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?
So it turns out you all have some serious thoughts on institutional food! I cannot say that I am surprised – especially given everything that I said in the last post. Most everyone has encountered institutional cooking at some point, especially in the Jewish world. Yet when I asked on Facebook threads for a few anecdotes about institutional food, I was completely blown away by the response.
What I have put together here are quotes from some of the responses. Many people wanted to stay anonymous, so no names are there, although some quotes were made on comment threads on Facebook. Here are the stories – see if they parallel your own!
“The main exciting parts of being a mashgiach were getting to crack eggs/wash veggies.”
“Sukkot was a good mashgiach gig, because of the free Sukkot meal that came with it”
“I actually went into institutional cooking to try and escape the ticket machine nightmares of restaurant work … and yes it’s very mentally and physically demanding and overwhelming staffed by underpaid marginalized people. I found institutional cooking to be a bit harder though because of the need to handle everyone’s dietary restrictions and still producing good food (especially when nothing is made to order and you need to find a way to have it in holding trays without it drying out) and the funny thing is my last job was a sous-chef position in high end senior living … about 30% of our 200 residents were Jewish and I ended up taking cooking classes to try to learn to prepare under kashrut and found it overwhelming learning a strict system (even after the perfectionism of French haute cuisine) that I didn’t have much prior acculturation toward, considering my only exposure was to Jewish deli cuisine (which found its way into mainstream American cuisine anyway.) So I ended up burning out…”
“…also forgot to mention the common issue of substance abuse in the industry as well due to stress and long hours, plus being a working class job type a lot of people do enter into it with legal troubles which can be a positive means for them, plus with the demands and limited staffing despite legally there being a need to not be in the kitchen when sick, this is seldom the case with the adage being if you’re not going into a shift, you better be in jail, in the hospital or dead.”
“When I arrived [at the kibbutz] they quickly put me in the mechinat shtifa, the dishwashing room. I was nauseous the entire time I worked there. Something about the combination of the smell of the hot steel of the machine, the soap and water, and the chicken we had almost every day made me sick to my stomach. Eventually, they had me serving food. This was tricky because I was just starting to learn Hebrew. I remember, an old woman, one of the founders of the kibbutz, got frustrated with me because I didn’t understand maspik [enough] meant she wanted me to stop serving her, that she had enough food. As I kept spooning onto her plate, she shouted dai! I didn’t know that that meant “ENOUGH STOP!” either, but she said it so fiercely, I thought she was saying the english “DIE” and threatening me, so I stopped.
After a while, I found my niche cleaning the eating area every day, and fell into a gentle rhythm. I’ve always been anxious and there’s a certain calm I’ve found in the drudgery of daily “unskilled” physical work that really soothes me, although I also find the work depressingly monotonous. I’m also not very good at it. I was constantly being told to do things better, faster, more efficiently, by kibbutznik bosses who would rotate out every week, until I knew the work better than my supervisors did. Still, I’ll always remember fondly the light streaming in through the huge, eastern facing windows of the hall, as I shoved a row of tables out of the way, blissfully zoning out as the kibbutznik who was in charge of me that week barked orders.”
“Basically [as a mashgicha] I found out that bugs are actually actual real existing things, 80% of rasberries have literal crawling transluscent but visible tiny wormythings (unless you blend them and then they’re not bugs anymore because biryah or something), and also how to crack 4 eggs at once.”
Jonathan’s note: cracking four eggs at once is a miraculous skill.
“Jews have lots of food needs and sensitivities. If you work with the same staff for 15 years even if it’s just for a week a year they get good at the kosher thing.”
“I was the mashgiach for the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute for ~6 years. It’s held at a college campus (then, Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire), so we take over a commercial kitchen for a week. It’s all veggie, except fish, and ~300 hippie Jews have a wide variety of things they can’t eat, so half the job was keeping track of who needed special what rather than strict kashrut.”
“I dreaded the week a year I was in charge of a dining mess for about 500 soldiers in two sittings. The meat was chicken (cut into eighths) and the easiest way to cook it in volume seemed to be in a sea of oil with paprika in giant dented pots you could fall into. Potato wedges were similarly drowned and baked on giant sheets.”
Sometimes It is Good
“The private high school I went to had a super fancy cafeteria with good food cooked mostly fresh that day, like what Grace described. One of the nice things we could do was buy breakfast in the morning (lunch was free), hot or cold. Hot breakfast was made to order. When Pesach came around each year, we got an extra option aside from the usual pancakes/egg and cheese/omelette: Matzoh Brei. Chef Paul would make this delicious concoction of matzoh, cinnamon, milk, egg, and sugar that was quite popular. We also had matzoh available at lunch. Even though we had enough Jews attending the school for matzoh brei to be a thing, that kitchen was definitely not kosher. I know there were two Jewish brothers who brought food from home every day instead; I do not know if there was anyone else.”
