Fish Heads

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.

It's a fish head on a board!
Yep. Although this is a wax fish, do not eat this. (Photo Toby Dylan, CC)

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.

Eat with bread.

10 Reasons Why I Can’t Be Negative About Modernist Jewish Cooking

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!

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

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.

Peanut butter cup oreo packs on a shelf
I’d rather this than a sappy story. (Photo Mike Mozart/Flickr CC)

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.

bowl of noodles with sunny side up egg
This stock photo describes my favorite thing. (Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com)
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
    Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

    A baked corn pashtida, very puffy
    Corn pashtida, made from canned corn. Photo mine, December 2015
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

    Cans of pilchards, sardines, tuna, and salmon
    Yes. (Photo September 2005/Wikimedia Commons)
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Mochi the cat on a bed with an air conditioner behind.
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.

Modernist Jewish Cooking

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.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

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.

Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

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.

20180316-142253-supermarket-israel-2018
The lines of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

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 Nation is spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.

 

A Few Thoughts on Deadly Food

A pink bunch of oleander flours are open with some buds against thin green leaves
Oleander flowers – they smell sweet, and they can kill you. Some people learned that the hard way. (Photo Wikimedia commons)

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.

17 poisonous mushrooms of various colors on two pages, illustrated to show all parts
Poisonous mushrooms in a Czech-language encyclopedia from 1897 (Public domain)

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?

Interview: Rabbi Jason Miller, Kosher Michigan

Rabbi Jason Miller, a tall whie man, stands behind a table with food in a kitchen.
Rabbi Jason Miller (photo Rabbi Jason Miller)

And now for a first for the blog – an interview.

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!

 

Institutional Food: Your Scattered Thoughts

This is the second of two posts on institutional food. You can read the first post here.

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!

A black woman peeling a tomato over a plate with a peeled tomato, peels, and chopped pumpkin, with greens in the background.
Peeling a tomato or chopping a pumpkin – not things that everyone can do. (Photo E. Hermanowicz via Bioversity International and Creative Commons, June 2015)

Labor

Dov

“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”

Máta

“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.”

Mordecai

“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.”

Naomi

“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.

Sandy

“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.”

Ziva

“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.”

Fish on ice in a market
Fish is a common aversion. (Photo mine, December 2017)

Sometimes It is Good

Abigail

“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.”

Alex

“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.”

Anonymous

“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.”

Grace

“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!!”

Mark

“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!”

Yoni

“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.

A chickpea field in Israel with a hill in the background
A chickpea field in Israel – notice the luscious green of the leaves! (Photo Eitan F via Wikimedia commons)

Sometimes It Is Gross

Anonymous

“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!”

Ariana

“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.

Shira

“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.”

Tom

“Cafeteria food growing up reminds me of potatoes cooked and served with too much oil.”

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

Navigating with Restrictions

Anonymous

“…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.”

Ariana

“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.”

Ashley

“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.”

Sara

“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.”

Dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter - men and women dressed in gold eating confections and drinking, with a bearded servant and a young boy in a scarf attending
Not quite institutional food: a dining room scene from the Luttrell Psalter (England, 14th century). Many of the confections being consumed were probably heavily spiced in real life. (British Library, public domain)

Humorous Moments

Abigail

“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.”

Anonymous

“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.

Britt

“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.”

Emily

“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!”)”

Tessa

“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.

Yael

“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.

Thank you to all these readers for contributing.

 

Some Scattered Thoughts on Institutional Food

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.

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.

The Southeast Asian Origins of Jewish Cooking

I first ask my readers to forgive the click-bait title. This post is a look at the various ingredients in Jewish cuisines that were first domesticated in Southeast Asia. It is not a crackpot attempt to attribute Jews to an origin in that region. It should be noted that this attempt probably exists somewhere.

Many foods that we think of as “classically” or “immemorially” Jewish are assumed to have originated at some point in Europe or the Middle East. Indeed, a few things do originate in these areas; rosemary, wheat, chestnuts, rye, and onions are among them. Yet others come from further afield. For example, apricots are from China, apples from Kazakhstan, buckwheat from Siberia or Korea, and potatoes, tomatoes, and corn all come from the New World. And a whole host of foods come from Southeast Asia. Yes, you read correctly, Southeast Asia. Though long assumed in the popular imagination to have been relatively isolated before about 2000 years ago, Southeast Asia is actually the origin of many of our most cherished ingredients. I define Southeast Asia with the common academic definition: Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and East Timor. These countries share a common history of Indianization (except Vietnam) and colonialism, were often parts of the same pre-modern trade networks based on the use of the Malay and Sanskrit languages, and share similar families of climates and crops. It is from this region that much of modern food began.

Map of southeast asia, with the eleven countries and their capitals
Map of Southeast Asia (Cacahuate via Wikimedia/CC)

The trade and exchange of foodstuffs – and their spread – has occurred for several millennia. Initially, it started quite simply: one would give the other, say, a tasty nut in exchange for a bolt of cloth. By the time of the Romans, trade networks were bringing spices all the way across Eurasia and sending back bolts of cloth. Among the spices and cloth and other goods were also various crops and animals that would be quickly adopted – for their taste, their ease, or their popularity. Some of these came from Southeast Asia and traveled a long, intermediary-filled journey to Europe and North Africa.

The role of Southeast Asia in much of world history – and especially that in food and material culture – has been obscured for several reasons. One is that a lot of the physical evidence is inaccessible: documents and structures decay due to moisture and termites in the tropics, which is a challenge for anyone studying the medieval or ancient eras in tropical environments. (Even if we have copious evidence of advanced civilizations.) Secondly, of course, is racism and colonialism: other than Thailand, the region’s eleven countries were all colonized by European powers for significant amounts of time. Our Eurocentric food history has left little room for the true and magnificent tales of the peoples who Europe colonized – and brutally so. Finally, there is simply not yet enough work done on how the trade networks that spanned from the Moluccas to Portugal operated before the modern era. We have an idea, but because of the decay and Eurocentric history, our picture of food trade and agricultural ideas in Southeast Asia and anywhere that is not Europe or Northern Asia is sadly deeply incomplete – even as we know from archaeology and anecdotes that this was deeply important.

But that is enough blathering from me. You, I am sure, want to know the foods I am discussing! What was traded and spread from their original homes in Southeast Asia?

Chicken

Confused chicken looking quizzically at camera
This rooster cannot believe his 23andMe report! (Matt Davis via Flickr/CC, March 2012)

Chicken is often seen as an ancient food in the Middle East and Europe – after all, the Egyptians consumed it – but it originates somewhere in Southeast Asia. There is a bit of a debate as to whether it was first domesticated in what is now Thailand, what is now southwestern China, or what is now Sumatra in Indonesia. Like many crops such as corn and wheat, it is likely that there were several moments of domestication. Maritime peoples spread the useful bird wherever they went: speakers of Austronesian languages took chickens from Southeast Asia to East Africa and Madagascar at one extreme, and through the South Pacific to Ecuador on the other. Indian traders brought the bird through India to the Middle East, from which it was brought to Europe. Chickens were likely somewhat known to Jews in the First Temple period and were certainly present by the Roman era, and have remained popular in the Mediterranean ever since. (Geese were more common in Eastern Europe, where chickens were a somewhat rare luxury.)

Citrus

Etrog on a branch
Etrog (Daniel Ventura via Wikimedia CC)

The lemon and orange are quintessentially Mediterranean. They are also Burmese. Well, not quite – but the likely origin of all citrus fruits is somewhere in what is Burma today. Back then, it was just the citron. From Southeast Asia, traders brought it to the Middle East by ancient times, where citrons – called Etrog in Hebrew – became indispensable for the rituals of the holiday Sukkot. Greeks and Romans then grew citrons in their areas, but only Jews continued to grow citrus fruits in Europe through much of the Middle Ages. Arab rules reintroduced citrus fruits to Spain during the Moorish period in Spain, by which time talented farmers had developed lemons and oranges in India and on the Arabian Peninsula. Other lovely citrus fruits, like the lime and kumquat, were bred elsewhere. Jewish communities across the world not only used citrus fruit for rituals, but inserted citrus at various levels in everyday cuisine. Marmalade was initially introduced by Portuguese Jews to the rest of Europe, where it became very popular among Jews and non-Jews alike.

Coconut

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
These coconuts are not quite ready to be turned into Passover macaroons! (Photo MaxPixel/CC)

Coconuts likely originated in the region of Sumatra or Peninsular Malaysia. They were spread initially by the sea – coconuts can float in the sea and stay fertile despite being salty for 120 days. The coconut was a pretty popular foodstuff wherever it was adopted, and from India and Indonesia it spread throughout the Indian Ocean basin and the tropical Pacific. Spanish and Portuguese traders later brought it to the Americas. In Jewish cuisine, until the late 19th century, it was mostly only present in communities where coconuts were common, in India and coastal Yemen. Coconuts were found in curries, chutneys, and stews. However, dried coconut spread in the 19th century around the world, and began to be commonly incorporated in Jewish baked goods. Machines to more efficiently process coconut were invented by American Jews in the late 19th century, which led to the popularization of coconut in cold climates. Coconut milk also emerged as a popular pareve substitute for milk.

