My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.
So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.
As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:
Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.
That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.
Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.
And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.
Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.
This piece starts with the young man I have been dating for a few months, David. He is very Jewish. David is also from Cincinnati, and one of his favorite foods is Cincinnati-style chili. For those of you who are not familiar, Cincinnati chili is more of a meat sauce than a chili. The delicacy is Mediterranean-spiced ground beef served on spaghetti, with any or all of beans, onions, and mild cheddar cheese on top. The combinations are culturally set in stone. Though Cincinnati chili has its detractors, it is widely loved. The local Skyline chain has a following so big that it has expanded to nearby cities, and the Cincinnati diaspora in Florida. The chili is also not kosher, given that it mixes meat and milk. Even so, David and his family love it, and it is in his family tradition.
Learning about Cincinnati chili from David – who makes and eats it at least once a week – got me thinking about Jewish treyf. Not in the Orientalist and perhaps overanalyzed ‘safe treyf’ of white Jews eating Chinese food in New York. Nor was I thinking about the real and life-saving practice Conversos in Spain adopted: Jews in hiding added lard to traditional dishes to avert the deadly eyes of the Inquisition. I did think of the famous Treyf Banquet that heralded the split between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century. I also thought of the newer version held in San Francisco quite recently, with wondrous bacon treats. Rather, I was curious about treyf as an everyday practice. How did it get inserted into family and community traditions? How did folks relate to treyf with their Jewish identity, and vice versa? Could I discuss this without the tired discourse of “reconciling”? On a more basic level, were there Jewish treyf recipes that I could discover? Also, which treyf?
I was also exhausted over the level of judgment that went into Jewish treyf. Recently, I fell off the “traditional egalitarian” bandwagon, much of which seemed to involve ever-more-performative kashrut. The consistent dismissal of Reform and Reconstructionist practice appalled me. So did the judgment against our parents’ and grandparents’ not-echt-halachic practices. Handwringing about authenticity bothers me more and more nowadays. The endless jabs about Jews who had “forgotten their heritage” strike me as cruel. Nothing in our communities, not even the halachically-shaky ban on microphones on the Sabbath, would be totally recognizable to a religious person from two centuries ago. So I figure it would be more interesting to answer the questions I raised above. For certain, it would be more useful to do so. The Jewish community may not always have a given interpretation of kashrut. But we will always have treyf-eaters.
I set out to find some answers, beginning with a post on Facebook. I asked my Facebook following to answer a few questions. If they were a Jew who ate treyf: why? What did they eat? What did they do before or after, if anything different? Do they have any neat traditions or recipes involving treyf? What about some funny stories? At the end, I threw on an addendum reminding folks not to judge fellow Jews for not keeping kosher. I expected a few responses.
A few shares and many comments later, several dozen people responded. Most of these responses were by private message. (I have made all respondents anonymous.) In fact, as I begin writing this piece, I still have a few responses to read! I was really touched to see how many people responded to my hasty request. What was better though was to see the variety of stories, perspectives, and ideas that people from all walks of Jewish life shared with me. I am going to be thinking about all the wonderful things I learned and was struck by for a long time.
Here are a few patterns that emerged.
Firstly, guilt was a less common emotion than defiance or pride. Many past works talk about guilt as a driving emotion around Jewish treyf consumption. But my (admittedly unscientific) sample seemed to be less guilt-ridden about the whole thing. Though one person did note, “we Mexijews [Mexican Jews] talk about it all the time.” Rather, many people were proud of the fact that they did not keep kosher and were still totally Jewish. “I’m as Jewish as a rabbi,” one person said, while another said that “Judaism isn’t about diet for me.” Both then happily listed their preferred treyf. Others felt defiant, especially if they had left religious communities, where kashrut wars are often the sour undercurrent of daily life. “Halachic chops – not as tasty as pork chops!” one person commented. For many people, treyf is a symbolic way of defying the things that defined their past. So an ex-Orthodox Jew might eat pork ribs on Yom Kippur, or someone leaving an abusive household may eat treyf as a symbol of their liberation.
