy it!
My Grandmother’s Fish Heads
All measures are to taste.
Take a big fish head, preferably salmon. Have the fishmonger cut it in half for you.
Wash the fish heads, and trim off any excess gunk.
Oil a baking tray and lay the fish heads on top.
Chop some cherry tomatoes and lay them around and on top of the fish.
Pour over the fish some sweet chili sauce and some vegetable oil. Make sure the fish is coated! (I also add some salt.) If you want to do it without sweet chili sauce, I would add some red pepper flakes and honey, and perhaps some vinegar over the fish.
Bake in a hot oven (~400F/200C) or a hot toaster oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until the fish is cooked.
So my piece on Modernist Jewish Cooking got a lot of responses. And a lot of readers. It is now the second-most popular piece on the site, after my bread pudding recipe. You, the readers, seem to like it when I talk about industrial food. Good news – I have more to say!
Recently, I have heard a lot of “scare language” around processed food. Some of this was in response to my piece – people were irritated or confused that “homemade” and “industrial” might, yes, be on the same plane for some people. (Chances are that your homemade food is partly industrial.) Others were friends who were shocked at some sort of thing or other, and labeled it as “processed food” – assuming I also saw that phrase as negative. Yet as I have pointed out, most food is processed at some point before getting to the consumer. And even if we say we do not like processed food now, it is so present and everywhere that it has shaped our taste buds. This process is almost inescapable. Even “organic,” “natural” cooks hearken back to industrial food now. Processed food, like taxes and death, is inevitable in the modern world. And marking some food as scary Processed Food, and other equally unnatural foods as Good and Proper does nothing more than hide a lot of facts. Besides, processed food is far more accessible for poor people, for people with disabilities, and for most everyone.
Perhaps we should advocate for industrial food that is made by properly paid and treated workers, that is high-quality, and that is something we all have a share in.
Also, this sort of organic-romance thing becomes a performance so sappy that I suddenly find myself urgently craving an Oreo. Oreos are not even my preferred industrial cookie. Just admit you kind of like the Manishevitz box mix, as some of us can infer in your performance of disdain.
In short, you love processed food, even if you say you do not. Guess what? So do I. Since I have no shame about this, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite industrial food products. We can get a bit of history, a bit about me, and a bit about how I use them. They are not all Jewish, but they are all Jewish. I would love to hear what your favorite ones are too.
Noodles and pasta – I eat probably too much pasta, but I do not particularly mind: noodles and I get along well. I eat a noodle product more than once a week at minimum, except during Passover. This fact of my existence is in no part due to the industrialization of noodle production and the popularity of dried noodles. Before World War II, when noodle production was far less industrialized than today, many families in Italy could only afford pasta on special occasions. Ditto for noodles in many other countries, like Japan. Industrialization made noodles cheaper and more affordable for everyone. And box pasta is still pretty damn good.
Canned beans – “Beans, beans, lots of beans, lots of beans” is not just an early 2000’s meme, but also an accurate description of most people’s diets in many times in many places, Jews included. Beans are efficient little vehicles of protein and nutrients and tastiness. They are also, in raw form, a lot of work. So canned beans are a huge improvement: no soaking or precooking, just beans that are ready to go into your meal. They are also often very high-quality. I find myself cooking with canned beans at least once or twice a week, and I am still surprised at precisely how versatile they are. Almost any bean recipe not made with lentils on this blog was made with canned beans, and the lentil recipes are doable with canned lentils as well.
Stock cubes and soup powder – I told you once how to make your own stock, but the truth is that I rarely do. I mostly use bouillon cubes and soup powder, because – let me be frank here – I do not have the time or energy to do homemade stock every time. Most people do not. And hence industrial bouillon was one of the first modern food products to emerge, in the 19th century, and has remained popular ever since. It varies incredibly from country to country – as some scholars have pointed out, you can learn a lot from going to the Knorr’s selection in a local market. It also adds a very reasonable amount of salt to whatever you are cooking. In Israel and a few other places, soup powder is now a seasoning, which I find somewhat salty for my taste, but I do not judge. For me, soup powder lets me add a bit more weight to stews and sauces, when I can add stock simply by making it from the kettle. Also, the stock cubes smell really, really good.
