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!
I am not a vegan. The reasons why are probably the topic of a future, more controversial post that would discuss a lot of environmental and agricultural science. That said, I have a number of vegan friends who I enjoy feeding, and am always happy to cook for them. So it was a welcome challenge when a friend requested a vegan, Shavuot-appropriate cake. Shavuot is a dairy-heavy holiday, and if you do not eat dairy, a lot of festive foods for an agrarian, sugary festival are barred to you. I also happened to be very stressed, and baking is a good way for me to relieve anxiety. (Your mileage may vary.) So I decided to put the request to work and make a cake using some flavors I enjoy in my cakes: the dark fruitiness of cherries and the happy luxury of chocolate. The cake is simple, and turned out well. My colleagues enjoyed the cake immensely, and gave good feedback to make it better. I put a ganache on this cake because chocolate rarely hurts. However, the cake is perfectly delicious without it.
¾ cup melted vegetable shortening or vegetable oil + more for greasing pan
1 ¼ cups granulated brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup / 300 mL soy milk
1 cup dried cherries, soaked in water for 20 minutes and drained
1 cup miniature chocolate chips
2 heaping teaspoons baking powder
2 ½-3 cups all-purpose flour (depending on which shortening you use, you may need more flour)
⅔ cup chocolate chips
½ cup / 120 mL soy milk
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a medium-size (9 inches or 25 centimeters square) rectangular/square pan, cake pan, or Bundt pan, depending on what shape you want the cake to be.
In a large bowl, mix the shortening/oil, brown sugar, and vanilla together until the brown sugar is completely mixed into the oil. You can use a whisk or a large spoon.
Add the salt, soy milk, cherries, chocolate chips, and baking powder. Mix until the mixture is thoroughly even in distribution of chocolate chips. (The cherries need the ballast of the flour to become even.)
Mix in the flour, a half cup at a time, until you get a thick but still viscous batter. The cherries and chocolate chips should be evenly distributed.
Pour into your prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or chopstick comes out clean. Remove from heat, and let cool before adding ganache and/or serving.
To prepare the optional ganache: put the chocolate chips in a bowl. Then, heat the soy milk to just below boiling temperature on the stove or in the microwave (no shame). Then, pour the soy milk over the chocolate chips and mix with a fork until well blended, about two minutes. Let cool until thicker. Once thicker and cooler, pour over the cake or use for other purposes.
Thank you to all of my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing and Operational Readiness Testing on this recipe, and giving feedback for adjustments.
Many of those around me have noticed that I have a hard time throwing food away. It takes something being rotten or most definitively off for me to throw it out; even then, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This guilt is not from sermons about food waste – I am well-read enough to know that waste has actually gone down significantly with modern agriculture, and I am also generally able to plan shopping and food storage to minimize any unneeded waste. Rather, it is because I carry quite a bit of baggage and secondary trauma about the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who starved in the camps, and whose food practices were forever shaped by those years of deprivation. As a result, my mother and I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of food – and throwing away any of it sends shivers down our spines. It is also why we stockpile food – a subconscious “just in case.”
These sorts of historical and transmitted traumas have influenced Jewish foodways for a long time. How many cooks view food is directly related to their own experience of lack, or for those like me who have been more fortunate, lack experienced by our relatives. Sometimes this happens in terms of food storage: how much do we keep? How little do we throw out? Sometimes this happens when we cook: how many portions do we cook? And sometimes it happens to our guests – not letting them “go hungry,” getting them to eat something. Subconsciously, it is a response to trauma experienced or inherited. And around that trauma, a culture of relentless squirrelling away, huge outlays of food, and stuffing guests’ faces has been built.
Even now, many Jews do not have enough to eat. A night volunteering at a kosher soup kitchen or food pantry in New York or Chicago is evidence enough. (I highly recommend Masbia, which is the nexus of a huge community.) If anecdote is not enough, allow the statistics to speak: 10% of American Jews struggle with food security. A higher proportion of Jews in Israel and some other countries do. These struggles do not just end when people have enough to eat: food insecurities, as we see from history, inform how people will eat in the future.