Defiance and pride are hints to a larger thing. Treyf is always interpreted through a Jewish prism. People took into account all the communities they lived in, and all their lived experience, and filtered their Judaism through it. This went to treyf. Even people who always ate treyf interpreted their treyf in line with their Jewishness, not as a resistance to it. For Russian Jews, it was a part of their heritage of Soviet eating and nostalgic cooking. “I love salo,” my colleague said, “whatever the rabbis say.” For Israelis, it was a treasured memory of being secular and Jewish in the ‘60s. My mother, who lived in Israel then, recounted with glee the delight of eating grilled pork chops on kibbutzim. (I highly recommend the Israeli documentary Praise the Lard about pork in Israel.) For diasporist Jews, treyf is often a central part of being diasporist. One person noted that the Reuben – famously treyf – made them feel Jewish.
Judgment from others was mentioned, sure, but largely negatively. “Judaism isn’t a diet,” and “I’m just as Jewish as a 613 mitzvot keeping Jew” were two of many statements. And in return for people judging their Judaism, treyf-eaters shared some wonderful humor about their position. A few people reminded me of various kashrut scandals, like the chronic worker and animal abuse in Postville, Iowa. On a more humorous note, one respondent from Maine mentioned the blessing her father recites for shellfish. (How regionally appropriate.) And of course, one of my closest friends cherishes his San Francisco family’s tradition of Dungeness crab. I would too.
On a day-to-day level, certain treyf is more common than others. Some of this is seasonally and financially based – Dungeness crab, for example, is expensive and seasonal. Otherwise it is a taste thing. Most treyf-eaters seem to love bacon and shrimp. Some common treyf however – like canned clams – was rarely mentioned. The most beloved treyf for many is bacon. It is a love that I do not quite share, since pre-kashrut me never got the hype around it. Bacon ends up in soups, in breakfasts, on sandwiches, and in lentil soup and matzah balls. One very nice bacon-maker even told me about his business making bacon, and experiments with flavor! Jewish recipes were often improved with bacon or shellfish. I received recipes for lentil soup, cholent, matzah balls, brisket, shakshouka, latkes, and even hamantaschen with bacon. Similarly, an appetizing spread, hraime, or again, shakshouka benefited from shrimp. I guess then that bacon-wrapped shrimp is the ultimate treyf. Not because of the combination, but because of the crowd of treyf enthusiasts pleased.
For many people, eating and making treyf is also a part of livelihood. Many people worked or work in food service. Treyf is on the menu, treyf gets eaten. Others work in jobs where they often have to eat with clients, coworkers, or consultants – and it would be rude not to share in the shellfish soup. As I noted, one respondent had a bacon-making business. Another had spent time cooking shellfish in his first job as a restaurant chef. These respondents often had the greatest insight into how expensive it was to keep kosher.
And how often times, it is a privilege. If your job depends on it, you will eat treyf. It is rather baroque and classist to critique someone’s Jewishness based on that. Some did not keep kosher because of a history of eating disorders. In that case, imposing new dietary restrictions can be quite dangerous. If anything, because it is to save one’s life, Jewish tradition would also prefer that one not keep kosher if it is unsafe. Also, many treyf eaters stopped keeping kosher because of the labor and expense involved. The bacon and shrimp were less interesting to them. To them, there was no controversy at all in eating cheaply, well, and Jewishly, with the added benefit of canned clams or bacon. Judging someone based on that would be markedly cruel. Keeping kosher does not make you a better person. Being mean does make you a worse one. Especially being mean over someone enjoying or even celebrating treyf that is affordable, accessible, and tasty food.
Not all cheap treyf is celebrated though. Some treyf is more controversial. Several different respondents did not “get” ham. They found it it was “the weirdest meat” or bizarrely sweet. Others loved ham, and fondly recalled eating it at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. I was surprised to see how many respondents were uncomfortable with ham, although pre-kashrut me also found ham a tad “wiggy” in big quantities. One person said that the gelatinous-meat-sweetness of ham was an aversion for them. That aversion carries over into kosher foods like ptchaand gefilte fish.