Crushed tomatoes – My mother’s repertoire of recipes is very heavy on the use of canned tomatoes, which is fitting, given that my mother is an Italophile who grew up in South Africa and Israel. (All three countries’ populations use canned tomatoes extensively.) Like most people, I cook a lot of what my parents taught me growing up, and so I find myself adding crushed tomatoes quite a bit. They are very handy for many Jewish dishes – shakshouka and tamatiebredie among them – but also for the lazy, haphazard stews which, with rice, make up most of my meals. On a broader level, the popularity of tomatoes in cuisines outside the Americas is partly based on the fact that tomatoes are so easily canned. Otherwise, tomatoes were, until recently, highly seasonal plants that were considered suspicious by many.
Canned corn – Picture this: it’s a blackout sometime in the early 2000s. A frizzy-haired Jewish woman and her tween son are grinning as they spoon corn from a can into their mouths. That was dinner. In any case, I live now with fewer summer blackouts, but still the same number of corn kernels coming from the can. Canned corn is really delicious. And, if you are not eating corn from the cob in season, it’s usually not that distinguishable from the fresh counterpart. (Even when fresh is available, I sometimes suggest canned, especially because a lot of fresh corn is not actually very good.) Fun fact: I once made a dish, and said person mentioned that he was pleased I had obviously used fresh corn. Indeed, the corn was fresh from a can that morning. On a more practical note, canned corn is a very good substitute when fresh corn is not practical, and actually keeps many of the nutrients for longer than refrigerated corn. It is also incredibly versatile – you can make so many things, including a lovely pashtida I made for the early days of this blog.
Jam – Ah, yes, jam. I have given several recipes on the blog, and discussed how jam became popular in the 19th century when sugar became cheaper. It is also now well-known that jam played a major role in improving calorie intake in some places in Europe in the 19th Jam was one of the first things to really be industrialized. And as much as it can be too sweet and sticky … mass-produced jam can also be delicious. Why else would I slather it on toast every morning? Jam also is a nice filling for hamantashen, and there is at least one jam that goes well with most every Jewish bread.
Mass-market pickled herring – I have written about my love for herring and its history in Jewish kitchens before, but I can never stop talking about it. And for every fancy herring at Russ and Daughters, there are at least thirty or forty much cheaper herrings from the big companies that jar massive quantities of the stuff. They are part of a long Jewish tradition of processing herring on an industrial scale.
Canned fish – While we are at it, can we discuss the miracle of the cheap and versatile protein that is canned tuna? Or the salty goodness of canned mackerel? When I was a child, my late father and I would eat mackerel on toast together; now, I bring back the 1950s with tuna croquettes. Jewish cooks leaned in heavily into the canned fish train in the mid-20th century, and I do not blame them. When it is good, it is really good.
Mass-market lemonade – I do not even have a romantic reason for adding this one; I just like lemonade. But lemon-based drinks have been popular for centuries across the Jewish world, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Jewish communities have all sorts of lemony sweet drinks on Shabbat tables around the world. The drinks vary from place to place (I am a huge fan of French lemonades) – but the lemon does not. As it happens, this is a very modern phenomenon: industrialization made sweet drinks and juices no longer a luxury, but something affordable for many people. The idea of a sweet, lemony drink in a bottle in the middle of winter appeared to our great-grandparents as a luxury from afar. Thinking about that makes me feel quite elegant as I guzzle lemonade down.
Ugiot mizrahiot – This one is a bit eccentric. The Iraqi cookie kaak – a round hard thing covered in sesame seeds – became popular in Israel as ugiot mizrahiot. Once the afterthought of bakers, this treat is now made en masse and packed in plastic by Israel’s biggest food companies. Sure, the kaak might be better fresh from the baker, but my Israeli relatives have developed a very, very strong affinity for these. So did my late father, who could eat an entire bag in one sitting. I am not ashamed to say that I have recreated the feat.