“Tufts had great food- the cafeterias always had an ingredients list and nutrition label with every food offering, along with a plate that showed you what one serving was. They had fresh baked bread everyday, and I still dream of the butternut squash bisque! The salad bar was usually well-stocked, and the pizza was made from scratch. They had a great kosher for Passover station too.”
“We had choices; they used local food vendors and displayed where it came from. The workers were probably well paid and happy and cared [for], and a part of the community. We had a salad bar, a custom sandwich bar, hot foods bar with multiple options, [and a] tea and coffee bar.”
“My high school was fancy-schmancy and private, and we had a crazy good cafeteria that I didn’t appreciate until I graduated. Everything there was delicious except the pizza, forsome reason (it was that sort of pizza that’s so covered in grease that it can only be eaten if wiped off first). They served kale salad, clam chowder, pretty good chili, at least one each of vegetarian and non-vegetarian main dishes each day, and the most flawless, soft-on-the-inside-crispy-on-the-outside chocolate chip cookies, made in-house. But even with all that, grilled cheese and tomato soup day was the one everyone waited for. A holiday that happened approximately every month. The tomato soup was so good creamy and tangy, and the cheese was fake American cheese, but that was the whole point. I loved grilled cheese day so much!!”
“I went to a Jewish day school in Pikesville, Maryland. There were meat days and dairy days for lunch. Meat days meant hamburgers and fries, dairy days meant pizza and fries. Junior year I was part of a group of people who advocated to get healthier options and we “won” a salad of romaine lettuce, cucumber and tomato. I was vegetarian so didn’t eat the burgers but I really loved that pizza!”
“Jewish cafeteria food in the south for me was split between very boring regular cafeteria staples and kosher versions of southern classics. At my day school in Alabama, we had split meat/dairy days for lunch, but the highlights were when/if Miss Connie, the African American woman who was the head chef (of two or three) made fried chicken. I don’t know how she made kosher fried chicken as good or better than your usual Southern buttermilk fried chicken, but she did.”
Jonathan note: The traditional pareve substitute for buttermilk usually involves a mix of soy milk and lemon. Older cooks would simply add more egg, or even use beer.
Sometimes It Is Gross
“When I was in therapeutic boarding school/reform school, the food was pretty terrible. Somebody claimed to have done the math, and estimated that we were all fed on $6 a day: $1 for breakfast, $2 for lunch, and $3 for dinner. The food was pretty bad, and I remember complaining about it a lot. I think worse than the food quality was really just the repetition of eating the same 6 or 7 meals every day for a year. I gained some waiting after leaving the program, mostly because I was so excited to eat lots of different things, and went a little overboard the first few months out. I don’t remember all of the meals, but a few stand out: Friday night pizza dinner, corned beef with a greenish sheen, weirdly crispy grilled cheese…”
“The milk also left an impression. It came in these massive udderlike bags that had a thin rubber hose attached. We had to hoist the bags into a dispensing machine and feed the hose through this little hole and trim it, so milk would come out when you pulled the machine lever.”
“One other thing that really stuck out: when Orange is the New Black premiered, I was struck by two things. One, how much relative freedom the imprisoned women in the show had compared to my experiences in youth institutional settings. Two, the TV prison cafeteria had the same brown plastic mugs that we had at school!”
“The cafeteria at the school I taught at was awful. Most of our kids were on free and reduced lunch and I feel like that was used as an excuse to have worse food. The kids commonly ate pizza which was mostly undercooked, and chicken sandwiches made out of the compressed parts of chicken. The cafeteria workers were really nice, but the food was awful.”
Jonathan (Me, Your Author)
A number of years ago, I did a summer program at UC Berkeley. I distinctly remember that, on the second day, one of the things at the cafeteria was covered in a gloopy tomato sauce that had the consistency and texture of liquid soap, and was so oversalted so as to taste akin to eating an actual salt-shaker. I could not eat anything red for an entire month.
“I was at US Army basic training during Passover 2016. A local Chabad rabbi ran a Seder on the first night, and gave us all boxes of those microwaveable kosher for Passover airplane meals. I don’t think I ate a single one of them — we didn’t have access to microwaves and they were just beef stew — no carbs, etc. During Passover I got medically discharged for asthma and anemia. One of the NCOs at the med center asked me if I needed lunch, and I pulled out my kosher for Passover meal. He wrinkled his nose and brought me some “real” food (an MRE). I ended up just eating the regular food for the rest of Passover.”
“Cafeteria food growing up reminds me of potatoes cooked and served with too much oil.”