Sugarcane

Sugar cane crop with mountain in background at Cairns, QLD.
Sugarcane in Queensland, Australia (Photo Gregory Heath/CSIRO)

Sugar has a long and checkered history that all begins with the independent domestication of sugar cane at several locations across what is now Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The use of sugar and sugarcane spread from there to India by ancient times, and with Arab traders during the Umayyad Caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa to Spain. From there, colonizing European powers took sugarcane to the New World – which also accelerated the institutionalization of the slave trade. (Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power is an informative history here.) Growing and refining sugar was backbreaking, dangerous labor that Europeans were only too happy to slough off to enslaved people. Jews in Suriname were among these slaveholders. By this time, Jews had already developed a taste for sugar in Spain during the Moorish period – and after the expulsion, they took sweets made from sugar and the use of sugar as a spice everywhere they went. Sugar in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was sourced until recently from beets.

Bananas

Purple bananas and banana leaves on a table.
Not your Curious George banana – these are purple bananas and leaves for sale at a market in Thailand. (Photo Takeaway via Wikimedia/CC)

This is a bit of a controversial inclusion: bananas were domesticated in what is now New Guinea, which is usually not considered Southeast Asia. (Definitions vary.) Evidence of domestication of bananas and sugar cane comes from the Kuk Swamp in the highland regions of Papua New Guinea from several thousand years ago, and it is likely that domestication occurred independently at several places through the island. Contrary to popular assumptions about “uncontacted peoples,” New Guinean people traded with peoples to the east and west, and bananas reached Indonesia and the Philippines no later than four thousand years ago. By the medieval era, banana leaves were in frequent use as plates, food wrappers, and materials across the Indian Ocean basin – and bananas were a popular staple food as well. Jewish communities in India and the Arab world did eat some bananas, but bananas really “took off” with their introduction to the Americas in the 16th century, and their incorporation into local diets across the Americas. Immigrant Jews adopted bananas quickly upon arrival into the United States and Argentina, and the banana found itself both as a beloved snack and incorporated in baked goods.

Taro

Taro plants with big leaves
Taro leaves – yes, they are that big. (Photo Pixabay 2016)

Another controversial inclusion for a different reason: many people do not realize that yes, Jewish communities cook with taro! Taro was initially domesticated at least three times, in Northeast India, New Guinea, and in what is now Malaysia or Indonesia. The starchy roots are stunningly portable; hence, it spread quickly across tropical and semi-tropical regions, and was established from Polynesia all the way to Ancient Egypt and Cyprus. The Romans ate it much as Italians eat potatoes today. Taro’s use in Europe mostly declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, although it remained common in Portugal. Today, most North Americans associate taro with Chinese cooking. Egyptian, Indian, and Syrian Jews have all historically used taro in hearty stews.

Cloves and Nutmeg

Medieval illumination of noblemen in traditional tunics and boots around tables eating meats and breads under trees and drinking. Dogs are drinking at a creek in the foreground. The trees are tall and in full foliage, the image has red and blue illuminated borders.
Noblemen eating a sumptuous picnic that may have included some cloves and nutmeg because they could. Note: this was not normal. (Image from Le Livre de chasse de Gaston Phébus, 15th century.)

Cloves and nutmeg are both native to Indonesia – cloves to Ternate and Tidore, and nutmeg to the Banda Islands. I talked about the history of the spice trade around these in a post on medieval cuisine last year. Both have been part of Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines for centuries, and became incorporated into some Ashkenazi dishes after the 18th century. Dutch Jews and Arab Jews use cloves especially in savory dishes. The love of cloves, in fact, also goes back as far as Biblical times – evidence of cloves from the period has been found in the Holy Land. For thousands of years,

Indonesia was the only source for both spices, and an entire trade network built up between the Molucca Islands and Europe and North Africa, trading the spices. The Dutch used brute violence and genocide to establish a monopoly during the 17th century, which also encouraged other European powers to transplant nutmeg and cloves elsewhere.

Black Pepper

Illuminated section of manuscript of Latin calligraphy, laid on a cerulean blue tile. Top section is drawings of unicorns on a blue background. Bottom section is serpents wrapped around frond-like trees on red ground.
To be fair, a snake around the tree is easier than some pepper grinders. This is what medieval Europeans thought getting pepper entailed: snakes around trees and unicorns! (Photo from 12th-century “Marvels of the East”)

Black pepper is native to South India and Sumatra, where locals figured out that the dried berries of the pepper plant add a wonderful spark to food. By the high ages of New Kingdom Egypt (mid-2nd millennium BCE), a thriving trade in pepper stretched across the Middle East. Greeks, Romans, and Medieval Europeans all loved pepper – and used it heavily in foods. Jews, too: it was the traditional prized flavoring of German and Lithuanian Jewry. In fact, it was pepper that spurred Europe’s first colonial ventures, in part – the Portuguese went on their sailing adventures, as did the Spaniards, partly in pursuit of pepper. Today, black pepper is used across Jewish cuisine – but especially in Ashkenazi cooking, in which it is the main source of piquancy. And though most Europeans moved away from heavily spiced food in the 18th century, many Jewish communities continue to use black pepper in quantities now unknown in Europe, but still common in India. In Southeast Asia, the chili pepper – native to Mexico – has taken predominance.


If you want to read more about the history of cooking, Southeast Asia, and trade of foodstuffs in the ancient and medieval Old World, I highly recommend the following resources:

A Soup for Weekends

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl

So when I was in Mexico a few months ago, I had one of the best soups of my life at a restaurant in Tula de Allende that served comida casera – roughly speaking, “home-style cooking” – but entirely vegetarian. I asked the proprietor, Cristina, for the recipe, which she roughly described in the telegraphic style of home cooks everywhere. A bit of this, a bit of that, and a good dose of black beans. Unfortunately, I left the scrap of paper with my notes on the bus back to Mexico City. However, with some experimentation over the winter, I was able to roughly recreate the soup with ingredients readily available in the United States.

The soup is chock-full of ingredients beloved by Jewish communities: beans, garlic, tomatoes, squash, and peppers among them. Though some would tell you that this is a “weeknight” dish, I would consider this soup better for languorous weekend cooking, when you have the time to spare a while to cook a big hearty soup. Eat leftovers during the week, when the myth of so-called “easy” home cooking is most apparent.

Sopa de Frijoles y Calabaza con Fideos

Serves 6-12

1 large onion, diced

7 cloves white garlic, minced

2 dried ancho chilies, broken apart into small pieces (keep the seeds if you want it spicy)

1 tablespoon table salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar

1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes

1 large kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped into chunks

1 8oz/225g can corn kernels, drained (or 1 cup cooked corn)

2 15-oz/425g cans black beans, drained (or 4 cups soaked black beans)

2 sprigs dried epazote (optional)

8 cups water or stock + more as needed + more for noodles

1 package thin noodles (any shape you wish)

3 fistfuls fresh spinach, chopped

 

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

 

Sour cream, chili sauce, and cilantro for garnish

  1. Heat a soup pot or Dutch oven over a high flame. Add oil.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and chili and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften.
  3. Add the salt, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and nutmeg. Saute for another minute, or until the onions are translucent. Then, add the vinegar and saute for one more minute.
  4. Add the crushed tomatoes and mix well. Saute for another minute, or until the juices are bubbling.
  5. Add the squash, corn, and black beans,  then add water and/or stock. If the water and stock do not cover, add a bit more. Bring to a boil. Add epazote if using.
  6. Simmer for 45 minutes covered, or until the squash is completely cooked.
  7. While the soup is simmering, prepare the noodles in a separate pot according to package directions.
  8. Once the squash is cooked, add the spinach and stir in such that it is cooked. Remove from heat. You can add the noodles if you want, although I prefer to store the noodles separately.
  9. Serve the soup with a helping of noodles and sour cream, chili sauce, and/or cilantro as a garnish. The soup keeps well for at least a week.

Es improbable que ella lea esto, pero mil gracias a Cristina en Tula de Allende por su receta excelente, y me disculpo si haya olvido algunos aspectos importantes.

On Food Security and Jewish Customs

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.

A deli window with a sign that says "we accept food stamps EBT" with Doritos and Lays bags behind it, and toothpaste below.
Essential – even for a deli like this. (Photo Clementine Gallot via Creative Commons, March 2009)

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.