Thank you for reading! As a final bonus, here is one more fan of industrial food: my sister’s cat Mochi, whose diet largely consists of her preferred chicken kibble. (She is also an enthusiastic fan of canned black olives.) Mochi has been staying with me for a few months, and has graciously heard many ideas for the blog as I voiced them out. Thank you, Mochi.
For an excellent critique of food snobbery in the form of a novel, I urge you to read Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody. It was originally published in French as Une Gourmandise. I have read it in both languages and thoroughly enjoyed it both times. Industrial food plays a major role in the book, but as is said in the old country, “no spoilers.”
Another blog that I just found is In Defense of Processed Food, by Dr. Robert Shewfelt. It is a welcome antidote to the mythical excesses of the food movement. I intend on reading regularly, and will buy his book soon.
I am starting this piece in Israel, where I am visiting my grandmother at the moment. Israel, as I have written before, is a really weird place in terms of food. There is plenty already written about the influence of Palestinian cuisine on Jewish cooking, continued diaspora traditions, and the “kashrut wars” in Israel. I have even watched a fantastic documentary about the pork industry in Israel. What I find most interesting, though, is that it is ground zero for industrial Jewish foods. Most of the canned gefilte fish, powder-mix matzah ball soup and latkes, and instant farfel have some link to industrial food companies here. If they were not invented here, they are certainly made here.
My grandmother is a fan. At the age of 91, she still enjoys her jarred gefilte fish on Passover, Mandelbrod from big boxes, and the smell of soup made from powdered mix. (She also eats some food that is unlikely to ever have an industrial market, like baked fish heads.) I used to dismiss these products as industrial dreck. But now I find them fascinating, because they still influence our homemade cooking. And just as Israel’s government uses nostalgia to drum up support for Zionism, so too do these food products use nostalgia to not just sell their wares, but redefine Jewish cuisine.
We who write about food are too quick to dismiss these products as unimportant to the grand story, or only negative. Except we often end up imitating them. For people whose first experience of Jewish food was these foods – and we have sixty years of this – that is the “benchmark” for whatever we make. It also becomes the norm. And we end up adding more of the things that people want … which often circle back to these products. Never mind that some people do not have the time, energy, ability, or resources to make everything “from scratch.” Making stock, making kneidlach, and making farfel takes time. The industrial manufacturers hit on a market – and the result is fascinating. Why? Because of how it plays with our psychology.
Makers take memories, smash them together, and create food products out of them. I find that fascinating. The company of course uses that “authentic” taste to sell the food. And eventually those tastes – which are often similar – become fixed. So then we have to adjust our handmade recipes to reflect those. We cannot remember the pre-industrial food that we never tasted! What we mistakenly call authentic is as much a product of marketing as anything else, even foods like p’tcha that do not have a version from the box. Some mourn this reality. I do not.
We have to remember that industrial food came about and stayed for a reason. Well, actually, it came about for many reasons, right alongside the development of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of cuisines. Food has also, in all civilizations, been industrial to a certain extent, with products being made, processed, and consumed in separate places. To return to the point though: industrial food made it far more efficient, practical, and possible to make food, make different types of food, and make a variety of food available. Canning made vegetables more regularly available during the winter. Dried pasta made noodles affordable. The packaging of rice made it shippable. Industrial bread made affordable bread without dangerous or unsavory additives that often caused illness or debilitating pain from indigestion. (The latter was common in Europe before the 19th century.) The natural next step in some ways was to industrialize other foods. That went well with the faith in scientific everything of the early and mid-20th century. True, these foods were seen as suspicious, and the women who were first to embrace them were often criticized for not doing things “the real way.” But the ease and simplicity of cooking them made industrial foods much more popular. Women, who still do most of the housework in homes today, had more time. (The use of industrial food maps closely to the ability of women to enter the workforce.) Fewer people were malnourished than before – a fact that goes contrary to many screeds about the obesity epidemic. Things that were once rare for most common people, such as chicken in the United States and pasta in Italy, became common. For Jews, festival foods also became more common – though the gefilte fish from the jar was certainly quite different. In Israel, industrialized food got a population of refugees dumped by the Israeli state into transit camps through a long period of austerity. Industrial food also ameliorated the malnutrition common in Palestinian refugee camps – as it still does today. The high-end “organic, handmade” cuisine that later developed in Italy, France, and the Bay Area is not natural or historic. It is an elitist reaction to a new common availability of food, which happens to be industrial. And though industrial food can improve, we should not simply dismiss it.