Milk-meat combinations seem to go unnoticed. Sure, a few people did comment on cheeseburgers. I, for one, will always remember my college classmate’s Brie and ham on matzah. Here is the thing: it is far lower on the “forbidden” list than whole categories of animals. A milk and meat combination can also be harder to spot. Someone who does not keep kosher might not guess that the pumpkin cheese soup had chicken stock. The bacon bits, though, will be noticed. So will any other treyf, as was discovered at a synagogue a respondent attended as a child, where an order mix-up led to quite a bit of shrimp lo mein at the synagogue’s door. Compared to incidents like these, a cheeseburger is minor.
I will have a separate post for funny stories, and a third one for stopping kashrut. Too many anecdotes were received to do justice to them in this post. Besides, many people provided insight into why they do not keep kosher now. But already, we can see some patterns, and some avenues for inquiry. We also are reminded of one thing: you can eat as much treyf as you want, and still be as Jewish as anyone else.
The outcome of this research has made me question my own kashrut practice, and why I keep kosher at all. I do not eat treyf animals, I keep a kosher kitchen, and in New York I eat kosher or halal meat, which I consider equal. The kitchen is for my more traditional friends. That said, I do not have a reason why I personally do not eat treyf. It used to be emotional, but that has gone with my own realignment of Jewish values. The judgmental environment I left, or to quote the youth, “yote out” from has dissolved any feeling of “upholding tradition” through my diet. For me, Judaism is a lived and evolving tradition, not a diet, weekly lifestyle practice, and set of givens. Pork is off the table forever, because of a traumatic and rather gross incident in my teenage years. But I do not have any negative feelings about shellfish, catfish, beef stroganoff, or kangaroo. At this point, kashrut is habit. I do not know how long it will stick outside of my home kitchen.
If I change, I do have something to keep. I promised my indigenous friends that, should I stop keeping kosher, whale and seal would be my first real treyf. In a world where colonialism is still very real, it is so important to keep native traditions alive, and I think that would be an important step of solidarity against continued colonial abuse. As a settler, I feel obligated to support the minhagei hamakomof the peoples from whose loss of land I still benefit. A mitzvah, in treyf. Afterwards, I will head on to my nearest Skyline, order a 5-Way – spaghetti, meaty chili, onions, beans, and cheddar cheese – and take a bite, and I will recite the prayer meant for everything:
Blessed are you, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who created all per his will.
A heartfelt thank you to all of you who responded. As my gift to you, please enjoy my favorite song about treyf. It is by the Jerry Cans, a band from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is in the indigenous Inuktitut language. It is called Mamaqtuq, and it is about hunting for seal to eat. Watch it here.
One of the things I do not get about Christmas, or Christian winter in general, is why gingerbread is not a year-round food. It is so very delicious. The depths of the molasses cheer me. The perk of the spices gladdens me. The scent sends me into a madeleine-like reverie. In cake or in cookie form, gingerbread is wonderful. Why should we limit it to one time a year, particularly for a holiday filled with rather irksome things? Even then, I do enjoy the sheer breadth of gingerbread products in winter. As I told one friend, gingerbread is one thing I wish we just had more of in Jewish tradition. “Picture it: American Jews, 5779. Gingerbread for Sukkot, gingerbread for Purim, gingerbread for Shavuot, ginger matzoh for Passover,” I said. I think my friend thinks I have a proverbial “spider on my ceiling” now.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that gingerbread cakes have been eaten for many holidays by Jews for a thousand years. Not to mention non-Jews, too. Spiced cakes have been eaten in Europe since at least the Classical period in Greece, and became newly popular alongside other heavily spiced foods in the 12th century. Ginger itself was traded from Asia since Roman times. Some historians claim that Crusaders brought back the treat from the Middle East, but it seems more likely that Armenian monks brought the recipe to monasteries earlier in the medieval era. (Attributing everything to the Crusaders obscures how much contact there was, and how extensive contact was, between Western Europe and the Islamic World before that.) Gingerbread became a traditional gift between lovers, and popular at taverns and at fairs and festivals. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to it in a play. Gingerbread was also medicine: many monks and nuns baked it as a tonic for indigestion. We may scoff now, but it was probably safer than many contemporary “medicines.” And, medicinal or not, gingerbread has remained popular for longer than all but a few foods.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, ginger-based pastries and gingerbread have traditionally been popular for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, as well as for celebrations and life cycle events. Another common Ashkenazi dish, lekach or honey cake, shares an ancestor with today’s gingerbread. In fact, they were probably the same until a few hundred years ago. Jewish gingerbread and lekach derive from an Italian Jewish cake called panforte, a heavily spiced gingerbread that was introduced by Italian Jewish traders to Jews in France and Germany by the 11th century. These cakes were sold by Jews in what is now Southern Germany to a wide audience – and were widely consumed – by the start of the 13th century. However, Jews were then banned from the guilds that made gingerbread. As a result, Jewish gingerbread and honey cakes were largely only for internal consumption. These cakes were given to young boys on their first day of school, and served at weddings and circumcisions. Later agricultural advancements, such as the mass conversion from barley and rye to wheat in Europe, introduction of alkaline leavening, and the spread of sugar, changed these cakes. They became lighter, sweeter, and bigger. Ginger-based and honey-based cakes also largely separated around this time.