And the proof of this is in the way we relate to food today in the Jewish community. One reason we seek to have groaning Shabbat tables is because we remember the times in which our ancestors simply could not have that. One reason there are so many cultural strictures against wasting food is because we are only seventy years out from a huge starvation event – the Holocaust. (Genocide was accompanied by hunger and forced starvation.) Many of the popular foods among American Ashkenazi Jews today – challah, babka, cold cuts, and more – were prized by immigrants in the early 20th century precisely because of their rarity at home.
This history is why I also have little patience for the nostalgic, sentimental narrative around Ashkenazi cooking as a product of “poverty.” For most Ashkenazi Jews, challah was an occasional treat, as were things like brisket, p’tcha, or pretty much anything with meat. Ditto for other Jewish communities and meat. The daily fare of poverty was a lot plainer and probably not something those in developed countries in our era would willingly eat. When we say bread “came from the earth” in the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, we are partly commemorating the fact that wheat was once threshed on floors. This idea is explicitly stated in ancient and medieval commentaries such as Bereshit Rabbah. Bread had impurities that were dirt or stones. Bugs were commonplace in food before the modern era. Starvation was only unknown to the wealthiest in the community – most people experienced some hunger at least once in their lifetime. A lack of food security, not just persecution, drove millions of Ashkenazim to emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cuisine that became everyday was the cuisine of festivals, because that was the cuisine that meant plenty to our ancestors. And the fact that we eat so much – and so often, and that we store so much? That is the actual aftereffect of generations of poverty, or the memory of grandmothers in concentration camps, or remembrance of famines past.
For more on the history of hunger in the Jewish world, I highly recommend Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America and John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied.
I got not one, but two requests for sherry potatoes – one from a close friend, and the other from Sarah Teske, a fantastic librarian in Minneapolis, MN. Despite having lived in the Midwest, I somehow had never had sherry potatoes, and Sarah’s description of this recipe as having “a warm depth of buttery, slightly-sweet, caramelized goodness” most certainly intrigued me. And it is, like the best of buttery dishes, Passover-friendly. I am providing two recipes here: first, the recipe I made – I like my potatoes with skin on in all circumstances (even fries), and then Sarah’s recipe. For my version, I added some peri-peri spice mix that I brought back from visiting relatives in South Africa last year, but you can use any peppery-sweet curry spice mix instead. Sarah’s version calls for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, which is delicious, but contains cornstarch, which some people do not eat on Passover. Both recipes are good.
Sherry Potatoes with Peri-Peri
Based on the recipe by Sarah Teske
2 lbs/1 kg small red gold potatoes, sliced into thin slices (with peel on)
In a medium-size (or any appropriately size baking dish), layer the potatoes. After each layer of potatoes, sprinkle some salt and pepper on top.
Once all the potatoes are in, sprinkle the peri-peri on top of the potatoes.
Mix the melted butter and sherry together, then pour over the potatoes. Make sure that the potatoes are well-coated.
Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, basting occasionally if you wish. (I like my potatoes with a bit of crisp on top. Garnish with parsley; serve hot.
Sarah Teske’s Sherry Potatoes (in her own words)
2 lb. very small red potatoes (about 20), scrubbed, peeled*and cut in half (YES, peeling is necessary for her recipe… please try not to add any/much of your skin or blood to the potatoes while doing so. Remember, SAFETY FIRST.)
3 Tbs. olive oil
3 Tbs. or half a bottle or whatever you have left of a good, dry (not too expensive) sherry
A few shakes of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (to taste).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put potatoes baking pan that is big enough with a lip/side so the liquid stays in the pan. Mix the dressing of all the other stuff. Coat potatoes evenly. Put in oven and bake. Check on the potatoes and baste as you feel necessary (about every five to ten minutes depending on how anxious you are about the guests you are hosting). If timed correctly, they are done usually about 20 minutes after all the other food is. Basically, cook them anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour and an half depending on how many times you opened the oven to baste. Serve. Eat with your family at every Jewish holy day/holiday meal. Serves two.
Passover is speedily upon us. I personally do not mind the culinary restrictions brought about by celebrating the Exodus: it is a fun time to be creative, eat colorful food, and ingest mammoth quantities of vegetables and unusual starches. For some, however, Passover is a time of woe, when all one’s favorite foods are forbidden. Doubly so for those who follow the Ashkenazi custom of not eating kitniyot – “wheat-like” items that include corn, rice, beans, and seeds. Which means … a lot of potato.
I personally could eat potatoes for three weeks straight without complaining, but that is just my Lithuanian ancestry saying hello. But I do realize that some people find potatoes “boring.” So the next three recipes, all for Passover, are easy and tasty ways to make potatoes.
This first recipe answered a challenge issued to me by a friend: could I do a potato gratin, with a rich and creamy béchamel sauce, for Passover? Béchamel sauce normally requires flour, which for non-matzah purposes is basically forbidden during Passover. Luckily, potato flour serves as a nice substitute, and you still get the creamy béchamel that blends with cheese to make a very decadent dish.
This dish might seem very “white-bread American.” However, béchamel, which is one of the “mother sauces” of French cooking, made its way into Jewish cooking during the 19th century, when Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike used it to seem “classy.” German Jews put a “white sauce” on vegetables, and Jews across the Mediterranean under French influence used it for dairy-heavy egg- and vegetable-based casseroles. (If you want to learn more about the history of béchamel, I strongly urge you to read Anny Gaul’s post about béchamel in Egypt and Morocco!)
Most recipes have you melt the cheese into the béchamel, but I distribute it among the potatoes for “maximum coverage.” I use cheddar here, but any strong and sharp cheese should do. Enjoy!
Passover Potato Gratin
3lbs/1.3kg potatoes, peeled
8oz/225g cheddar cheese, shredded
4 tablespoons butter + extra to grease
4 tablespoons potato flour or potato starch
2 cups milk
Table salt and ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
Slice the potatoes very thinly.
Grease a medium-to-large casserole pan with butter. Place half the potatoes in the pan, then half of the cheese on top. Then, place another layer of potatoes, and then another layer of cheese.
Make the Passover béchamel:
In a small pan on a medium flame, melt the butter.
When the butter is melted, add the potato flour, salt, and pepper. Whisk quickly so that the potato flour is browned.
Slowly pour in the milk and whisk it slowly.
Keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture is thick and starts to bubble. Then, turn off the heat.
Pour the Passover béchamel over the potatoes and cheese.
Bake for 60 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Serve hot.
Thank you to Dana Kline, Dov Fields, and Robbie Berg for serving as the User Acceptance Testing committee for this recipe.
So last week in the United States, our current president came out with one of his most bizarre – and meanest – ideas. Apparently, he wanted to replace half of the cash-like benefits received by those on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP” or “food stamps”) with a box containing pre-selected packaged goods. These goods would include cereal, pasta, and shelf-stable milk. It was humiliating, infantilizing, and inconsiderate in one fell swoop. It also ignored the fact that poor folks have their own food habits and needs, as well as the fact that people cook different things – or sometimes do not have the ability to cook for a variety of situational or disability-related reasons. Some are now saying that this whole thing was an elaborate “troll.” Given the reaction of the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, though, I am deeply skeptical of that claim.
In any case, I was rather upset, and drafted a 36-tweet rant going through how this plan was both icky and disastrous for the reasons I mentioned above. You can read the rant here, and the piece that followed in Jewish Currents here. Anyway, my thread proceeded to become “viral,” and received many thousands of views and hundreds of “shares” and “likes.” And, of course, I got questions. Some people asked me about universal basic income (a great idea but people need to eat tomorrow and today), comparisons with Australian policies (utterly fascinating), and how this is already a sad policy on Native reservations. I answered the questions that seemed honest, and not lines of attack. Unfortunately, people believe many myths about food stamp recipients. I had to dispel many of those.
And then there were questions about disability. These I should have expected from those who knew me. After all, disability access is a big chunk of my day job, where I make sure local government written and digital resources are usable by everybody. I am passionate about that part of my job, and tend to evangelize disability access wherever I go. And so I had addressed questions of disability in my rant, bringing up the fact that kitchens are often inaccessible, and that people with cognitive disabilities often do not learn how to cook, among other things.
Responses from those I did not know before were filled with information. Some told me anecdotes of how they needed to buy frozen or ready-made food on SNAP, because their disabilities meant that they could not cook. Others told me about how they were on SNAP partly because their disabilities meant they could not work, or were not hired. (The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is far higher than for those without.) More brought up how the foods proposed for the box – such as shelf-stable milk or peanut butter – were not things they could eat, because of their chronic conditions. And then there were questions expressed privately: how do people with disabilities cook? Why are kitchens inaccessible? Can blind people cook? (The answer to that last one is yes, and sometimes very well.) All of them, however, were guided by one big question.
What does disability have to do with food?
Disability and ability influence everything in cooking. This fact is true in the Jewish kitchen and in the general one. Cooking is, at the very base of it, an often difficult physical activity that makes use of physical skills to produce physical objects. Like any other physical activity or life activity, someone with a disability may approach food in a way that is partly determined by their body or mind. We often romanticize a specific way of cooking as being “Jewish,” despite the fact that this is inaccurate, but we forget that this way also relies on a whole set of assumptions about who is cooking. One is that this person is able-bodied and moves in a “normal” way. We assume that the person can hear, see, smell, use their hands or legs in a normal way, has normal amounts of energy, is neurotypical (basically, has a “normal” brain), and can lift things or stand or sit as needed. People with disabilities do not, cannot, may not, or choose not to cook in “normal ways” for a variety of reasons. I will walk through some aspects of this reality, using examples that are Jewish or not Jewish. Throughout this piece, I ask you to remember: there is no such thing as a recipe or a method that works for everyone! Not everyone can cook in a given way!
Kitchens and kitchen equipment are not always accessible. To start, many houses have kitchens that cannot even be accessed using a wheelchair or crutches. Counter space and food preparation space is often too high – if you use a wheelchair or cannot stand for lengthy periods of time, you might not be able to effectively use space in the kitchen, or may need to make adjustments. Surfaces are not adequately differentiated – if you are blind and feeling where the counter ends and a smooth cooking surface begins, then you are at risk of getting burnt. Never mind that many appliances are often not usable by someone who is blind. Knobs and tools are not easily usable by people who do not have normal hand function; others might have conditions that make it painful to grab onto something or twist something. Pots and pans are too heavy for some people to lift. The handles of utensils may also be difficult for many people to hold – given hand shape or hand conditions or tremors. One example that comes to mind is a friend with limited hand motion after an injury, who cannot hold whisks, spoons, or knives in a “normal” fashion. Rather, he makes adjustments – holding a spoon in a different way, for example – or uses a food processor for fine chopping. He also uses special chopping tools – for example, a potato slicer – that allow him to chop things safely, even if different foods need different equipment. Though we often make fun of pineapple choppers and apple corers (I have), these tools are especially useful for people who cannot chop things “normally”. However, specialized equipment, of course, costs money that many do not have.
The instructions to cook are also not always accessible. Cookbooks and recipes are often written in language that many people cannot understand. (Full disclosure: this blog is no exception.) Instructions are stacked in confusing ways, or use complex language. Many people with cognitive disabilities cannot understand indirect language, or find it easier to understand instructions that are delivered separately. In some cases, written instructions are too difficult to understand without images alongside. Never mind that many recipes assume a familiarity with certain skills that might not be there – or that some people cannot carry over from time to time. Think of, for example, “chopping” an onion or “browning meat.” All of these things are among the reasons why many people with cognitive disabilities never end up learning how to cook. In addition, facilities for people with cognitive disabilities are often completely disinterested in encouraging their clients to learn to cook (or really, be independent at all) – and thus many clients never quite learn. Writing a recipe that is usable by people with intellectual disabilities requires a very different skill-set from “normal” recipe writing, and also a lot more work on the part of the writer. Everything must be explained step-by-step with multiple forms of communication, and not in complicated language. When it works, the results are amazing. There are thousands of people with Down’s syndrome in the United States who have been able to not only start living independently after learning how to cook, but have even been able to find employment. The last section is huge in a country where most people with intellectual disabilities are never employed. That good result started when someone actually bothered to teach folks how to cook on those folks’ own terms, and not on able-bodied people’s terms.
Of course, cognitive disability is not the only way cooking instructions are inaccessible. Many recipes rely on instructions that rely on one sense alone – a sense that someone with a disability might not be able to use. Visual cues, for example, are useless for blind cooks. Though it is often easy to include an additional cue – for example, “sauté the onions until they are soft and slightly brown,” many recipe writers fail to do so. This habit makes it much harder to cook without sight – even though cooking without sight is possible. And writing recipes without visual cues is possible too – many blind food bloggers are doing it already! Then there are cues that ask the cook to do things with their hands. Many people cannot do certain tasks with their hands because of pain or limited hand movements. There at least should be more room given for the possibility that someone might use a fork, or a spoon, or another implement. Never mind that many autistic people have textural aversions that are very difficult to unlearn. It is not our job as food writers to tell people how to handle their aversions or to “adjust.” It is far easier to offer an adjustment for a recipe.
Which brings me to my next point: the act of preparing food is not always accessible. Certain tasks are not possible or not easily done with certain disabilities. You cannot check the color of cooking meat if you cannot see the cooking meat. You cannot chop an onion with a knife if chopping causes extremely painful wrist flare-ups. You cannot hear a hollow sound when tapping on bread in the oven if you cannot hear at all. These are all things that can be mediated with other methods of checking – meat thermometers, food processors, or visual cues. But some things are harder. If you have severe heat sensitivity, some types of cooking might be impossible for you, such as deep-frying. If you use breathing equipment, it may be dangerous to cook in certain ways, such as with a grill or by smoking. If you are unable to use your hands, certain recipes may simply be too hard to “adjust” to your abilities. There are also questions of lifting and chopping – if one’s motion is limited, certain tasks in cooking may not be possible, for example lifting a large pot or finely chopping beyond the ability of a machine or simple tool. Let us take potato kugel for example. Some of the accessibility barriers in the supposedly simple recipe include:
Grating potatoes – which by hand or machine can present difficulties for some people with limited hand motion;
Chopping onions – ditto;
Squeezing moisture from potatoes – difficult if you have joint conditions or cannot stand at a sink, given that most kitchen sinks are not fully wheelchair-accessible;
Greasing a pan – requires hand motions;
Lifting a pan – difficult for those with joint conditions or some chronic illnesses;
Being around a preheated oven – difficult for those with heat sensitivity;
Mixing the ingredients – difficult for those who cannot “grip” a spoon;
Checking to see if the potatoes on top have adequately browned – an indicator not accessible for people who are blind;
Placing or removing the pan from the oven: a task that may be difficult for those with limited motion or hand use, and can be difficult if the oven interferes with wheelchair access.
And that, of course, excludes all sorts of cognitive conditions. Those with limited short-term memory may not be able to track the steps in a recipe. Those with attention deficit disorder (ADD) – which, yes, is a cognitive disability – may not be able to stay engaged with a recipe. Those with some intellectual disabilities may not be able to track “where they are” in a cooking process without help. Those on the autism spectrum may find their sensory sensitivities triggered during the process and may need to take a break to avoid the effects that can cause – headaches, panics, or sudden and extreme fatigue, depending on the individual. Temporary disabilities and chronic illnesses also interfere with cooking. Someone on chemotherapy might find that the smells of cooking trigger nausea or dizziness. Someone with lupus may develop a rash during heat-intensive cooking processes. Someone with an asthmatic tremor may not be able to hold a knife in a consistent position. If one’s dominant arm is broken, cooking becomes slow – especially if one has never used the other hand to chop. Oftentimes, the demands of a recipe may be inaccessible; in other times, the way food is taught to be prepared is difficult or impossible to some.
(This perspective is a key reason why one should always be skeptical of recipes that say “anyone can do this.” Who is “anyone”? What are the skills required? I guarantee you that, almost always, “not anyone can do this.” That is before, of course, the fact that these sorts of recipes are often nearly impossible for the inexperienced able-bodied person to complete. Cooking is anything but easy.)
Let us also not forget that cooking requires energy that people do not always have. Cooking takes time and physical power. Because of disability, some people cannot allot physical strength or wherewithal to cooking. Others can only stand, lift things, or move in certain ways for a limited period of time. Otherwise, one might become extremely exhausted. (Different things tire people out differently.) In conversations today, cooking is something that is said to “take up spoons,” using the “spoon theory” developed by Christine Miserandino. This theory says that someone with a chronic illness, mental illness, or disability might only have so many metaphorical spoons in a given day – the spoons stand in for energy or wherewithal. Cooking takes up some of them. So if one has reduced energy due to depression or anxiety, or if other things have already eaten up one’s energy, a disability might mean that one does not have the energy to cook, even in a situation where an able-bodied person might be able to do so. People with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses might also use additional energy for their accommodations in cooking – for example, cutting in a certain way. If a kitchen is inaccessible, even getting to equipment also takes up energy. Chopping vegetables or peeling fruit or preparing ingredients – these can all take more energy for someone with a disability.
It is for this reason that I staunchly refuse to judge people who use prepared ingredients. Peeling chestnuts, cutting a pineapple, chopping onions or garlic – these all take time and energy, and doubly so if one has a disability that prevents one from doing it easily. Processed ingredients, supermarket-prepared foods, frozen chicken breasts, and pre-peeled vegetables are not lazy cop-outs, but hugely beneficial for people with disabilities who might not otherwise be able to enjoy peas, mushrooms, chicken, pineapples, or a range of other ingredients. (Not to mention those with small children who may not have thirty minutes to spare, tired civil servants, or couples rushing a quick dinner before heading to the opera. I use prepared ingredients like canned corn frequently.) When we ask people to prepare more of their own raw ingredients, we are not just asking for a return to labor that was, for most of history, arduous and annoying. We are also telling people with disabilities – and many others – that they are not cooking properly, even though “proper cooking” is neither healthy, nor practical, nor safe for many of those people! Instead of advocating for a return to the anachronistic “real cooking” popularized by Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Carlo Petrini, we should follow Rachel Laudan, Luca Simonetti, and Garrett Broad in calling for high-quality, healthy, and affordable industrial food, and accessibility of food in a way that people can enjoy with the aid of modern technology. This approach would allow people with disabilities to choose what to eat – and what not to eat.
Which brings me to my final point. What we eat, and how we eat it, is often informed by disability. Of course, some people with disabilities cannot eat at all, and rely on a feeding tube or other means to be nourished. There are also people whose disabilities prevent them from chewing or eating fully solid food; a new project in Japan, for example, is experimenting with cooking purees for elderly people who can no longer chew. Some people also convert to liquids-only diets for their chronic conditions. The very basic act of eating is affected by disability. Of course, one must add to this the various dietary restrictions caused by chronic illnesses and disabilities – many of which accompany one another. Some people cannot have gluten, others must limit their sugar intake, and others may eat a certain food that improves their symptoms. Someone with celiac disease – which is very common among people with autism or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – cannot share fully in the very gluten-heavy experience of Ashkenazi cooking. There is neither challah, nor kneidlach, nor lokshen. As a result, the experience of Eastern European Jewish cooking is different from what one commonly expects.
There is also the question of aversions, which are especially common among people on the autism spectrum, but are common among neurotypical people too, especially during pregnancy. Many able-bodied and neurotypical people seem to be hell-bent on converting autistic folks from aversions, which are common among autistic individuals. In most cases, this seems to have to do more with a discomfort with autistic people than any genuine concern. In some cases, helping someone destroy an aversion is a good thing – but only if the person actually consents to doing so! Certain types of consensual therapy can actually help people learn to love new foods and develop a healthier diet. Sometimes, autistic people also want to get rid of an aversion for any number of reasons. Non-consensual and abusive methods, like ABA therapy, not only do not do so, but also add a rather harmful traumatic aspect to aversions. However, some aversions do not go away. An aversion is something that is physiological – it is not a socially learned aversion, such as the avoidance of eating dog in the West. One does not simply “grow out” of an aversion, or any autistic behavior. An aversion is also stronger than a dislike – encountering a texture or sensation to one is averse can throw one completely off balance and trigger various other physical symptoms, including nausea, tremors, or panics. One should never, ever trigger an aversion. While I was fascinated by Bee Wilson’s proposals about aversions in First Bite, I want to also add this follow-up note: that people can and do often cook and eat well taking all their aversions into account. One does not need to force someone averse to onions to eat onions, one can simply adjust. The person who does not like onion probably has a whole range of adjustments, some not even conscious! Most recipe writers, however, rarely explore substitutions to ingredients, which makes it harder for someone with an aversion to cook them. Many cooks without major aversions also rarely explore how to adjust their own recipes. Many autistic people – and many neurotypical people too – are excluded as a result.
Beyond aversions and chewing, there is also the matter of tables and tableware. Many places for eating, and especially many restaurants, are not fully wheelchair accessible: the table is often too high, or the chairs cannot be moved. Little people (those of short stature) are also often excluded. Plates, knives, forks, and spoons often cannot be held by those with limited hand movement. People who are blind may need to be told what is where on their plate, especially at a restaurant. The temperature of food matters too – some people cannot eat piping-hot food, while others cannot eat food that is icy-cold, both because of various chronic conditions.
So from kitchen to table, we get a picture of how cooking and eating may be inaccessible.
Before I conclude, I want to also add a personal example. I am on the autism spectrum. I do not have the food aversions many of my peers have, except for gummy-sticky textures. (The mere mention of marshmallows or gummy candies can make me seize up.) I am also far more able to pass as “neurotypical” than most autistic folks. By and large, I cook in “typical” ways. However, what does not make it into the blog is the ways I do accommodate my sensory sensitivities – the fact that I have a much harder time dealing with extreme heat, light, or noise than many neurotypical people. When I am cooking some of the recipes that require high heat, I often have both a fan running and a window open. During daylight hours, I often cook without electric lights, because I find the combination of electric light and sunlight to be so jarring as to completely put me off balance. (It sometimes causes migraines.) I am also very careful with pot and pan placement, because I will “hear” a loud metallic thud for far longer than other people. I wash my hands frequently when working with sandy or sticky substances, because I find it very distressing to feel these textures for more than a moment. At this point, these accommodations are almost automatic for me in my own kitchen, or my mother’s. Yet when I prepared food in my friend Jeremy’s kitchen, I found myself slightly overwhelmed – the room was so hot! So bright! I, someone with 16 years of cooking experience and a familiarity with a range of ingredients, found myself overwhelmed. I scraped by on my experience. It is easy for me to see how many people simply, in some circumstances, struggle with cooking, or cannot cook at all. Especially if they do not like cooking in the first place – and to be honest, experiences of inaccessibility might easily contribute to that dislike. And that is not even getting into the physical inaccessibility of so much of cooking, as I have outlined above.
In this brief tour, I have barely scratched the surface of all the ways disability affects cooking. I aimed to provide an overview of many of the various ways in which food and disability are inextricably linked. Disability affects the way we make, consume, and perceive food. The topic is so large, however, that there is always more to say. There are many things I did not cover. Shopping for ingredients and stocking up a kitchen have many accessibility barriers, enough to merit a separate blog post and probably a book. The discussion of disability in food writing circles is not only ableist, but often badly misinformed. I only made the briefest mention. There is also a comparative lack of research, which is distressing given that the population of people with disabilities will only grow with aging. Many voices of people with disabilities are also often suppressed. We need to, as food writers and thinkers, lift up and amplify these voices and experiences whenever possible. If progress is inaccessible, in food or anywhere else, it is not progress. Towards this progress, I will make every effort to continue this research, and to raise the voices of cooks, eaters, and writers with disabilities.
In all of this, the foodways of people with disabilities must never be seen as lesser, nor should they be stigmatized. There is a tired and ableist trope that people with disabilities are being lazy or inconsiderate by not assimilating to “normal” food practices. As I have shown above, “normal” foodways are simply inaccessible. People should have a right to food practices, of their own volition, that deviate from a given norm. Everyone has to be nourished; everyone should be able to do so within their own ability. Demanding normalcy is not only ableist, but it is in fact lazy and inconsiderate. Perhaps, instead of demanding that people with disabilities meet a standard of normalcy regarding food, we should instead ask what able-bodied people should do to make food and cooking more accessible. I outlined many and varied accommodations here; readers can start by considering those. These ideas may include:
Not stigmatizing people who use or eat prepared foods, because they allow people with disabilities to have access to many foods.
Accommodating the aversions of the autistic people around you.
Joining efforts to make sure that kitchens in new housing are accessible for people who use wheelchairs.
Writing recipes in ways that do not rely on visual cues or needlessly complex language.
Not making rude or negative comments to people who do not have the energy to cook or eat a certain type of meal.
None of these are accommodating laziness or lack of consideration. All of these are not being lazy or inconsiderate to people with disabilities.
Accessibility in the kitchen also benefits everyone. After all, most people end up with a disability at some point in their life. It may be a chronic illness, a broken arm, or memory loss at an old age. Something, somewhere, causes “basic life function” to be impeded in a way that is not normal, and thus that person is now someone with a disability. Maybe it is temporary. Maybe it is permanent. In every case, that person should have the right to food, and the right to approach food in an accessible way, whatever that way may be.
Without a demand for “normality.”
An enormous and heartfelt thank you goes out to Jacob Remes, Dana Kline, and Jeremy Swack for encouraging me to turn the Twitter rant into more coherent written work. Another enormous thank you goes out to Nahime Aguirre, Jay Stanton, Karen Waltuck, Jacob Waltuck, Olivia Ortiz, Walei Sabry, David Friedman, Jonathon Epstein, Victoria Cross, Sumaya Bouadi, Phoebe Ana Rabinowitsch, Akiva Lichtenberg, Ashley Goldstein, Jessica Belasco, Kate Herzlin, Alex Cooke, and Sara Liss for many discussions of how disability, cooking, and the accessibility of food culture intersect.
If you want to read recipes written by and for cooks with disabilities, check out Disability FEAST. Christine Ha is arguably the most famous disabled chef in the United States, and the winner of MasterChef Season 3. Her blog is delightful, even though almost none of the recipes on it are kosher. There are some great guides for making cooking lessons accessible for people with cognitive disabilities, this one by Lisa Pulsifer is my favorite. David Friedman is a disabled restaurant reviewer whose blog, The Disabled Foodie, reviews restaurants for both accessibility and food! Ava Romero is an autistic chef who has a lovely blog – I cannot wait to try the pumpkin spice doughnut recipe! Andrew Pulrang did a fascinating study last year about the intersection of disability and food, it makes for good reading.
I have also written and presented about disability access in communications – you can check out some of my work here:
Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.
“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.
The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.
When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.
The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.
Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.
And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.
I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.
Bringing out the juices in the pumpkin
Pureed pumpkin with cottage cheese on a pancake (photos mine, November 2017)
Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.
Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash
Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.
Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.