What would Jewish cooking look like today without industrial food? The honest truth is, I do not know, and nor do you. Industrial food has changed our tastes: it is so common that it is part of all of our memories of taste. It has been around and popular for generations. I would hazard that what we considered the central parts of Jewish food would have a lot less meat, a lot less complexity, and many more foods reserved only for the most important holidays. Perhaps there would also be less salt. I do not think it is useful, though, to recreate pre-industrial Jewish cooking. We are at five generations of cooks who have grown up with stock cubes and bouillon powder, canned tomatoes and packaged noodles, jams from the store and premade matzah meal. Those tastes are in all of our palates – even the ones with organic, fair-trade labeling. We cannot reconstruct that taste. We simply have to move on and acknowledge that these jarred and canned foods, whether or not we like them, a part of our cuisine. We should partake, and participate in how they are developed.
In short, we should embrace what I call modernist Jewish cooking. (The term is an adaptation of Rachel Laudan’s term “culinary modernism”). It is pointless and unhygienic to masturbate to fantasies of the authentic Jewish kitchen. Why complain about frozen gefilte fish, when we can make it different or better for us? Why judge the person who makes matzah ball soup from the box? (Would you rather they not eat?) Why should we be so scared of the shortcuts our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew better to malign? Why should we romanticize the misogynist misery of cooking “in the old days,” a misery that hundreds of millions of women still live? Why should we embrace the myths of the “natural” kitchen, when nothing about human cooking is ever fully “natural”? And can we even run away from these tastes, that shape us as much as anything that is celebrated?
For more reading on industrial food, I highly recommend the work of Rachel Laudan and Josh Ozersky. “A Plea for Modernist Cuisine” (Laudan) and “In Defense of Industrial Food” (Ozersky) are two of my favorite articles ever written about food. For more on how industrial food products emerged, read Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven. For more on industrial food in Israel, Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nationis spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.
I am about to go on a trip, but here is a quick recipe for a good breakfast farina. Farina is more commonly called “cream of wheat” in the United States. It has a long Jewish history: semolina, the middlings of milled wheat, has been used in Jewish cooking since ancient times. It is hardy, and it is tasty. In Kurdish and Turkish Jewish cooking, semolina is used both in savory foods like kubbeh and sweet foods like halva (the Turkish semolina halva, un halvası, is my favorite dessert of all time). In Ashkenazi cooking, farina is generally served sweet, and often to the very young and very old. Like in the United States, it has often been seen as a “morning” food – even though breakfast was not a “distinct meal” in European Jewish communities until the early 20th century.
What I like about this recipe is that you can make a lot in advance, and heat it up each day. I generally make four or five days’ worth and have a portion each day. Keep leftovers in the fridge. Here, heating in the microwave is better than heating on the stove if you have a microwave – add a splash of milk if you want your farina softer.
Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food was the main source consulted for this post.
Makes 5 servings
1 1/4 cups fine semolina
1 cup whole milk
3 cups water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 fistfuls raisins or dried cranberries
2 tablespoons farmers cheese (optional)
1. Put the semolina, milk, water, sugar, salt, and butter into a medium saucepan. Place on high heat.
2. Bring to a boil. Stir regularly while it is coming to a boil.
3. When it is boiling, cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring throughout.
4. When the mixture is thick and gloopy, turn off the heat. Mix in raisins and cheese.
5. You can store the farina in the refrigerator for a few days.
I have wanted, for a long time, to research how people figured out which foods were safe to eat. How were unsafe foods found? How were necessary preparations found? It is a huge topic, and my hubris became clear rather soon. There are scientists who have spent their entire lives figuring this out.
Even then, I have now spent a few weeks down the rabbit hole of poisonous food, poisons, and food. The big thing is that the historical study of food poisoning is completely bonkers. For example: we find a lot of early pottery that sort of looks like a colander. Turns out the items were used to make cheese, which is one of the first safe ways people had to eat milk. Before then, people would eat milk and get really sick, from lactose intolerance. But diarrhea when you are malnourished is dangerous, and people died. Cheese saved lives. Later, lactose tolerance became a more common genetic mutation in Europe and India. This was probably because that in resource scarce areas, where milk was one of the only reliable foods, people who could not digest it died. Then there are other mysteries. Corn was bred from teosinte grass in what is now Central Mexico several thousand years ago. At some point, ancient Mesoamericans figured out how to soak the corn in various alkaline substances. This process, nixtamalization, makes corn more nutritious and flexible. The initial moment was very likely an accident. But later “research” was probably toxic at times – too much alkaline, or not enough washing afterwards. Alkaline substances are sometimes fine for you. There were also certainly instances when someone burned the wrong tree for ash, with terrible consequences. This goes toward the major theme of a lot of what I read: what happens later.
Something that has struck me is how often people die after we know what foods are safe. Mushrooms are one example. We know that some mushrooms are poisonous, and they look like safe mushrooms. There are details that distinguish them. These were important things to learn in communities that relied heavily on foraging. (Communities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans foraged through modern times.) This knowledge was mostly transmitted orally through folk tales and folk wisdom. The knowledge was not always right! People were confident, forgetful, or rushed to assuage hunger or finish the day’s work. And people died. Elderly people, disabled people, and young children were most at risk. When even a mouthful of a deadly mushroom can destroy one’s kidneys, those most at risk died. People of all ages and bodies died, though, centuries after it became common knowledge that a mushroom could be deadly. Monarchs died, composers died, and countless ordinary people died. Even now, many people die from relying on folk legends about mushrooms, such as the idea that all deadly mushrooms are brightly colored. We also have known for millennia that ergot can render rye and barley dangerously unsafe. Yet it still ends up in flour – often under conditions of hunger – and was responsible for several medieval epidemics. Today, occasional incidents still pop up. And let us not forget the people who eat fish that is plainly rotten, drink raw milk despite the risks we know, and consume unwashed salad greens, e. coli and all.
You may have noticed that I switched into the present tense. This is a current topic: people still die from food poisoning every day. Besides, more than half of all food poisoning comes from food prepared at home. Obviously, this is relevant now. Our concern about restaurant safety needs to come alongside giving people the knowledge and tools to prepare food safely at home. Methods include an accessible kitchen, simpler and less risky food, or industrial food. But it also is important from a historical perspective. Until recently, almost all people mostly ate food prepared in domestic settings. The risk then was from the family hearth. The food that killed people was the peasant food, the mother’s food, and the grandmother’s cooking of yesteryear. This is where that oral knowledge comes in – and where it was forgotten.
In the Jewish world, this is no different. Deadly food is mentioned in the Bible. In II Kings 4, the prophet Elisha throws some flour into a pot of gourds and herbs to ward off “death.” Scholars now think that the plant mentioned is colocynth, whose flesh can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Flour may reduce the distress. The story is didactic: that some of G-d’s creations can kill you. In the Holy Land with sweet and toxic oleander, and colocynth with poisonous flesh and edible seeds, this was important and life-saving knowledge.
Later Jewish communities had to deal with the dangers of their local environments. In Europe, one found deadly mushrooms, dairy products made with rotting milk, and badly brewed alcohol. In the Middle East, you had the risks of oleander, colocynth, and algal blooms in the sea. Adulterated or diseased grain was a threat everywhere. Many Jewish foodies have embraced a romantic history of Jewish food. We rue lost traditions of food preservation and certain delicacies and ties to the land. And while the traditions are beautiful and worth keeping, it is also important to remember why our grandparents embraced industrial foods. Homemade killed, and food was risky. Abundant, relatively safe food was the promise that pushed immigration. The idea of clean, Jewish food contributed to the rise of Zionism. The search for safe bread motivated Bundist movements in Europe and leftist Jewish movements in the Middle East. Food was, and is, life.
Death and deadly foods are a glaring omission from romantic histories of food. I get that it is not fun to think about the food that kills people. A food activism that focuses on yesteryear why we have to go forwards, not backwards. We are all familiar with the horrors of industrial food, but let us take a moment to remember the horrors it reduces. People died trying to figure out what we can eat, and people die figuring out what they are able to eat. Should we not avoid meeting our fate at dinner too?
I decided, however, to try something different, and play around with the recipe format. I have been interested recently in what Eve Jochnowitz once called the “telegraphic style” of pre-war recipes, which do not start with an ingredients list. Though in many ways this style of recipe writing is inaccessible for some, it may also be more accessible for others who think chronologically. I find that it also works for quantity-flexible recipes like jam. Let me know what you think.
Take some black cherries, and remove the stems and pits.
Then, weigh the cherries, and pour them into a big pot.
Add the equivalent weight in white sugar.
Then, for every 500g/1 pound of cherries, add:
-one teaspoon red wine
-two tablespoons of water
-a dash of cinnamon
Then, add some vanilla extract. The cherry skin should have adequate pectin, but if you want to, you can also add some pectin.
Turn on the stove and bring to a boil.
Stir regularly and reduce to a simmer. Foam will start to bubble up – remove it with your spoon.
Cook for 30-50 minutes, or until the water has reduced, and the syrup part gels on a spoon when removed from the heat. Test by sticking a spoon in.
Put into containers before cooling. If you choose to can, follow safe canning guidelines. If not, the jam keeps for up to a year in the freezer, 3-6 months in the refrigerator.
Rabbi Jason Miller is the founder and director of Kosher Michigan, the world’s largest non-Orthodox kosher agency. He received his semichah (ordination) from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He and his colleagues supervise the kashrut of food, kitchen products, and ingredients that are produced not only in Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest, but across North America and even now in India. A number of years ago, he authored a popular article about the Orthodox domination of the kosher system and the “keeping up with the [frum] Joneses” culture around kashrut that it encourages. “Ending Kosher Nostra” is one of the best Jewish food articles I have read, and I strongly urge you to read it.
One of Rabbi Miller’s former students, Dr. Samuel Zerin, put me in touch with Rabbi Miller when I was soliciting stories for my pieces on institutional cooking. Rabbi Miller was very gracious with his time and allowed me to interview him by phone one recent evening. The transcript of the interview, slightly redacted for readability, is here.
A note to readers: there is a lot more Hebrew and Yiddish in this than in past pieces. Though normally I translate words into English, I kept the words here in my notes to preserve the integrity of the interview. I have provided or linked to definitions for all terms.
Katz: Tell us a bit about your background, and how Kosher Michigan got started.
Miller: I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2004 from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. While I was in rabbinical school, I served as a mashgiach in the cafeteria. In the course of rabbinical school, you have classes on hilchot kashrut [laws of keeping kosher], but you don’t learn how to be a mashgiach unless you’re a mashgiach in the cafeteria. At the time, Rabbi Joel Roth was in charge of the hashgacha [kosher certification], and he would lead seminars only for the mashgichim. So that’s where I learned to be a mashgiach.
In 2007, I was hired by one of the largest Jewish camps in the country, Tamarack Camps in Michigan. For many decades, it was under the [kosher] supervision of the Detroit Orthodox va’ad [rabbinical council], which was well known. Around that time, the camp made the decision to no longer be under the supervision of the va’ad, and that a Conservative rabbi would be hired year-round to be the mashgiach for the kitchen, which is the largest kosher kitchen in Michigan. So I was hired, and 50% of my job was to oversee the kitchen. I learned how to the handle the hashgacha for a year-round institution – there are camps, events, and programs all year, not just during the summer.
This made news in Michigan, that the va’ad was out and a Conservative rabbi was in. For many people it was the first time that they heard that a Conservative rabbi could be a mashgiach. The va’ad made a public statement that was in support of Tamarack’s decision, and that they felt I would uphold the standards of kashrut and support them. Besides, the va’ad did not want to continue sending Orthodox mashgichim to this liberal progressive camp.
Many local businesses read this news, and contacted me, saying “we are a bakery, or a bagel store, we want to be kosher, but we met with the va’ad and they said no, or it was too expensive. We read that you did this for Tamarack, can you do it for us?” Initially, I said no, because I didn’t want to get into supervision politics. But people in the community pressured me, because they felt it would be great for the community. So in Summer 2008, I agreed to give certification for a bagel store and a bakery. I kept the price low, and I did not want to do a shakedown. At the last minute, someone asked “what is your hechsher [kosher seal]?” So I got on the computer and made one with a K and an M. It felt too self-serving to make the M “Miller,” so I said it was “Michigan.” And that’s how Kosher Michigan was born.
Katz: Here in New York, the Orthodox va’adot [councils] are very particular about who they support regarding kashrut, and invariably it is other Orthodox rabbis. I find it really interesting, in a good way, that they support you.
Miller: Well the va’ad has not been 100% supportive, because in the past decade we’ve now become a major competitor. But at the time they were supportive because they didn’t want to deal with the camp. It was difficult to find Orthodox mashgichim to go to this progressive Jewish camp, with all this gender mixing, girls in swimwear at the beach – and Camp Tamarack is 45 minutes from Metro Detroit, which has the closest synagogues.
Katz: I have friends who grew up in Orthodox Jewish areas of Southfield, so I’m a bit familiar with the gender politics.
Miller: Yes. It was not a comfortable situation for them. So they were not interested in doing more. I would say they knew that a Conservative rabbi would uphold the standards they were used to. That was the promise I made to them and the community, and one I still keep now.
Katz: But that’s still really interesting that it was possible. As you know, in New York, we have a lot of people who have a “frummer (more religious) than thou” attitude to kashrut, where certain hechsherim (kosher seals) are and are not okay, and Conservative kashrut is not “good enough.” I’m personally of the opinion that it’s nonsense – kosher is kosher, despite the politics.
Miller: My own attitude has been similar to yours. I tell people that “I sleep very well at night” when I consider my approach to kashrut. When someone is “frummer than thou,” so frum that they won’t buy a Kosher Michigan-certified bagel, how does it affect me? Why does that person feel the need to say that? The person is most likely not doing that to other rabbis, just as I wouldn’t go to the owners of an Italian restaurant and tell them that I don’t buy Italian food. My response is dignified and respectful: “Thanks for letting me know.”
This, I think, gets to the heart of kishke Judaism. [Emotional Judaism] Why do you have that neurosis that you have to let me know that? I have written about this [in Kosher Nostra]. The same person will go into a non-kosher pizza shop and get a cheese pizza baked in the same oven as the pepperoni pizza, which is a lot more problematic for kashrut. It makes no sense.
Katz: There’s a performance to it.
Miller: People feel the need to say “I need you to know how frum I am.” A funny story from Tamarack: this Reform Jewish woman came up to me and said: “so now you’re in charge. Well congrats, but you should know my daughter is ba’alat teshuva [roughly, “born-again” Orthodox] so she won’t eat at the camp. She’s really frum, and she will only eat glatt pizza.” I responded, “well the cheese on our pizza is smooth!” After all, glatt refers the smoothness of the lungs on a cow – and thus only to the category of red meat.
But I don’t think it’s about people being ignorant, it’s something deeper – a spiritual, psychological meshugaas [nuttiness] that some people have.
Katz: It reminds me of the histrionics you see with adaptations in the liturgy and the crowing about matbe’ah shel tefillah[integrity of the prayer]- for example, people who get upset about adding the imahot/Matriarchs in the Shemoneh Esrei.
Miller: It’s this idea that “if it’s not the Judaism of my grandfathers, it doesn’t feel authentic.”
In ten years, I’ve seen and learned a lot because of my certification agency. And something that I’ve learned to do is to brush off the verbal attacks. The question “can a Conservative rabbi give a hechsher” is on the face of it a silly question. There’s no such thing as a Conservative hechsher, or an Orthodox one. There’s a trustworthy one.
It’s interesting. If someone is giving the certification, well, who is this person? Are they valid? Can they be trusted? Ask yourself these questions, but don’t ask where they went to school! It makes no sense when it comes to ne’emanut [trustworthiness].
Katz: I want to switch gears here to talk about being a mashgiach – what does your typical day look like?
Miller: So the agency has grown to the point now where I’m not actually the main mashgiach anymore – I have hired staff certifying all over the country, paid mashgichim. On a typical day, I’ll stop into several places, and I’ll be on the phone with the mashgichim elsewhere who supervise for my agency. It’s gone from mashgiach to a business of mashgichim.
I also answer a lot of phone calls and emails from business owners who want to become kosher. Sometimes it’s a long-standing business, like a jelly manufacturer seeking to expand outside of Michigan, and the food consultant tells them that becoming kosher will help them market the product better. And then there are the food product startups – the little old lady in Northern Michigan who make fudge and sells it out of her home, and people at church tell her to make it kosher, and she contacts me. And I tell her to go to a production facility – there are wholesale companies, co-packers, doing private label and producing and selling this kind of thing, and the shared facilities are much easier to make kosher.
Katz: I work for a New York City government agency writing information on basic safety and licensing regulations. (This is the non-accessibility part of my job.) A lot of the businesses we work with are food producers, and we’re trying to push them to shared kitchens. It’s very hard to have a home kitchen to the standard New York State requires for food manufacturers. Is it a big thing in Michigan? And how does that affect being a mashgiach?
Miller: Yeah, that’s interesting. In Michigan, back in 2008-2009 when the economy was in really bad shape, Governor Jennifer Granholm made a strong effort to spur more business. She made it much easier for folks to produce food out of home kitchens, but a home kitchen is impossible for me to certify as kosher, because then I would need access to their home. So I got them to go to shared kitchens and in relationships with co-packers. There are so many people here in Michigan though doing that sort of thing.
Katz: I imagine, given that you’re in Michigan, that there’s a lot of Michigan-specific things, like jam, candy, and fish.
Miller: Well in Michigan we have some specific challenges – grape jam has its issues, and strawberry jam of course brings up all sorts of questions with inspections. But we’re the cherry capital so a lot of our specific stuff is cherries. More of our business is outside of Michigan though! We have an office in Chicago, and a partner in London doing certifications in India –
Katz: India? How did that happen?
Miller: So we spread to India over the past three years, with food manufacturers and lots of different products like spice. It’s not sexy but it’s necessary.
It’s interesting. When Kosher Michigan began, we started off very basic with an Indian vegetarian restaurant, a kosher caterer, bakeries, et cetera. Then as the agency grew, we started certifying other things: meat dinners at Michigan State University at the residence halls, paper mills, chemical producers, so we’ve been moving more and more into that less sexy part of kashrut. There’s a whole industry of kosher certification for chemicals, vitamins, wax paper, and parchment paper – India is part of that.
Katz: It’s more of an exploration of food systems.
Miller: It’s the nitty-gritty of kashrut! No one at JTS taught me that or how to certify, say, a tractor-trailer. When we talk about kelim [food vessels], we don’t usually think of a tractor-trailer, but rather pots, pans, and so on. But if the beans are being hauled in a tractor-trailer that hasn’t been washed, that had pork in it, then that affects it.
Katz: A different sort of kelim.
Miller: Yes. The first time I got a call from a guy who wanted to certify a truck, I thought it was a prank call. But then I got on my computer and did some research. I didn’t realize that washing out a big tanker, so on, turns out to be a big part of the kosher industry. Same with two paper mills in Port Huron, Michigan, when dealing with paper and paraffin wax. So as a rabbi, I’m now wearing protective goggles, ear plugs, and a hairnet to check the kashrut of paper in industrial mills – I never thought rabbinical school would lead here.
Katz: this whole thing of food systems and industrial food is interesting to contrast with the standard conversation on ever-frummer kashrut – the strawberries, the lettuce, and so on.
Miller: Yes, it’s interesting. A comment I get often from people is that Conservative rabbis probably wouldn’t be punctilious enough to require lettuce to be washed three times. That’s their way of saying that they’re so frum they go to the extremes to ensure there’s no bugs in their lettuce. What they don’t consider is that no one wants to be eating little, disgusting bugs in their lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, and so on. That’s not only not kosher, but it’s gross.
Many thanks to Rabbi Jason Miller for his generosity of time and story-telling. Tizku le-mitzvot!