I find gingerbread interesting because it is a “throwback” to medieval styles of eating. Heavily spiced, darkly spiced cakes were a fixture of European elite and festive cuisine in the Middle Ages. Spices were said to carry holy odors and symbolized riches, good grace, and good living. Those who could afford it imported huge quantities of spices, and Jews were no exception. However, when imperialism made spices cheap enough for many peasants – such that Martin Luther blamed commoners’ degeneracy on pepper – the elite switched, to a much blander and less spiced diet. Gingerbread, along with mulled wine and a few bizarre Dutch cheeses, stuck it out. I am so ever grateful.
Ready to go
This gingerbread recipe is vegan. I made it for my colleagues, a few of whom are vegans, so I swapped out the egg and butter for applesauce and oil-based substitutes. The result is a very moist, spicy cake. You can serve it warm or at room temperature, and if you want, with a nice cream-cheese frosting or vanilla ice cream. Best of all, it is pareve, so if you keep kosher, it can end a solid meat meal. Enjoy!
Gingerbread Cake with Raisins
⅔ cup raisins
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon rum extract
½ cup granulated white sugar
½ cup melted butter substitute or canola oil (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup applesauce
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon table salt
⅔ cup hot water
Oil, to grease pan
Powdered sugar, for garnish
Soak the raisins in a bowl with the cold water and rum extract for 20 minutes, or until they are puffy. Drain the raisins and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Grease a 9 inch/23-25cm round cake pan, or a 9inch/23-25cm square cake pan.
In a big bowl, mix together the white sugar, oil or butter substitute, apple sauce, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Then, fold in the molasses slowly, until thoroughly combined. It will turn a gothic dark color, and the batter will be thicker.
Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Sifting will ensure an even distribution throughout the mixture. If you do not know how to sift, here is a useful video. I use a wire sieve.
Fold the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until thoroughly combined. You will have a thick batter.
Fold in the raisins into the batter, then the hot water. Mix until the distribution is thorough. The batter will be thick, but not as thick.
Pour into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Remove from the oven. Allow to cool in the pan before removing the cake. Garnish with powdered sugar and serve.
Thank you to my colleagues for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.
Ruby Tandoh is great. Ever since she was catapulted to food fame by her appearance on The Great British Bake-Off, I have been gleefully following her. Her recipes are straightforward and delicious, she is unapologetically queer and nerdy, and she celebrates food for what it is! Reading her writing or hearing her talk feels like one of my friends sitting on my famous metal mesh chair, holding a glass of wine and telling you that yes, fancy hazelnut porridge and Cream of Wheat with Raisinets are both great. (Confession: the second one is something I have eaten more than once.) So I was thrilled to finally read her new book, Eat Up.
It was so good.