Navigating with Restrictions
“…the coveted “African peanut” soup, which was delicious for me but reaction-inducing for a friend who could not have legumes. On the advice of her house mother, this friend once faked anaphylactic shock to try to convince the school cook how serious her allergy was- previously, the cook hadn’t believed her when she insisted that putting out peanut butter cookies on a communal table could keep her from breathing.”
“College was really interesting because my food allergies got really bad for a while after I had mono. Having a hard time eating in the dining halls was actually one of the reasons I moved out of housing. They tried really hard to be accommodating and avoid cross-contamination, but the options were limited. The South cafeteria opened my second year, and I did a walk through with the staff and someone from housing, which was really helpful. I had my own designated pan for pasta that was safe from cross-contamination, and a place to get my own milk. They even took me down to the food storage facilities so I could see how things were packaged/stored and so I could read comprehensive ingredient lists. It was actually way more accommodating than I expected.”
“To use the flex points, however, I actually just starting buying meals and drinks for other people, even when I’d just met them. I think on one occasion I treated about 5 people to the campus Starbucks, just to get rid of the points. But I recognized how much the school was charging for these meals, and they absolutely weren’t worth the expense. The only problem was that meal plans were required unless you were in an apartment. Before the start of the next semester, my mom called the school and told them their poor labeling made me sick because I was lactose intolerant (not a lie), but the real kicker was that she sealed it with “and eggs aggravated her eczema.” It worked, and I think my food expenses dropped to only $100-$200 a month for groceries.”
Jonathan (Me, Your author)
“At Chicago, I ate a lot at the vegetarian station when I was living in the dorms, which had some decent things (fried zucchini! things with black beans!) and again, some things that required doctoring with hot sauce. The kosher station was reliable. I did not trust the other cooked food stations that much because I had so many contamination incidents – ham in random things, chicken in a scoop of ice cream, other bizarre moments. I also got food poisoning a few times from the other places, so I played it very very conservative in the cafeteria, especially in my second year. One of my worst food poisoning incidents came from some stuffed peppers and I still cannot eat them.”
“Jewish sleepaway camp Shabbat dinners were completely inedible for me, as were meals with red meat or cream sauces, but my counselors flipped when I asked if I could just have bread instead of PBJ because I had a huge aversion to PB at the time, which was SO MUCH FUN. Same at BBQs.”
“The funniest part of the day when I did study abroad [in Russia] was to watch fellow American students try to avoid sour cream in their soup. Woe to anyone who was next in line after them though, because if you asked for soup without smetana there was likely already a dollop in the current bowl. The current bowl would be set aside, a new bowl poured, and then the next person would get the already dolloped bowl.”
“I remember visiting Cornell Hillel during my time at UMD and was so impressed with the variety their dining hall offered both during the week and during shabbat. They offered dishes like lamb and beautiful Mediterranean salatim. That same week my friend and I feasted on the lamb and salatim one of the people there apologized that the food was “not so great that week”. I’m pretty sure we burst into gales of laughter at the comment.”
Jonathan note: this happened to me at Penn, which had significantly better food than my alma mater of UChicago.
“Also Yale had (has?) waffle irons with a “Y” that prints in the middle of the waffle and it’s all I want in life because it’s so extra.”
“When I did the Naval Academy summer seminar after my junior year of high school, the food was actually quite good, though the cadets assured us that it was not always this good (one would assume they were trying to make a good impression on prospective students…). There are all kinds of rules around how you eat at the Naval Academy, especially in your plebe year––an upperclassman can call on you at any time to state the menu for the entire day, you have to square your corners when eating (hard to explain what this means––it has to do with your fork coming up off your plate and making a sharp corner at mouth level, then the same path on the way back down). Oh, and you don’t leave the table until everyone is done, and at that point, you bang on the table three times and stand up; ideally you have knocked over the empty cups. And what I remember most clearly is the two cadets who were SO EXCITED about having “buff chicks” for lunch. I was extremely confused until we arrived and lunch was buffalo chicken sandwiches. (“You guys don’t know how lucky you are! Buff chicks!”)”
“In elementary school our milk was literally frozen? We would all get it and open the carton and try to chip away with it with plastic sporks so we could eat some of it.”
Jonathan: at my workplace this sometimes happens and I’ve gotten adept at crushing enough out to add milk to my coffee. The hot coffee melts it.
“Let’s talk about how ridiculous it is that we had a soft serve ice cream machine in our high school cafeteria for a while… I loved it, to be fair.”
“ But the best memories I have of cafeteria food are the Friday night brownies we would always try to steal extras of at Camp Ramah in New England, and how we would coordinate in advance of the summer to make sure we would have enough shkedei marak* to dress up the Friday night chicken soup.”
Jonathan’s note: shkedei marak are little Israeli soup croutons that you pour into soup to add some crunchy-carby flavor. They are standard fare in Israeli cafeterias and are oddly addictive.
Many of those around me have noticed that I have a hard time throwing food away. It takes something being rotten or most definitively off for me to throw it out; even then, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This guilt is not from sermons about food waste – I am well-read enough to know that waste has actually gone down significantly with modern agriculture, and I am also generally able to plan shopping and food storage to minimize any unneeded waste. Rather, it is because I carry quite a bit of baggage and secondary trauma about the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who starved in the camps, and whose food practices were forever shaped by those years of deprivation. As a result, my mother and I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of food – and throwing away any of it sends shivers down our spines. It is also why we stockpile food – a subconscious “just in case.”
These sorts of historical and transmitted traumas have influenced Jewish foodways for a long time. How many cooks view food is directly related to their own experience of lack, or for those like me who have been more fortunate, lack experienced by our relatives. Sometimes this happens in terms of food storage: how much do we keep? How little do we throw out? Sometimes this happens when we cook: how many portions do we cook? And sometimes it happens to our guests – not letting them “go hungry,” getting them to eat something. Subconsciously, it is a response to trauma experienced or inherited. And around that trauma, a culture of relentless squirrelling away, huge outlays of food, and stuffing guests’ faces has been built.
Even now, many Jews do not have enough to eat. A night volunteering at a kosher soup kitchen or food pantry in New York or Chicago is evidence enough. (I highly recommend Masbia, which is the nexus of a huge community.) If anecdote is not enough, allow the statistics to speak: 10% of American Jews struggle with food security. A higher proportion of Jews in Israel and some other countries do. These struggles do not just end when people have enough to eat: food insecurities, as we see from history, inform how people will eat in the future.
And the proof of this is in the way we relate to food today in the Jewish community. One reason we seek to have groaning Shabbat tables is because we remember the times in which our ancestors simply could not have that. One reason there are so many cultural strictures against wasting food is because we are only seventy years out from a huge starvation event – the Holocaust. (Genocide was accompanied by hunger and forced starvation.) Many of the popular foods among American Ashkenazi Jews today – challah, babka, cold cuts, and more – were prized by immigrants in the early 20th century precisely because of their rarity at home.
This history is why I also have little patience for the nostalgic, sentimental narrative around Ashkenazi cooking as a product of “poverty.” For most Ashkenazi Jews, challah was an occasional treat, as were things like brisket, p’tcha, or pretty much anything with meat. Ditto for other Jewish communities and meat. The daily fare of poverty was a lot plainer and probably not something those in developed countries in our era would willingly eat. When we say bread “came from the earth” in the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, we are partly commemorating the fact that wheat was once threshed on floors. This idea is explicitly stated in ancient and medieval commentaries such as Bereshit Rabbah. Bread had impurities that were dirt or stones. Bugs were commonplace in food before the modern era. Starvation was only unknown to the wealthiest in the community – most people experienced some hunger at least once in their lifetime. A lack of food security, not just persecution, drove millions of Ashkenazim to emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cuisine that became everyday was the cuisine of festivals, because that was the cuisine that meant plenty to our ancestors. And the fact that we eat so much – and so often, and that we store so much? That is the actual aftereffect of generations of poverty, or the memory of grandmothers in concentration camps, or remembrance of famines past.
For more on the history of hunger in the Jewish world, I highly recommend Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America and John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied.
So last week in the United States, our current president came out with one of his most bizarre – and meanest – ideas. Apparently, he wanted to replace half of the cash-like benefits received by those on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP” or “food stamps”) with a box containing pre-selected packaged goods. These goods would include cereal, pasta, and shelf-stable milk. It was humiliating, infantilizing, and inconsiderate in one fell swoop. It also ignored the fact that poor folks have their own food habits and needs, as well as the fact that people cook different things – or sometimes do not have the ability to cook for a variety of situational or disability-related reasons. Some are now saying that this whole thing was an elaborate “troll.” Given the reaction of the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, though, I am deeply skeptical of that claim.
In any case, I was rather upset, and drafted a 36-tweet rant going through how this plan was both icky and disastrous for the reasons I mentioned above. You can read the rant here, and the piece that followed in Jewish Currents here. Anyway, my thread proceeded to become “viral,” and received many thousands of views and hundreds of “shares” and “likes.” And, of course, I got questions. Some people asked me about universal basic income (a great idea but people need to eat tomorrow and today), comparisons with Australian policies (utterly fascinating), and how this is already a sad policy on Native reservations. I answered the questions that seemed honest, and not lines of attack. Unfortunately, people believe many myths about food stamp recipients. I had to dispel many of those.
And then there were questions about disability. These I should have expected from those who knew me. After all, disability access is a big chunk of my day job, where I make sure local government written and digital resources are usable by everybody. I am passionate about that part of my job, and tend to evangelize disability access wherever I go. And so I had addressed questions of disability in my rant, bringing up the fact that kitchens are often inaccessible, and that people with cognitive disabilities often do not learn how to cook, among other things.
Responses from those I did not know before were filled with information. Some told me anecdotes of how they needed to buy frozen or ready-made food on SNAP, because their disabilities meant that they could not cook. Others told me about how they were on SNAP partly because their disabilities meant they could not work, or were not hired. (The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is far higher than for those without.) More brought up how the foods proposed for the box – such as shelf-stable milk or peanut butter – were not things they could eat, because of their chronic conditions. And then there were questions expressed privately: how do people with disabilities cook? Why are kitchens inaccessible? Can blind people cook? (The answer to that last one is yes, and sometimes very well.) All of them, however, were guided by one big question.
What does disability have to do with food?
Disability and ability influence everything in cooking. This fact is true in the Jewish kitchen and in the general one. Cooking is, at the very base of it, an often difficult physical activity that makes use of physical skills to produce physical objects. Like any other physical activity or life activity, someone with a disability may approach food in a way that is partly determined by their body or mind. We often romanticize a specific way of cooking as being “Jewish,” despite the fact that this is inaccurate, but we forget that this way also relies on a whole set of assumptions about who is cooking. One is that this person is able-bodied and moves in a “normal” way. We assume that the person can hear, see, smell, use their hands or legs in a normal way, has normal amounts of energy, is neurotypical (basically, has a “normal” brain), and can lift things or stand or sit as needed. People with disabilities do not, cannot, may not, or choose not to cook in “normal ways” for a variety of reasons. I will walk through some aspects of this reality, using examples that are Jewish or not Jewish. Throughout this piece, I ask you to remember: there is no such thing as a recipe or a method that works for everyone! Not everyone can cook in a given way!
Kitchens and kitchen equipment are not always accessible. To start, many houses have kitchens that cannot even be accessed using a wheelchair or crutches. Counter space and food preparation space is often too high – if you use a wheelchair or cannot stand for lengthy periods of time, you might not be able to effectively use space in the kitchen, or may need to make adjustments. Surfaces are not adequately differentiated – if you are blind and feeling where the counter ends and a smooth cooking surface begins, then you are at risk of getting burnt. Never mind that many appliances are often not usable by someone who is blind. Knobs and tools are not easily usable by people who do not have normal hand function; others might have conditions that make it painful to grab onto something or twist something. Pots and pans are too heavy for some people to lift. The handles of utensils may also be difficult for many people to hold – given hand shape or hand conditions or tremors. One example that comes to mind is a friend with limited hand motion after an injury, who cannot hold whisks, spoons, or knives in a “normal” fashion. Rather, he makes adjustments – holding a spoon in a different way, for example – or uses a food processor for fine chopping. He also uses special chopping tools – for example, a potato slicer – that allow him to chop things safely, even if different foods need different equipment. Though we often make fun of pineapple choppers and apple corers (I have), these tools are especially useful for people who cannot chop things “normally”. However, specialized equipment, of course, costs money that many do not have.
The instructions to cook are also not always accessible. Cookbooks and recipes are often written in language that many people cannot understand. (Full disclosure: this blog is no exception.) Instructions are stacked in confusing ways, or use complex language. Many people with cognitive disabilities cannot understand indirect language, or find it easier to understand instructions that are delivered separately. In some cases, written instructions are too difficult to understand without images alongside. Never mind that many recipes assume a familiarity with certain skills that might not be there – or that some people cannot carry over from time to time. Think of, for example, “chopping” an onion or “browning meat.” All of these things are among the reasons why many people with cognitive disabilities never end up learning how to cook. In addition, facilities for people with cognitive disabilities are often completely disinterested in encouraging their clients to learn to cook (or really, be independent at all) – and thus many clients never quite learn. Writing a recipe that is usable by people with intellectual disabilities requires a very different skill-set from “normal” recipe writing, and also a lot more work on the part of the writer. Everything must be explained step-by-step with multiple forms of communication, and not in complicated language. When it works, the results are amazing. There are thousands of people with Down’s syndrome in the United States who have been able to not only start living independently after learning how to cook, but have even been able to find employment. The last section is huge in a country where most people with intellectual disabilities are never employed. That good result started when someone actually bothered to teach folks how to cook on those folks’ own terms, and not on able-bodied people’s terms.
Of course, cognitive disability is not the only way cooking instructions are inaccessible. Many recipes rely on instructions that rely on one sense alone – a sense that someone with a disability might not be able to use. Visual cues, for example, are useless for blind cooks. Though it is often easy to include an additional cue – for example, “sauté the onions until they are soft and slightly brown,” many recipe writers fail to do so. This habit makes it much harder to cook without sight – even though cooking without sight is possible. And writing recipes without visual cues is possible too – many blind food bloggers are doing it already! Then there are cues that ask the cook to do things with their hands. Many people cannot do certain tasks with their hands because of pain or limited hand movements. There at least should be more room given for the possibility that someone might use a fork, or a spoon, or another implement. Never mind that many autistic people have textural aversions that are very difficult to unlearn. It is not our job as food writers to tell people how to handle their aversions or to “adjust.” It is far easier to offer an adjustment for a recipe.
Which brings me to my next point: the act of preparing food is not always accessible. Certain tasks are not possible or not easily done with certain disabilities. You cannot check the color of cooking meat if you cannot see the cooking meat. You cannot chop an onion with a knife if chopping causes extremely painful wrist flare-ups. You cannot hear a hollow sound when tapping on bread in the oven if you cannot hear at all. These are all things that can be mediated with other methods of checking – meat thermometers, food processors, or visual cues. But some things are harder. If you have severe heat sensitivity, some types of cooking might be impossible for you, such as deep-frying. If you use breathing equipment, it may be dangerous to cook in certain ways, such as with a grill or by smoking. If you are unable to use your hands, certain recipes may simply be too hard to “adjust” to your abilities. There are also questions of lifting and chopping – if one’s motion is limited, certain tasks in cooking may not be possible, for example lifting a large pot or finely chopping beyond the ability of a machine or simple tool. Let us take potato kugel for example. Some of the accessibility barriers in the supposedly simple recipe include:
Grating potatoes – which by hand or machine can present difficulties for some people with limited hand motion;
Chopping onions – ditto;
Squeezing moisture from potatoes – difficult if you have joint conditions or cannot stand at a sink, given that most kitchen sinks are not fully wheelchair-accessible;
Greasing a pan – requires hand motions;
Lifting a pan – difficult for those with joint conditions or some chronic illnesses;
Being around a preheated oven – difficult for those with heat sensitivity;
Mixing the ingredients – difficult for those who cannot “grip” a spoon;
Checking to see if the potatoes on top have adequately browned – an indicator not accessible for people who are blind;
Placing or removing the pan from the oven: a task that may be difficult for those with limited motion or hand use, and can be difficult if the oven interferes with wheelchair access.
And that, of course, excludes all sorts of cognitive conditions. Those with limited short-term memory may not be able to track the steps in a recipe. Those with attention deficit disorder (ADD) – which, yes, is a cognitive disability – may not be able to stay engaged with a recipe. Those with some intellectual disabilities may not be able to track “where they are” in a cooking process without help. Those on the autism spectrum may find their sensory sensitivities triggered during the process and may need to take a break to avoid the effects that can cause – headaches, panics, or sudden and extreme fatigue, depending on the individual. Temporary disabilities and chronic illnesses also interfere with cooking. Someone on chemotherapy might find that the smells of cooking trigger nausea or dizziness. Someone with lupus may develop a rash during heat-intensive cooking processes. Someone with an asthmatic tremor may not be able to hold a knife in a consistent position. If one’s dominant arm is broken, cooking becomes slow – especially if one has never used the other hand to chop. Oftentimes, the demands of a recipe may be inaccessible; in other times, the way food is taught to be prepared is difficult or impossible to some.
(This perspective is a key reason why one should always be skeptical of recipes that say “anyone can do this.” Who is “anyone”? What are the skills required? I guarantee you that, almost always, “not anyone can do this.” That is before, of course, the fact that these sorts of recipes are often nearly impossible for the inexperienced able-bodied person to complete. Cooking is anything but easy.)
Let us also not forget that cooking requires energy that people do not always have. Cooking takes time and physical power. Because of disability, some people cannot allot physical strength or wherewithal to cooking. Others can only stand, lift things, or move in certain ways for a limited period of time. Otherwise, one might become extremely exhausted. (Different things tire people out differently.) In conversations today, cooking is something that is said to “take up spoons,” using the “spoon theory” developed by Christine Miserandino. This theory says that someone with a chronic illness, mental illness, or disability might only have so many metaphorical spoons in a given day – the spoons stand in for energy or wherewithal. Cooking takes up some of them. So if one has reduced energy due to depression or anxiety, or if other things have already eaten up one’s energy, a disability might mean that one does not have the energy to cook, even in a situation where an able-bodied person might be able to do so. People with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses might also use additional energy for their accommodations in cooking – for example, cutting in a certain way. If a kitchen is inaccessible, even getting to equipment also takes up energy. Chopping vegetables or peeling fruit or preparing ingredients – these can all take more energy for someone with a disability.
It is for this reason that I staunchly refuse to judge people who use prepared ingredients. Peeling chestnuts, cutting a pineapple, chopping onions or garlic – these all take time and energy, and doubly so if one has a disability that prevents one from doing it easily. Processed ingredients, supermarket-prepared foods, frozen chicken breasts, and pre-peeled vegetables are not lazy cop-outs, but hugely beneficial for people with disabilities who might not otherwise be able to enjoy peas, mushrooms, chicken, pineapples, or a range of other ingredients. (Not to mention those with small children who may not have thirty minutes to spare, tired civil servants, or couples rushing a quick dinner before heading to the opera. I use prepared ingredients like canned corn frequently.) When we ask people to prepare more of their own raw ingredients, we are not just asking for a return to labor that was, for most of history, arduous and annoying. We are also telling people with disabilities – and many others – that they are not cooking properly, even though “proper cooking” is neither healthy, nor practical, nor safe for many of those people! Instead of advocating for a return to the anachronistic “real cooking” popularized by Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Carlo Petrini, we should follow Rachel Laudan, Luca Simonetti, and Garrett Broad in calling for high-quality, healthy, and affordable industrial food, and accessibility of food in a way that people can enjoy with the aid of modern technology. This approach would allow people with disabilities to choose what to eat – and what not to eat.
Which brings me to my final point. What we eat, and how we eat it, is often informed by disability. Of course, some people with disabilities cannot eat at all, and rely on a feeding tube or other means to be nourished. There are also people whose disabilities prevent them from chewing or eating fully solid food; a new project in Japan, for example, is experimenting with cooking purees for elderly people who can no longer chew. Some people also convert to liquids-only diets for their chronic conditions. The very basic act of eating is affected by disability. Of course, one must add to this the various dietary restrictions caused by chronic illnesses and disabilities – many of which accompany one another. Some people cannot have gluten, others must limit their sugar intake, and others may eat a certain food that improves their symptoms. Someone with celiac disease – which is very common among people with autism or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – cannot share fully in the very gluten-heavy experience of Ashkenazi cooking. There is neither challah, nor kneidlach, nor lokshen. As a result, the experience of Eastern European Jewish cooking is different from what one commonly expects.
There is also the question of aversions, which are especially common among people on the autism spectrum, but are common among neurotypical people too, especially during pregnancy. Many able-bodied and neurotypical people seem to be hell-bent on converting autistic folks from aversions, which are common among autistic individuals. In most cases, this seems to have to do more with a discomfort with autistic people than any genuine concern. In some cases, helping someone destroy an aversion is a good thing – but only if the person actually consents to doing so! Certain types of consensual therapy can actually help people learn to love new foods and develop a healthier diet. Sometimes, autistic people also want to get rid of an aversion for any number of reasons. Non-consensual and abusive methods, like ABA therapy, not only do not do so, but also add a rather harmful traumatic aspect to aversions. However, some aversions do not go away. An aversion is something that is physiological – it is not a socially learned aversion, such as the avoidance of eating dog in the West. One does not simply “grow out” of an aversion, or any autistic behavior. An aversion is also stronger than a dislike – encountering a texture or sensation to one is averse can throw one completely off balance and trigger various other physical symptoms, including nausea, tremors, or panics. One should never, ever trigger an aversion. While I was fascinated by Bee Wilson’s proposals about aversions in First Bite, I want to also add this follow-up note: that people can and do often cook and eat well taking all their aversions into account. One does not need to force someone averse to onions to eat onions, one can simply adjust. The person who does not like onion probably has a whole range of adjustments, some not even conscious! Most recipe writers, however, rarely explore substitutions to ingredients, which makes it harder for someone with an aversion to cook them. Many cooks without major aversions also rarely explore how to adjust their own recipes. Many autistic people – and many neurotypical people too – are excluded as a result.
Beyond aversions and chewing, there is also the matter of tables and tableware. Many places for eating, and especially many restaurants, are not fully wheelchair accessible: the table is often too high, or the chairs cannot be moved. Little people (those of short stature) are also often excluded. Plates, knives, forks, and spoons often cannot be held by those with limited hand movement. People who are blind may need to be told what is where on their plate, especially at a restaurant. The temperature of food matters too – some people cannot eat piping-hot food, while others cannot eat food that is icy-cold, both because of various chronic conditions.
So from kitchen to table, we get a picture of how cooking and eating may be inaccessible.
Before I conclude, I want to also add a personal example. I am on the autism spectrum. I do not have the food aversions many of my peers have, except for gummy-sticky textures. (The mere mention of marshmallows or gummy candies can make me seize up.) I am also far more able to pass as “neurotypical” than most autistic folks. By and large, I cook in “typical” ways. However, what does not make it into the blog is the ways I do accommodate my sensory sensitivities – the fact that I have a much harder time dealing with extreme heat, light, or noise than many neurotypical people. When I am cooking some of the recipes that require high heat, I often have both a fan running and a window open. During daylight hours, I often cook without electric lights, because I find the combination of electric light and sunlight to be so jarring as to completely put me off balance. (It sometimes causes migraines.) I am also very careful with pot and pan placement, because I will “hear” a loud metallic thud for far longer than other people. I wash my hands frequently when working with sandy or sticky substances, because I find it very distressing to feel these textures for more than a moment. At this point, these accommodations are almost automatic for me in my own kitchen, or my mother’s. Yet when I prepared food in my friend Jeremy’s kitchen, I found myself slightly overwhelmed – the room was so hot! So bright! I, someone with 16 years of cooking experience and a familiarity with a range of ingredients, found myself overwhelmed. I scraped by on my experience. It is easy for me to see how many people simply, in some circumstances, struggle with cooking, or cannot cook at all. Especially if they do not like cooking in the first place – and to be honest, experiences of inaccessibility might easily contribute to that dislike. And that is not even getting into the physical inaccessibility of so much of cooking, as I have outlined above.
In this brief tour, I have barely scratched the surface of all the ways disability affects cooking. I aimed to provide an overview of many of the various ways in which food and disability are inextricably linked. Disability affects the way we make, consume, and perceive food. The topic is so large, however, that there is always more to say. There are many things I did not cover. Shopping for ingredients and stocking up a kitchen have many accessibility barriers, enough to merit a separate blog post and probably a book. The discussion of disability in food writing circles is not only ableist, but often badly misinformed. I only made the briefest mention. There is also a comparative lack of research, which is distressing given that the population of people with disabilities will only grow with aging. Many voices of people with disabilities are also often suppressed. We need to, as food writers and thinkers, lift up and amplify these voices and experiences whenever possible. If progress is inaccessible, in food or anywhere else, it is not progress. Towards this progress, I will make every effort to continue this research, and to raise the voices of cooks, eaters, and writers with disabilities.
In all of this, the foodways of people with disabilities must never be seen as lesser, nor should they be stigmatized. There is a tired and ableist trope that people with disabilities are being lazy or inconsiderate by not assimilating to “normal” food practices. As I have shown above, “normal” foodways are simply inaccessible. People should have a right to food practices, of their own volition, that deviate from a given norm. Everyone has to be nourished; everyone should be able to do so within their own ability. Demanding normalcy is not only ableist, but it is in fact lazy and inconsiderate. Perhaps, instead of demanding that people with disabilities meet a standard of normalcy regarding food, we should instead ask what able-bodied people should do to make food and cooking more accessible. I outlined many and varied accommodations here; readers can start by considering those. These ideas may include:
Not stigmatizing people who use or eat prepared foods, because they allow people with disabilities to have access to many foods.
Accommodating the aversions of the autistic people around you.
Joining efforts to make sure that kitchens in new housing are accessible for people who use wheelchairs.
Writing recipes in ways that do not rely on visual cues or needlessly complex language.
Not making rude or negative comments to people who do not have the energy to cook or eat a certain type of meal.
None of these are accommodating laziness or lack of consideration. All of these are not being lazy or inconsiderate to people with disabilities.
Accessibility in the kitchen also benefits everyone. After all, most people end up with a disability at some point in their life. It may be a chronic illness, a broken arm, or memory loss at an old age. Something, somewhere, causes “basic life function” to be impeded in a way that is not normal, and thus that person is now someone with a disability. Maybe it is temporary. Maybe it is permanent. In every case, that person should have the right to food, and the right to approach food in an accessible way, whatever that way may be.
Without a demand for “normality.”
An enormous and heartfelt thank you goes out to Jacob Remes, Dana Kline, and Jeremy Swack for encouraging me to turn the Twitter rant into more coherent written work. Another enormous thank you goes out to Nahime Aguirre, Jay Stanton, Karen Waltuck, Jacob Waltuck, Olivia Ortiz, Walei Sabry, David Friedman, Jonathon Epstein, Victoria Cross, Sumaya Bouadi, Phoebe Ana Rabinowitsch, Akiva Lichtenberg, Ashley Goldstein, Jessica Belasco, Kate Herzlin, Alex Cooke, and Sara Liss for many discussions of how disability, cooking, and the accessibility of food culture intersect.
If you want to read recipes written by and for cooks with disabilities, check out Disability FEAST. Christine Ha is arguably the most famous disabled chef in the United States, and the winner of MasterChef Season 3. Her blog is delightful, even though almost none of the recipes on it are kosher. There are some great guides for making cooking lessons accessible for people with cognitive disabilities, this one by Lisa Pulsifer is my favorite. David Friedman is a disabled restaurant reviewer whose blog, The Disabled Foodie, reviews restaurants for both accessibility and food! Ava Romero is an autistic chef who has a lovely blog – I cannot wait to try the pumpkin spice doughnut recipe! Andrew Pulrang did a fascinating study last year about the intersection of disability and food, it makes for good reading.
I have also written and presented about disability access in communications – you can check out some of my work here: