Some Scattered Thoughts on Institutional Food

School lunch tray with snacks and chocolate milk and tray of vegetables

This is the first of two posts on institutional cooking.

People who cook for large groups do not get enough respect. In our deeply problematic classification of jobs in this country, cooking for large groups is considered “unskilled” labor – whereas somehow moving imaginary quantities of money is considered “skilled.” (Capitalism is really absurd at times.) Cooking may be a menial, manual labor, but it is a labor that requires deep skill – especially when you are turning out food to feed a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. When you are cooking in a complex institutional setting, it becomes a skill of almost super-heroic proportions.

I and friends have learned this truth the hard way by wandering into occasional institutional-size cooking gigs ourselves. Back in my college days, I somehow ended up cooking lunch a few times for a small, lovely Lutheran church near my campus. Cooking lentil soup and pasta for ten people is a fairly straightforward matter. Cooking for a congregation of over one hundred is a much different undertaking, and after a few hours I found myself completely, utterly exhausted. The fatigue came not just from the physical labor, but from the mental labor of working with much larger quantities, having to adjust my normal cooking habits to the huge quantities I was making, and learning how to work with a soup pot large enough for a small person to fit inside. (I discourage cannibalism.) Other friends have come to dread “cooking duty” in the Israeli, South Korean, or Finnish Armies, which thrusts one into a context where one has to go from zero to feeding a hungry platoon on often substandard ingredients fairly quickly. It is an egalitarian approach to push everyone through the hard labor of large-scale cooking. In another context, I have watched friends spend hours as the institutional mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for college Shabbat dinners, supervising large quantities of food for halachic minutiae. Many of my friends and relatives lived (and some still do) on kibbutzim in Israel that had huge, communal dining halls of varying quality. And of course, there have been the other encounters: helping friends navigate hospital food systems, reading about the unionization of cafeteria workers, and the flurry of articles last year about kashrut in the American prison system.

Several giant metal pots stand over braziers, with a man in a chef's uniform stirring one. The pots are steaming. Photo is black and white.
Giant cooking pots at the King George Military Hospital in London, during World War I. (National Library of Medicine)

I have been thinking about institutional food for a while, and how it affects the way we approach and think about food. When I say institutional food, I am referring to food cooked as part of a wider institutional framework not primarily focused on food. These institutions include school and college cafeterias, nursing homes, armies, prisons, hospitals, and places of worship. Institutional cooking, in my mind, has two other defining characteristics. One is that such cuisine is generally made for large groups – institutions provide for the needs, food and otherwise, of hundreds or thousands of people on a regular basis. Those people have a variety of needs and preferences, allergies and aversions, practices and metabolisms, which compounds the challenges of cooking, already made difficult by the scale of the endeavor. The other defining aspect is that institutional cooking has a certain industrialization or standard process to it – necessary to even cook at that scale. Though we often think of processing and industrialization as a modern endeavor, the idea of producing rations in a standard way for many institutions dates back centuries, to madrassas in the Ottoman Empire, monasteries in Western Europe, and armies the world over.

I am only offering some thoughts here. I am a civil servant who does food history as a hobby, and there are many people who have built a career out of studying institutional cooking, not to mention the multitude of institutional cooks themselves. (“Nothing about us without us” should also apply to discussions of labor.) These thoughts are essentially evidenced ideas about how Jewish food and institutions intersect both at the individual level and at the systems level. At the end of this, I will cite some things that you should read, whose have informed my thoughts.

Men at a long table eating a communal meal
The dining hall at Kibbutz Ein Harod (Israeli Government Press Office)

And why does institutional food matter?  It is tempting in our craft-addled food culture to forget that institutional food is real food with real influence on the way people eat, what people think of as “good” or “bad” or “normal food, and how people approach the labor of food at all. Many assume that craft culture, with its (expensive, anachronistic, and white) renditions of (often normally inexpensive and created by people of color) “real food” influence people the most. Certainly, it is an influence. But unless you are incredibly rich or have an incredibly unusual upbringing, much of the food you will eat during your most formative life phases in North America, Europe, and Israel is institutional. Cafeteria food at schools, universities, and army mess halls, food at synagogues and churches, food from mass kitchens if you are hospitalized or imprisoned. Tastes are formed by the often-“disappointing” preparations of certain ingredients, and other dishes are looked forward to on a rotation. When many students graduate to cooking on their own, the reference points for a normal meal have been shaped not just by food at home or out, but by years and years of institutional food. Jewish communities, with their own schools, hospitals, yeshivot, synagogues, and institutions – and not to mention kashrut practices and traditional foods – are no exception. Even craft culture imitates the food of institutions and seeks to influence it.

With these ideas in mind, I will now go through a few small discussions of institutional food. Keep in mind that these are brief and extremely incomplete, each of these seven points could be the topic of a doctoral thesis on their own.

Women sharing a communal meal at a table
A meal at a kibbutz cafeteria in Israel in the 1950s (Wikimedia Commons)
  1. Jewish communities have a lengthy discussion on the kashrut of institutional food, but not the labor and logistics of it. Cooking is work, and I cannot labor that point enough. It intersects with disability, with race, what we eat and do not, and how we even conceive of food. It involves strenuous movements like chopping, lifting, and straining in areas of high temperature, often for hours on end. At an institutional level, this labor takes on special characteristics, such as large implements, huge quantities of ingredients, and vast industrial kitchens. It is dangerous labor, and it is hard work. This work is also often taken for granted – and as unpalatable as cafeteria food can be, there is a lot of labor behind it. Even beyond labor, the logistics of actually getting edible food in large quantities to huge, hungry groups of people are astounding. There are trucks that bring food in, pipes to carry waste water away, hiring systems for workers, quality checks, safety checks, and the very task of moving huge quantities of material. So little do we discuss this outside of nerdy food studies circles, or professional circles themselves. Why? The faces of the labor are probably one clue.
  2. Who, specifically, is doing the labor of institutional cooking? How does this affect our foodways? Food work in the developed world and developing world alike is often the work of marginalized people. In developing countries, this may be migrants or members of lower castes. In the developed world, this is often done by working-class immigrants, people of color, and/or women. Jewish communities are no exception, and the United States is no exception. Institutions that serve primarily white clientele often have a cooking staff made up of entirely Black and Latina women. Again, Jewish institutions are no exception. There are two major notes to take from this fact.One is the way this work is closely tied to the way labor, race, and gender intersect. Not only is institutional cooking manual and menial labor, but it is also associated with groups marginalized in Jewish and wider society: people of color and women. This tie means that ordinary people are far less likely to respect that work than say, that of the mashgiach (though more on that later). Because people of color and women are also more likely to face workplace abuse, bad working conditions are less likely to be noticed or addressed. Many institutions simply do not pay their food workers enough to live on. Jewish institutions are among them. What would changing that system mean for our food practices?The other matter is that the cuisine changes. I discussed in a post last year the way Black domestic workers influenced and shaped Jewish cooking in North America. Not only were African-American women bringing home challah and kugel, but White Jewish children were raised on foods more frequently associated with African-American and Caribbean cultures. (Yes, most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States are White.) Let us leave aside that much of “mainstream” North American food was created by enslaved Black people; Michael Twitty’s book can never be topped by a few pithy sentences. What I want to note here is that the people of color, often women, who work in institutional food settings affect the cuisine that is served in institutions themselves. How so? Well, they are doing the cooking! They make adjustments to food when situations arise based on what they know. Sometimes seasonings are changed – actually, frequently. Cooking times are adjusted. The time something is left on a burner is increased. Last-minute incidents of spills and freezer problems cause all sorts of new things. All these change the final product, especially in large quantities. Often, workers make the foods they know how to make in large quantities from their own communities; it is far easier to make the things one has seen prepared many times over, and food workers are no exception to that rule. (Hence the frequency of rice and beans as a base in some cafeterias, hearty stews in others, or fried okra and biscuits in Southern Jewish institutions.) As much as any home cooking or elite TV show, these contributions shape the very idea of what food “belongs” in institutions.

    I will share one favorite example. The Filipina and Palestinian Arab women and Mizrahi men who work in my grandmothers’ almost entirely Ashkenazi nursing home are responsible for feeding the residents. The great hits of Ashkenazi Israeli cooking are there: soups, salads, schnitzel. So too, are foods that seem to have started off as last-minute additions: certain rice dishes, stewed and stuffed vegetables, and okra in various forms. Those dishes are often the best-tasting, and beloved by many residents. Mind you, many of these happy consumers did not eat okra for the first eighty-five years of their lives with any regularity.

    Two Indigenous men in smocks stand by a shelf and stove with pots in a black-and-white photo
    Anishinaabe (First Nations) workers in a hospital kitchen in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1917. (Photo Thunder Bay Museum)
  3. What does “Jewish” institutional food look like? What gets filtered through the process of industrialization and simplification? Is there an institutional kosher cuisine? I ask this for two reasons. One is that I often see the same things or combination of things being served at Jewish institutions, usually adaptations of Ashkenazi, Israeli, or Western European food. (I am distinctly aware that all of these terms are highly loaded.) In some ways, we can call this a “culinary” tradition of what ends up on school, hospital, army, and synagogue trays and plates. The other is that the combination of the minutiae of strict interpretations of kashrut and the challenge of cooking for large groups of people for a long time on a daily basis produces certain challenges. As a result, some foods become unfeasible because of the effort or cost involved – dairy if one practices chalav Yisrael, eggs if one is machmir (fastidious) about blood spots, certain green leafy vegetables if one follows certain rabbi’s guidelines on vegetable washing and preparation. Some foods are also much easier: breads, pastas, rice, cabbage, soups. Institutional kosher cuisine, to me, feels like an endless sea of soups.In tandem with this last point: if there is an institutional-kosher cuisine, why is so much of it meat-based? Given the expense of kosher meat, the commonality of vegetarianism in Jewish communities, and the number of additional rules involving meat, I am somewhat surprised at how many institutional kitchens are certified as “meat.” Part of me wonders if this is a cultural thing – meat is seen as “ideal” for a meal. Another part wonders if it has to do with the extended arguments about the kashrut rules on dairy and the general Haredi monopoly on kosher certification in North America, Europe, and Israel. And part of me wonders if it is simply … part of the culture at this point.
    A cook ladles brown onion soup into bowls, four of which are full and eight of which are empty. A large pot is to her side.
    A cook at Incirlik Air Force Base (US/Turkey) ladles onion soup into bowls. Minus context, this could be any kosher institutional kitchen. (Photo US Air Force)

     

  4. Even though I just critiqued this, what does institutional kashrut even look like? I know that I just excoriated Jewish communities for so heavily concentrating on kashrut a few paragraphs back – and indeed, I do maintain that the concentration on keeping kosher has masked the very real matter of who does the labor, how they are treated, and what that entails.I still find kashrut interesting for other reasons, though. Not for the matter of keeping institutional kitchens and food systems kosher, though that is fascinating too – much has been written about this by Roger Horowitz in Kosher USA, Sue Fishkoff in Kosher Nation, and by organizations providing kosher supervision themselves, such as Star-K and the Orthodox Union. Rather, I am interested in how people change – or do not change – their practice of kashrut in institutional environments. There are so many things to investigate, but these include:

    How do people become looser with kashrut at institutions? Some institutions may offer food adhering to one’s normal kashrut practices, but even that can be limiting. How does one choose food, if possible, that meets one’s standards internally? How does one decide when and where to loosen the standards? For example, I myself would normally be upset if tongs used to serve non-kosher meat landed in the broccoli without being washed. But at many institutional cafeterias, I have not cared. Other friends have found themselves making exceptions or even redefining what they generally think of as kosher, not just in a given and unusual situation. People like maintaining traditions, but they also want to eat enough. Do people ever become stricter? If so, why?

    In addition, why do Jewish communities seem to only discuss the holiness or cleverness of the work of the mashgiach (kosher supervisor), but never the labor or discomfort it can bring? Being a mashgiach can involve long periods of time in hot spaces, like any kitchen job, with an attention to detail that evades many. One must often explain arcane rules to people who not only do not understand the rules, but may not have a common language with you. It is a standing, moving labor. Pay varies widely among mashgichim, as do work conditions. Do we consider how well mashgichim are compensated, especially given that some certified-kosher food products can often be so expensive? How much money from institutional food practices actually goes to the mashgiach? (At this point, I have to acknowledge that kashrut is not separate from labor.) And if a business is paying for certification, or a rabbinical authority with questionable business ties, what pressures do mashgichim face to choose between their interpretation of halacha and their job security? How have kosher practices changed in response to the work conditions of mashgichim? How have mashgichim changed their practices in response to “popular” kosher assumptions or concerns?

    Long tables with chairs with orange seats arrayed in a cafeteria with a food service area with a stove and stacked bowls behind it. Rolling trays are on the left.
    A college cafeteria in Armenia. Many Jewish institutions, in my experience, have a similar approach to cafeteria design, though the orange seats would be blue. (Photo Safi-Iren via Wikimedia Commons)

     

  5. Let us zoom out to the urban level: how do Jewish communities build their own institutional food systems? Here, I am primarily thinking of certified-kosher food. The rules of strict kashrut are arcane and complicated, and many will only eat commercially prepared food that is under rabbinical supervision. For prisoners, members of the military, and people in hospitals far from Jewish populations, food must often be shipped long distances, and often in bulk. Take two to three meals a day and multiplying it by 30 days in a month, or 90 days in a quarter, and even food for two or three strict kosher-keepers becomes a hefty shipment. For the caterers and industrial providers that have arisen for this population, that is a steady stream of revenue – but also requires planning to make sure food is not left unsealed, shipped safely over long distances, and is still edible at journey’s end. In areas with bigger Jewish populations, hospitals and schools often have their own kosher kitchens or kosher catering, which draws from a network of trusted suppliers and certified sources. Those suppliers also provide to the other parts of the food chain – supermarkets, restaurants, and sometimes consumers. As a result, there is a whole Jewish food system parallel to the “mainstream” food system – just as there are other parallel systems.Much has been written by Roger Horowitz and Sue Fishkoff (linked below) about keeping these food systems kosher. I am more interested in the social dynamics of such a system and how it interacts with wider ideas of a Jewish community – and how such systems enable Jewish communities to form or dissolve. This, of course, is something I could spend a lifetime pondering.

    Disability rights protest in Ireland. Signs include "10 years waiting for equality ratify CRPD now" and "No limbs. No limits. Impossible. I'm possible."
    A disability rights protest in Ireland. Disability rights are human rights! (Photo Sinn Fein via Creative Commons)
  6. Experiences of disability and institutional cooking are closely tied.I would be remiss here not to link to my discussion on disability and cooking from February.

    People with disabilities often spend more time in institutions than abled people, and more time eating institutional food. Special schools for the Deaf and children with cognitive disabilities are often boarding schools; adults with cognitive disabilities often live in group homes or facilities. Many people with cognitive disabilities never learn how to cook. Those with chronic illnesses spend more time in hospitals, and college students with disabilities are often more reliant on cafeterias at their schools. Of course, elders in nursing homes are often wholly reliant on institutional food – especially if their disabilities prevent them from cooking, or living somewhere with access to kitchen facilities. As a result, institutional food often looms larger in a disabled person’s life.The tragic irony is that this food is often inaccessible. Food produced at an industrial scale is often difficult to tailor to severe allergies or specific dietary needs, or produced in ways that some people cannot consume. For example, I have volunteered at many soup kitchens that serve lots of hard, crunchy food. For a clientele that often lacks dental care, have untreated dental problems, or have swallowing problems, this sort of food is impossible to eat without pain or even danger. Never mind that many chronic illnesses are accompanied by a host of food intolerances.

    The food is also, as we all know, not usually very good, and not just in terms of taste. For many people, the depressing matter of relying on terrible and often inedible food day after day is a major trigger for mental illness. For Jews and many other groups, the food is also not the food of one’s community or the foods that one might prefer or even know. There are huge Jewish institutional food systems, but that does not mean all Jews who rely on institutional food have access to adequate, nutritious, and appropriate food. Even being vegetarian can cause problems in institutional settings. The lack of control over what one eats is yet another stab to dignity.

    What would accessible and good institutional food look like? I cannot provide the answer in a paragraph, but it ties to the systems I described above. To build a food system that is accessible at all, changes in the way we shop for, package, and talk about food are needed – and not to mention kitchen design and recipes themselves. On an institutional level, this may involve a larger workforce and much more separate “streams” for dietary needs – and less of an attachment to the craft-culture, slow-food mentality. It would also take into account different cultural approaches to food and expectations, and not impose the desires of dominant groups. I also believe that such a shift would need to start, first and foremost, with the input and ideas of the disabled people most affected by institutional food right now: elders, adults with cognitive disabilities, and those in medically-based assisted living facilities. “Nothing about us without us.”

    Trays of vegetables and fruit on a metal table

  7. The memory of institutional food is long-lasting. Originally, I was going to post some things and anecdotes told to me by people over social media, but so many people sent stories in that there will now be a subsequent post. Suffice to say that not only do memory and institutional food shape cuisines and how people cook, but also that this combination produces fascinating, funny, and often cringe-worthy stories. (The post will be a blast.)In any case, I have been wondering three things about memory and institutional food:a. How does institutional food create common communal memories of Jewish food? When I say this, I do not mean the abstract memory often cited by academics, but ideas and tropes that people have experienced themselves. Students who have eaten at Hillels and camps in the United States all seem to recall salty soups, Israelis all seem to remember meat loaves and oily, oily potatoes from Army service. The eggs at Jewish hospitals seem uniformly “bouncy.” Institutional food, clearly, creates the memories that turn into jokes, anecdotes, and common wisdom.

    b. Institutional food “teaches” people the bounds of Jewish food. How does that carry over beyond institutions? It is well known that cafeteria food and school food is a place where people are “taught” what the food of a nation, group, or community are. Hence the recent emphasis on pork in French cafeteria food in response to growing diversity, or the focus on “national” foods in Scandinavia, Central Europe, and Japan. Jewish food is no different, and a simple scan of the menus from Jewish day schools and camps shows that food also has an educational element on kashrut, tradition, and conspicuous absences. There are Israeli salads, matzah ball soups, and stews, but certainly little fake treyf or, G-d forbid, real (Yael Raviv has discussed institutional cooking as a place of teaching extensively in her book Falafel Nation.) But after the Jew graduates from school, camp, yeshiva, and/or the Israeli Army, what effect does this education have? Do people subconsciously follow these lessons on what gets eaten and when, or are they intentionally subverted.

    c. How does institutional food “reshape” people’s habits and approaches to “normal” and “weird” food?
    In tandem with this, how do encounters with emotional food determine what people see as “normal” food? I am thinking here of a few things. One might include impressions of what other people expect. Another might include what gets determined as normal food at all. And another are the feelings when your own communities’ foods and memories are not included in the institutional framework – and the way that shapes your approach to the foods of your communities as well. Institutional food is deeply white in the United States.

    Families at tables in a sunlit hall eating food.
    The dining hall at Kibbutz Gonen in Israel. (Photo Israeli Government Press Office)

 


Tam ve-nishlam, here is the end of my scattered thoughts on institutional food. Two more notes:

First, look out for an upcoming post about readers’ memories, thoughts, and anecdotes on institutional cuisine. I have heard some wild stories, and personally seen a few myself. The tales range from gross and unappetizing to delicious and heartwarming. I have never been so excited to write a post.

Secondly, I am going to ask you, as the reader, to do a bit of thought. How have you interacted with institutional food – as an eater, as a worker, as an employer, or in other ways? What carries over into your home cooking, into restaurants, and into your food preferences? And how do you relate to the people who do the labor of institutional cooking and food supply – or not?


Some resources on institutional food:

Institutions:

The United Food and Commercial Workers’ International Union represents food workers across North America: http://www.ufcw.org/

A New Look at Institutional Food Service Management, by Mickey Warner – from 1992 but still very apt

Schools:

The School Food NYC site is fascinating as an example of how people interact with cafeterias: http://www.schoolfoodnyc.org/public1/default.aspx?logout=1 

RR Briefel has conducted research on how school food affects dietary habits at home

Kashrut:

Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz 

Kosher Nation by Sue Fishkoff

Food in hospitals:

The Centers for Disease Control has a well-written report on making hospital food healthier, although the document itself violates several national accessibility laws: https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/hospital-toolkit/pdf/creating-healthier-hospital-food-beverage-pa.pdf 

The Guardian did a great photo series on the good, bad, and gross of hospital food: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/gallery/2015/mar/04/your-pictures-of-hospital-food-good-bad-ugly

NPR did a piece called Around the World in 8 Hospital Meals: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/09/19/349524520/around-the-world-in-8-hospital-meals 

Food in the prison system:

The Atlantic did some incredible work covering food safety in the prison system here: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/12/prison-food-sickness-america/549179/

The New Republic makes some great points about the way kosher food acts as a point of rebellion in a horrific prison system: https://newrepublic.com/article/116295/prison-food-form-rebellion 

More than slightly related: you should listen to Episode 2 of the podcast Farm to Taber to learn about unpaid prison labor and all the problems that come with that on farms, for the human rights of prisoners, and how institutions interact with our food system. Dr. Sarah Taber is awesome, too.

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6 thoughts on “Some Scattered Thoughts on Institutional Food

  1. This is a terrific reflection on institutional food as Jewish food that points to needed avenues of research in Jewish food history. I’m a Jewish Studies professor who teaches a course on U.S. Jewish food history, and I want to remember to add this to my syllabus next time I teach that course. Thanks for this post.

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    1. A personal memory of a very positive kibbutz experience. “We first arrived in Israel in December 1964; avocados had barely arrived in Australia and were a very high end item in expensive restaurants. Usually served as an ingredient in a prawn cocktail. We were visiting with relatives at a kibbutz where avocados were being grown as an export crop. As she handed me the large stainless steel bowl of avocado salad, my cousin apologised for the poverty of their cuisine. I took a helping of that most delicious avocado salad, hardboiled egg, chopped onion, sweet red peppers and chives, soused in lemon juice and olive oil, I was blown away. Now, of course, a staple on supermarket shelves almost everywhere in the world. I remember tasting so many of these, now mass produced on an industrial scale when they were staples of kibbutz cuisine.

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