Eat Up is a manifesto, but it does not tell you what or how to eat. Instead, it tells you how to live ethically with food. Tandoh walks you through all the ways you relate to food: as sustenance, as a vehicle for emotions, as a vehicle for politics, and as something that engages all the senses. Sometimes, the book is political, arguing against fatphobia, ableism, classism, or racism as made manifest through food. Sometimes, the book is meditative, asking you to savor whatever it is that you are eating. And sometimes, it is a food memoir, and that is where the writing is best. I laughed as I read of Tandoh seeking her Ghanaian great-aunt’s groundnut soup recipe, and grimaced right alongside her as she ate eels by the seashore. Most of all, though, this book is a response to the same authenticity-obsessed, elitist, snotty food world that irritates me.
Tandoh makes short shrift of the cute world of the food movement, the tyrannical one of the diet industry, and all the ways status is disguised by concern. There are many books that talk about the sugar lobby and the corn lobby. One of Tandoh’s strongest points is when she points out how, contrary to a lot of scientific evidence, a diet lobby also exists. The world of health foods and weight loss plans is not just about fake concern, but a multibillion dollar industry. It just happens to be an industry supported by the elite. Tandoh’s point regarding this is pretty unusual in the food world, and it is welcome. She also skewers the food movement, pointing out how unrealistic the locavore, artisan world it promotes is for so many. Some of this is direct – but some of it is simply honoring the food that the food movement often ignores. Tandoh might sing the praises of home-baked cake, but you will find love for cheap tea, Wotsits, and Burger King here too. Above all, Tandoh has little patience for the fake concern of much of the food world. People in the food world, she rightly points out, are not actually concerned about your weight or your tastes or your exposure to something. They often just enjoy the power and making fun of you. And Tandoh proposes resisting that temptation – and eating while we do it. After all, we need to eat to be strong.
Like me, Tandoh traces an emotional world through food. Recipes interspersed throughout the book seek to summon up a feeling – of joy, of ease, or of comfort. More than that, she talks about the meanings of food, and how different foods are needed at different times. She also discusses, effortlessly, the distance between what is socially “acceptable” to eat and what we actually crave – and how the latter is sometimes more helpful than the former. Many food books tell you not to eat Kit-Kats. Tandoh reminds you that, of course, it is okay to have one – and that your attachment to them is not a bad thing. This is the book’s strongest point: that food and emotion does not always go in a specific marketable, status-oriented direction.
The book can get repetitive at points, and sometimes a bit wordy. Tandoh herself jokes about this as a former philosophy student. I also think the recipes may be a bit hard for some people to follow, since they are written in a highly narrative style. That said, the book is still incredible as a resource and as a way to think about food. Tandoh is young, and Tandoh is bursting with ideas, and I think this is going to be the first of many incredible books about food. You should absolutely read Eat Up, so that you can join me in eagerly waiting for more.
So my piece on Modernist Jewish Cooking got a lot of responses. And a lot of readers. It is now the second-most popular piece on the site, after my bread pudding recipe. You, the readers, seem to like it when I talk about industrial food. Good news – I have more to say!
Recently, I have heard a lot of “scare language” around processed food. Some of this was in response to my piece – people were irritated or confused that “homemade” and “industrial” might, yes, be on the same plane for some people. (Chances are that your homemade food is partly industrial.) Others were friends who were shocked at some sort of thing or other, and labeled it as “processed food” – assuming I also saw that phrase as negative. Yet as I have pointed out, most food is processed at some point before getting to the consumer. And even if we say we do not like processed food now, it is so present and everywhere that it has shaped our taste buds. This process is almost inescapable. Even “organic,” “natural” cooks hearken back to industrial food now. Processed food, like taxes and death, is inevitable in the modern world. And marking some food as scary Processed Food, and other equally unnatural foods as Good and Proper does nothing more than hide a lot of facts. Besides, processed food is far more accessible for poor people, for people with disabilities, and for most everyone.
Perhaps we should advocate for industrial food that is made by properly paid and treated workers, that is high-quality, and that is something we all have a share in.
Also, this sort of organic-romance thing becomes a performance so sappy that I suddenly find myself urgently craving an Oreo. Oreos are not even my preferred industrial cookie. Just admit you kind of like the Manishevitz box mix, as some of us can infer in your performance of disdain.
In short, you love processed food, even if you say you do not. Guess what? So do I. Since I have no shame about this, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite industrial food products. We can get a bit of history, a bit about me, and a bit about how I use them. They are not all Jewish, but they are all Jewish. I would love to hear what your favorite ones are too.
Noodles and pasta – I eat probably too much pasta, but I do not particularly mind: noodles and I get along well. I eat a noodle product more than once a week at minimum, except during Passover. This fact of my existence is in no part due to the industrialization of noodle production and the popularity of dried noodles. Before World War II, when noodle production was far less industrialized than today, many families in Italy could only afford pasta on special occasions. Ditto for noodles in many other countries, like Japan. Industrialization made noodles cheaper and more affordable for everyone. And box pasta is still pretty damn good.
Canned beans – “Beans, beans, lots of beans, lots of beans” is not just an early 2000’s meme, but also an accurate description of most people’s diets in many times in many places, Jews included. Beans are efficient little vehicles of protein and nutrients and tastiness. They are also, in raw form, a lot of work. So canned beans are a huge improvement: no soaking or precooking, just beans that are ready to go into your meal. They are also often very high-quality. I find myself cooking with canned beans at least once or twice a week, and I am still surprised at precisely how versatile they are. Almost any bean recipe not made with lentils on this blog was made with canned beans, and the lentil recipes are doable with canned lentils as well.
Stock cubes and soup powder – I told you once how to make your own stock, but the truth is that I rarely do. I mostly use bouillon cubes and soup powder, because – let me be frank here – I do not have the time or energy to do homemade stock every time. Most people do not. And hence industrial bouillon was one of the first modern food products to emerge, in the 19th century, and has remained popular ever since. It varies incredibly from country to country – as some scholars have pointed out, you can learn a lot from going to the Knorr’s selection in a local market. It also adds a very reasonable amount of salt to whatever you are cooking. In Israel and a few other places, soup powder is now a seasoning, which I find somewhat salty for my taste, but I do not judge. For me, soup powder lets me add a bit more weight to stews and sauces, when I can add stock simply by making it from the kettle. Also, the stock cubes smell really, really good.
Crushed tomatoes – My mother’s repertoire of recipes is very heavy on the use of canned tomatoes, which is fitting, given that my mother is an Italophile who grew up in South Africa and Israel. (All three countries’ populations use canned tomatoes extensively.) Like most people, I cook a lot of what my parents taught me growing up, and so I find myself adding crushed tomatoes quite a bit. They are very handy for many Jewish dishes – shakshouka and tamatiebredie among them – but also for the lazy, haphazard stews which, with rice, make up most of my meals. On a broader level, the popularity of tomatoes in cuisines outside the Americas is partly based on the fact that tomatoes are so easily canned. Otherwise, tomatoes were, until recently, highly seasonal plants that were considered suspicious by many.
Canned corn – Picture this: it’s a blackout sometime in the early 2000s. A frizzy-haired Jewish woman and her tween son are grinning as they spoon corn from a can into their mouths. That was dinner. In any case, I live now with fewer summer blackouts, but still the same number of corn kernels coming from the can. Canned corn is really delicious. And, if you are not eating corn from the cob in season, it’s usually not that distinguishable from the fresh counterpart. (Even when fresh is available, I sometimes suggest canned, especially because a lot of fresh corn is not actually very good.) Fun fact: I once made a dish, and said person mentioned that he was pleased I had obviously used fresh corn. Indeed, the corn was fresh from a can that morning. On a more practical note, canned corn is a very good substitute when fresh corn is not practical, and actually keeps many of the nutrients for longer than refrigerated corn. It is also incredibly versatile – you can make so many things, including a lovely pashtida I made for the early days of this blog.
Jam – Ah, yes, jam. I have given several recipes on the blog, and discussed how jam became popular in the 19th century when sugar became cheaper. It is also now well-known that jam played a major role in improving calorie intake in some places in Europe in the 19th Jam was one of the first things to really be industrialized. And as much as it can be too sweet and sticky … mass-produced jam can also be delicious. Why else would I slather it on toast every morning? Jam also is a nice filling for hamantashen, and there is at least one jam that goes well with most every Jewish bread.
Mass-market pickled herring – I have written about my love for herring and its history in Jewish kitchens before, but I can never stop talking about it. And for every fancy herring at Russ and Daughters, there are at least thirty or forty much cheaper herrings from the big companies that jar massive quantities of the stuff. They are part of a long Jewish tradition of processing herring on an industrial scale.
Canned fish – While we are at it, can we discuss the miracle of the cheap and versatile protein that is canned tuna? Or the salty goodness of canned mackerel? When I was a child, my late father and I would eat mackerel on toast together; now, I bring back the 1950s with tuna croquettes. Jewish cooks leaned in heavily into the canned fish train in the mid-20th century, and I do not blame them. When it is good, it is really good.
Mass-market lemonade – I do not even have a romantic reason for adding this one; I just like lemonade. But lemon-based drinks have been popular for centuries across the Jewish world, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Jewish communities have all sorts of lemony sweet drinks on Shabbat tables around the world. The drinks vary from place to place (I am a huge fan of French lemonades) – but the lemon does not. As it happens, this is a very modern phenomenon: industrialization made sweet drinks and juices no longer a luxury, but something affordable for many people. The idea of a sweet, lemony drink in a bottle in the middle of winter appeared to our great-grandparents as a luxury from afar. Thinking about that makes me feel quite elegant as I guzzle lemonade down.
Ugiot mizrahiot – This one is a bit eccentric. The Iraqi cookie kaak – a round hard thing covered in sesame seeds – became popular in Israel as ugiot mizrahiot. Once the afterthought of bakers, this treat is now made en masse and packed in plastic by Israel’s biggest food companies. Sure, the kaak might be better fresh from the baker, but my Israeli relatives have developed a very, very strong affinity for these. So did my late father, who could eat an entire bag in one sitting. I am not ashamed to say that I have recreated the feat.
Thank you for reading! As a final bonus, here is one more fan of industrial food: my sister’s cat Mochi, whose diet largely consists of her preferred chicken kibble. (She is also an enthusiastic fan of canned black olives.) Mochi has been staying with me for a few months, and has graciously heard many ideas for the blog as I voiced them out. Thank you, Mochi.
For an excellent critique of food snobbery in the form of a novel, I urge you to read Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody. It was originally published in French as Une Gourmandise. I have read it in both languages and thoroughly enjoyed it both times. Industrial food plays a major role in the book, but as is said in the old country, “no spoilers.”
Another blog that I just found is In Defense of Processed Food, by Dr. Robert Shewfelt. It is a welcome antidote to the mythical excesses of the food movement. I intend on reading regularly, and will buy his book soon.
I am starting this piece in Israel, where I am visiting my grandmother at the moment. Israel, as I have written before, is a really weird place in terms of food. There is plenty already written about the influence of Palestinian cuisine on Jewish cooking, continued diaspora traditions, and the “kashrut wars” in Israel. I have even watched a fantastic documentary about the pork industry in Israel. What I find most interesting, though, is that it is ground zero for industrial Jewish foods. Most of the canned gefilte fish, powder-mix matzah ball soup and latkes, and instant farfel have some link to industrial food companies here. If they were not invented here, they are certainly made here.
My grandmother is a fan. At the age of 91, she still enjoys her jarred gefilte fish on Passover, Mandelbrod from big boxes, and the smell of soup made from powdered mix. (She also eats some food that is unlikely to ever have an industrial market, like baked fish heads.) I used to dismiss these products as industrial dreck. But now I find them fascinating, because they still influence our homemade cooking. And just as Israel’s government uses nostalgia to drum up support for Zionism, so too do these food products use nostalgia to not just sell their wares, but redefine Jewish cuisine.
We who write about food are too quick to dismiss these products as unimportant to the grand story, or only negative. Except we often end up imitating them. For people whose first experience of Jewish food was these foods – and we have sixty years of this – that is the “benchmark” for whatever we make. It also becomes the norm. And we end up adding more of the things that people want … which often circle back to these products. Never mind that some people do not have the time, energy, ability, or resources to make everything “from scratch.” Making stock, making kneidlach, and making farfel takes time. The industrial manufacturers hit on a market – and the result is fascinating. Why? Because of how it plays with our psychology.
Makers take memories, smash them together, and create food products out of them. I find that fascinating. The company of course uses that “authentic” taste to sell the food. And eventually those tastes – which are often similar – become fixed. So then we have to adjust our handmade recipes to reflect those. We cannot remember the pre-industrial food that we never tasted! What we mistakenly call authentic is as much a product of marketing as anything else, even foods like p’tcha that do not have a version from the box. Some mourn this reality. I do not.
We have to remember that industrial food came about and stayed for a reason. Well, actually, it came about for many reasons, right alongside the development of capitalism, redistribution of wealth, and redistribution of cuisines. Food has also, in all civilizations, been industrial to a certain extent, with products being made, processed, and consumed in separate places. To return to the point though: industrial food made it far more efficient, practical, and possible to make food, make different types of food, and make a variety of food available. Canning made vegetables more regularly available during the winter. Dried pasta made noodles affordable. The packaging of rice made it shippable. Industrial bread made affordable bread without dangerous or unsavory additives that often caused illness or debilitating pain from indigestion. (The latter was common in Europe before the 19th century.) The natural next step in some ways was to industrialize other foods. That went well with the faith in scientific everything of the early and mid-20th century. True, these foods were seen as suspicious, and the women who were first to embrace them were often criticized for not doing things “the real way.” But the ease and simplicity of cooking them made industrial foods much more popular. Women, who still do most of the housework in homes today, had more time. (The use of industrial food maps closely to the ability of women to enter the workforce.) Fewer people were malnourished than before – a fact that goes contrary to many screeds about the obesity epidemic. Things that were once rare for most common people, such as chicken in the United States and pasta in Italy, became common. For Jews, festival foods also became more common – though the gefilte fish from the jar was certainly quite different. In Israel, industrialized food got a population of refugees dumped by the Israeli state into transit camps through a long period of austerity. Industrial food also ameliorated the malnutrition common in Palestinian refugee camps – as it still does today. The high-end “organic, handmade” cuisine that later developed in Italy, France, and the Bay Area is not natural or historic. It is an elitist reaction to a new common availability of food, which happens to be industrial. And though industrial food can improve, we should not simply dismiss it.
What would Jewish cooking look like today without industrial food? The honest truth is, I do not know, and nor do you. Industrial food has changed our tastes: it is so common that it is part of all of our memories of taste. It has been around and popular for generations. I would hazard that what we considered the central parts of Jewish food would have a lot less meat, a lot less complexity, and many more foods reserved only for the most important holidays. Perhaps there would also be less salt. I do not think it is useful, though, to recreate pre-industrial Jewish cooking. We are at five generations of cooks who have grown up with stock cubes and bouillon powder, canned tomatoes and packaged noodles, jams from the store and premade matzah meal. Those tastes are in all of our palates – even the ones with organic, fair-trade labeling. We cannot reconstruct that taste. We simply have to move on and acknowledge that these jarred and canned foods, whether or not we like them, a part of our cuisine. We should partake, and participate in how they are developed.
In short, we should embrace what I call modernist Jewish cooking. (The term is an adaptation of Rachel Laudan’s term “culinary modernism”). It is pointless and unhygienic to masturbate to fantasies of the authentic Jewish kitchen. Why complain about frozen gefilte fish, when we can make it different or better for us? Why judge the person who makes matzah ball soup from the box? (Would you rather they not eat?) Why should we be so scared of the shortcuts our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew better to malign? Why should we romanticize the misogynist misery of cooking “in the old days,” a misery that hundreds of millions of women still live? Why should we embrace the myths of the “natural” kitchen, when nothing about human cooking is ever fully “natural”? And can we even run away from these tastes, that shape us as much as anything that is celebrated?
For more reading on industrial food, I highly recommend the work of Rachel Laudan and Josh Ozersky. “A Plea for Modernist Cuisine” (Laudan) and “In Defense of Industrial Food” (Ozersky) are two of my favorite articles ever written about food. For more on how industrial food products emerged, read Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven. For more on industrial food in Israel, Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nationis spectacular. For a lovely, if incomplete, takedown of “locavore” thought, The Locavore’s Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroki Shimizu is quite good.
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: