Hello! I have not posted much content in a while. Graduate school keeps one busy – although, I am pleased to say, the work is applicable to the community! And part of this work has involved lots of fieldwork and lots of writing. But now I have the time, during my break, to write a new post – on a topic near and dear to me.
Something I have recently thought quite a bit about is dementia. A good chunk of my graduate and recent professional work has been about social infrastructure and facilities for older adults, especially those with memory loss. We live in a culture that does not value people with dementia, and it is a shame. Even other discussions about disability, including some of mine, do not adequately consider people with dementia and their needs. To make better lives for older adults with dementia, we do not just need proper infrastructure, nor is it only keeping them out of congregate facilities. (Both are essential.) Rather, we need to have a cultural overhaul – and that includes food.
We often forget that people with dementia have personalities and preferences – and that extends to palates too. As memory loss progresses, people with dementia have different experiences. Sometimes, they prefer one thing that is somewhat new. In other cases, and especially for immigrants, their preferences revert to those of their teenage or young adult years. When it comes to food, these tendencies might manifest as a strong desire for one food, or a preference for food from a home cuisine. Institutional food usually does not meet these desires. Nor do many standard programs that encourage “healthy eating” – while forgetting that “healthy food” is different from person to person.
Regularity and independence matter a lot when we talk about food and dementia. Many older adults with memory loss are given no agency over their lives – and though support is sometimes needed, support is different from forced dependence. Often, no preference about food is offered – or the opportunity to control how much is eaten, and how. At the same time, routine is grounding. Often, a regular meal or snack on the same day or at the same time is helpful and empowering. Variety, often forced, can be disquieting or distressing for some people. Yet we live in a food culture that often considers repetition or leftovers “boring” or “dull.” This problem is part of a wider one: people with dementia are also often excluded by the food practices of everyone else. Older adults with memory loss are often talked past when food is discussed, and their preferences and needs are often dismissed. We can start by allowing for their independence and need for regularity.
What does that look like for Jewish food? We already have regularity: challah and other traditional breads on Shabbat, weekly festive meals, and traditions around what food gets eaten when, like herring, cholent, brik, and bourekas. Keeping up these traditions can help include people with dementia in two ways. One is providing that grounding regularity. The other is that, for many Jewish older adults, these foods may meet a need grounded in an earlier stage of life. Encouraging these traditions can be a powerful form of inclusion. At the same time, all of us can do more to encourage independence. People with dementia should have the chance to eat independently, and their preferences should be respected. If they do not want “Jewish food,” that’s okay. Jewish tradition and food should not be forced.
Stars are footnotes and appear at the end of the post.
Greetings from Maryland, where I am safely ensconced and riding out our strange new reality. I miss my partner, in New York, and my family, but I am okay. I hope you are managing and keeping safe.
With the ongoing crisis, I have been thinking a lot about differential access to food, and how it plays out in a pandemic situation for folks with different experiences, often marginalized ones. There are authors who have already written very eloquently about these effects from the point of view of class, race, and gender – and I strongly suggest you read these pieces too! I want to talk, today, about how these access points can play out for people with disabilities.* Specifically, I will talk about the acts of getting, storing, and making food to eat in this context.
When I wrote my piece about disability in the kitchen, the blog’s most-read article to date, I did not foresee that we would be dealing, two years later, with a global pandemic. At the time, I was working on accessible communications for a government agency; now, I am doing graduate work in urban planning, focusing on aging and disability in the built environment. Even the way I talk about my own autism has changed. And, as I research topics from public restrooms to sidewalks, I keep returning to that piece I wrote about disability in the kitchen. Now, when I watch all of our food habits change in line with the virus, enabled by technical innovations, I note that people with disabilities still face barriers to coronavirus cooking. These barriers come right alongside the threats to disabled people’s lives from rationed care, the lack of access to many remote services on which disabled people rely, and the housing problems many disabled people face.
We should remember that disability intersects with other marginalized identities. Disabled people of color face particular and often more intense barriers to access, and often lack access to services more than their white counterparts. This lack extends to access to food – be it living in food deserts or not having an accessible grocery store nearby. Gender, too, plays a role: women, non-binary people, and transgender people often also have difficulty accessing services. And class plays an overarching role. People with disabilities are far more likely to be poor and to rely on inadequate “safety nets”; many people cannot afford food during a normal time. So now, many of the interventions well-off abled people take for granted – grocery delivery, food delivery, or being able to purchase two weeks’ of food at once – are more difficult or impossible for many disabled people. Not to mention that inadequate housing and kitchens particularly affect poor disabled people – especially people of color with disabilities.** People incarcerated in “group homes”often have no autonomy over their food at all (or anything else). The inability during a “normal” time to afford a house with accessible food storage or appliances is doubly problematic when there is no accessible way to store, cook, or save large quantities of food.
But these problems start even before we get to putting food away. Let’s walk through the process of going to a grocery store, buying food, bringing it home, storing it, and cooking it in this time.
Barriers start with the simple act of getting to the grocery store, or getting groceries delivered. Of course, some people with disabilities cannot safely leave their homes during the pandemic, and that situation itself is an enormous barrier. Many people with disabilities, including those who can leave, rely on public transit or paratransit to go to “essential services” like supermarkets, and routes and service have been gutted in many areas. As a result, what was a one-hour trip might now take three. Sidewalks, already badly maintained and narrow, are difficult to practice social distancing on – especially if you cannot wheel on dirt or safely on a busy street! Many grocery stores that are open have visitors line up on inaccessible barriers for entry, or are located in difficult-to-navigate and often dangerous areas. These challenges are added to on the return trip with the difficulty of carting food while achieving any of these tasks. Food delivery can cost more money that many disabled people do not have, and not to mention, anecdotes indicate that some things do not seem to make it into delivery baskets right now. Furthermore, many delivery services’ communications are inaccessible, be it badly-designed websites or demanding telephone calls some people cannot make. So, many people with disabilities rely on friends or family to assist with groceries – but this relies coordination, and often gives other people undue power over what that disabled person is eating. The “well-meaning” (but actually inappropriately controlling) family member might not, for example, get those sour cream ranch chips that make lockdown that much more bearable for their relative.
Other barriers exist once you enter a grocery store or supermarket. Of course, many grocery stores are inaccessible, with narrow aisles and steps, loud equipment that triggers sensory reactions, and broadly impossible to navigate for blind people. Coronavirus adds another layer: the need to socially distance means that you move a lot, but some people move more slowly than others. Standing in line for an hour, as occurs in many places, is not possible for some people. Social distancing is more difficult or impossible for people with cognitive disabilities, especially given the type of mental processing such distancing requires. On top of food shopping, that can become very difficult without cues in the store. The worry about viral spread, often dismissed for grocery stores, is quite real for immunocompromised people. Masks make it harder for Deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with store staff and other shoppers, because facial expressions and lip-reading become impossilbe. And, of course, shortages play a role too. If you, like many disabled people, have food sensitivities or allergens, and your mainstay foods are out of stock, you may find shopping more difficult. Not to mention that markups on common food items may make them unaffordable to many people with disabilities.
Once someone returns, or has food delivered, how do they store it? Refrigerators and freezers are often inaccessible for people with disabilities – especially wheelchair users and people of short stature. Food packaging is usually inaccessible to blind and low-vision people, who often have to relabel all of their food once it comes back into the house. With the larger grocery hauls that result from less frequent trips away from home, this task becomes longer, and more tiring. In addition, cabinets, especially those meant for food storage, are also often not accessible for wheelchair users. When one is limited to a certain amount of space, storing two weeks’ worth of food can be an insurmountable challenge, as a result of poor, inaccessible design. (Even a design that is pretty: if it is not accessible, the design probably is not good.) Many disabled people live in housing that already was inadequate for food preparation and storage. Furthermore, for many people with cognitive disabilities, the challenge of sorting and storing food,*** already present before the pandemic, becomes even more taxing with the new amounts of food and the different rations required during the pandemic. And, of course, let us not forget that people with suppressed immune systems are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus from packaging, if it is transmitted this way, with far worse results.
Then, of course, there are challenges familiar and new about planning and cooking meals. All of the usual barriers impeding disabled people’s freedom in the kitchen are still there: unusable counters, dangerous stoves, inaccessible sinks, and so on. But the necessitated reliance on cooking makes it that much harder if things get messed up – something that also matters for recipients of food assistance. In addition, planning meals can be a difficult task – and planning them for as much as two weeks is often extremely difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Furthermore, many of the pre-prepared ingredients that make cooking more manageable for people with disabilities – pre-cut vegetables, canned fruit, and little herb sachets among them – are in short supply at many groceries. Some disabled people may not be able to, say, safely chop an onion in their kitchen.
For many disabled people, this paradigm is particularly exhausting. Some disabled people already work with lower levels of energy or higher fatigue than other people. Most disabled people have to do the honestly tiring work of figuring out how to move around barriers, to navigate inaccessible spaces, and still get what they need. In the age of coronavirus, that can be especially tiring. And so the added fatigue, the accumulated tiredness, the “lack of spoons,” becomes yet another barrier for food access. Even – especially for people who cannot leave their homes right now. The worry and the coordination of food access alone can be exhausting – on top of which, all these other issues may apply.
You may notice, when reading, that many of these issues are not specifically about coronavirus itself. Of course not – the built environment that harms disabled people was already there before the pandemic: access to food sources was still blocked, transport was still an issue, kitchens were inadequate, cooking was difficult, fatigue still occurred. The point is not that these barriers to food and cooking are new for people with disabilities. The point is that the coronavirus crisis amplifies them, to a point of being even more impactful and dangerous.
I wonder, from a personal and professional perspective, how we can address these issues in a post-pandemic world. What sort of transport structures and changes will we need to put in place to consider food access and service access for people with disabilities? What changes need to be given additional oomph? What new requirements will supermarkets, grocery stores, housing, and other services need to meet during construction? Some of these standards already exist, but some will be changed. After all, disabled people, too, will be making changes to their lifestyles after the pandemic – and that choice will necessitate some new design standards, be they wider supermarket aisles or more food storage space than before in an accessible kitchen. These are all to be determined, and hopefully, will improve upon the current paradigm, which is unacceptably inaccessible.
*A note to readers: I tend to be ecumenical about using “person-first language” – people with disabilities – and identity first language – “disabled people,” though I tend to prefer the latter since it points out that people are disabled by the societies around them. This idea is called the social model of disability. As an autistic person, I find myself switching when I even describe myself. That said, I know many people with disabilities prefer person-first language, and as a compromise, I switch between the two now. For certain disability communities, there are proper protocols: The descriptor Deaf people is always identity-first in English, the descriptor people with cognitive disabilities is always person-first in English. These rules are based on community decisions. Please do not use “differently-abled,” as it implies that there is something wrong with being disabled!
**The first folks to be listened to on issues affecting disabled people of color are disabled people of color themselves. For a clear explanation as to why, and the intersection of race and disability, see this fantastic piece by Imani Barbarin. Ditto for issues affecting women with disabilities, disabled transgender people, and working-class disabled people. I should not be your primary source here!
***Resources by and for people with cognitive disabilities often expressly discuss pantry storage and food purchasing. However, many assume regular grocery access – which may not be possible during the pandemic.
So it turns out you all have some serious thoughts on institutional food! I cannot say that I am surprised – especially given everything that I said in the last post. Most everyone has encountered institutional cooking at some point, especially in the Jewish world. Yet when I asked on Facebook threads for a few anecdotes about institutional food, I was completely blown away by the response.
What I have put together here are quotes from some of the responses. Many people wanted to stay anonymous, so no names are there, although some quotes were made on comment threads on Facebook. Here are the stories – see if they parallel your own!
“The main exciting parts of being a mashgiach were getting to crack eggs/wash veggies.”
“Sukkot was a good mashgiach gig, because of the free Sukkot meal that came with it”
“I actually went into institutional cooking to try and escape the ticket machine nightmares of restaurant work … and yes it’s very mentally and physically demanding and overwhelming staffed by underpaid marginalized people. I found institutional cooking to be a bit harder though because of the need to handle everyone’s dietary restrictions and still producing good food (especially when nothing is made to order and you need to find a way to have it in holding trays without it drying out) and the funny thing is my last job was a sous-chef position in high end senior living … about 30% of our 200 residents were Jewish and I ended up taking cooking classes to try to learn to prepare under kashrut and found it overwhelming learning a strict system (even after the perfectionism of French haute cuisine) that I didn’t have much prior acculturation toward, considering my only exposure was to Jewish deli cuisine (which found its way into mainstream American cuisine anyway.) So I ended up burning out…”
“…also forgot to mention the common issue of substance abuse in the industry as well due to stress and long hours, plus being a working class job type a lot of people do enter into it with legal troubles which can be a positive means for them, plus with the demands and limited staffing despite legally there being a need to not be in the kitchen when sick, this is seldom the case with the adage being if you’re not going into a shift, you better be in jail, in the hospital or dead.”
“When I arrived [at the kibbutz] they quickly put me in the mechinat shtifa, the dishwashing room. I was nauseous the entire time I worked there. Something about the combination of the smell of the hot steel of the machine, the soap and water, and the chicken we had almost every day made me sick to my stomach. Eventually, they had me serving food. This was tricky because I was just starting to learn Hebrew. I remember, an old woman, one of the founders of the kibbutz, got frustrated with me because I didn’t understand maspik [enough] meant she wanted me to stop serving her, that she had enough food. As I kept spooning onto her plate, she shouted dai! I didn’t know that that meant “ENOUGH STOP!” either, but she said it so fiercely, I thought she was saying the english “DIE” and threatening me, so I stopped.
After a while, I found my niche cleaning the eating area every day, and fell into a gentle rhythm. I’ve always been anxious and there’s a certain calm I’ve found in the drudgery of daily “unskilled” physical work that really soothes me, although I also find the work depressingly monotonous. I’m also not very good at it. I was constantly being told to do things better, faster, more efficiently, by kibbutznik bosses who would rotate out every week, until I knew the work better than my supervisors did. Still, I’ll always remember fondly the light streaming in through the huge, eastern facing windows of the hall, as I shoved a row of tables out of the way, blissfully zoning out as the kibbutznik who was in charge of me that week barked orders.”
“Basically [as a mashgicha] I found out that bugs are actually actual real existing things, 80% of rasberries have literal crawling transluscent but visible tiny wormythings (unless you blend them and then they’re not bugs anymore because biryah or something), and also how to crack 4 eggs at once.”
Jonathan’s note: cracking four eggs at once is a miraculous skill.
“Jews have lots of food needs and sensitivities. If you work with the same staff for 15 years even if it’s just for a week a year they get good at the kosher thing.”
“I was the mashgiach for the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute for ~6 years. It’s held at a college campus (then, Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire), so we take over a commercial kitchen for a week. It’s all veggie, except fish, and ~300 hippie Jews have a wide variety of things they can’t eat, so half the job was keeping track of who needed special what rather than strict kashrut.”
“I dreaded the week a year I was in charge of a dining mess for about 500 soldiers in two sittings. The meat was chicken (cut into eighths) and the easiest way to cook it in volume seemed to be in a sea of oil with paprika in giant dented pots you could fall into. Potato wedges were similarly drowned and baked on giant sheets.”
Sometimes It is Good
“The private high school I went to had a super fancy cafeteria with good food cooked mostly fresh that day, like what Grace described. One of the nice things we could do was buy breakfast in the morning (lunch was free), hot or cold. Hot breakfast was made to order. When Pesach came around each year, we got an extra option aside from the usual pancakes/egg and cheese/omelette: Matzoh Brei. Chef Paul would make this delicious concoction of matzoh, cinnamon, milk, egg, and sugar that was quite popular. We also had matzoh available at lunch. Even though we had enough Jews attending the school for matzoh brei to be a thing, that kitchen was definitely not kosher. I know there were two Jewish brothers who brought food from home every day instead; I do not know if there was anyone else.”
“Tufts had great food- the cafeterias always had an ingredients list and nutrition label with every food offering, along with a plate that showed you what one serving was. They had fresh baked bread everyday, and I still dream of the butternut squash bisque! The salad bar was usually well-stocked, and the pizza was made from scratch. They had a great kosher for Passover station too.”
“We had choices; they used local food vendors and displayed where it came from. The workers were probably well paid and happy and cared [for], and a part of the community. We had a salad bar, a custom sandwich bar, hot foods bar with multiple options, [and a] tea and coffee bar.”
“My high school was fancy-schmancy and private, and we had a crazy good cafeteria that I didn’t appreciate until I graduated. Everything there was delicious except the pizza, forsome reason (it was that sort of pizza that’s so covered in grease that it can only be eaten if wiped off first). They served kale salad, clam chowder, pretty good chili, at least one each of vegetarian and non-vegetarian main dishes each day, and the most flawless, soft-on-the-inside-crispy-on-the-outside chocolate chip cookies, made in-house. But even with all that, grilled cheese and tomato soup day was the one everyone waited for. A holiday that happened approximately every month. The tomato soup was so good creamy and tangy, and the cheese was fake American cheese, but that was the whole point. I loved grilled cheese day so much!!”
“I went to a Jewish day school in Pikesville, Maryland. There were meat days and dairy days for lunch. Meat days meant hamburgers and fries, dairy days meant pizza and fries. Junior year I was part of a group of people who advocated to get healthier options and we “won” a salad of romaine lettuce, cucumber and tomato. I was vegetarian so didn’t eat the burgers but I really loved that pizza!”
“Jewish cafeteria food in the south for me was split between very boring regular cafeteria staples and kosher versions of southern classics. At my day school in Alabama, we had split meat/dairy days for lunch, but the highlights were when/if Miss Connie, the African American woman who was the head chef (of two or three) made fried chicken. I don’t know how she made kosher fried chicken as good or better than your usual Southern buttermilk fried chicken, but she did.”
Jonathan note: The traditional pareve substitute for buttermilk usually involves a mix of soy milk and lemon. Older cooks would simply add more egg, or even use beer.
Sometimes It Is Gross
“When I was in therapeutic boarding school/reform school, the food was pretty terrible. Somebody claimed to have done the math, and estimated that we were all fed on $6 a day: $1 for breakfast, $2 for lunch, and $3 for dinner. The food was pretty bad, and I remember complaining about it a lot. I think worse than the food quality was really just the repetition of eating the same 6 or 7 meals every day for a year. I gained some waiting after leaving the program, mostly because I was so excited to eat lots of different things, and went a little overboard the first few months out. I don’t remember all of the meals, but a few stand out: Friday night pizza dinner, corned beef with a greenish sheen, weirdly crispy grilled cheese…”
“The milk also left an impression. It came in these massive udderlike bags that had a thin rubber hose attached. We had to hoist the bags into a dispensing machine and feed the hose through this little hole and trim it, so milk would come out when you pulled the machine lever.”
“One other thing that really stuck out: when Orange is the New Black premiered, I was struck by two things. One, how much relative freedom the imprisoned women in the show had compared to my experiences in youth institutional settings. Two, the TV prison cafeteria had the same brown plastic mugs that we had at school!”
“The cafeteria at the school I taught at was awful. Most of our kids were on free and reduced lunch and I feel like that was used as an excuse to have worse food. The kids commonly ate pizza which was mostly undercooked, and chicken sandwiches made out of the compressed parts of chicken. The cafeteria workers were really nice, but the food was awful.”
Jonathan (Me, Your Author)
A number of years ago, I did a summer program at UC Berkeley. I distinctly remember that, on the second day, one of the things at the cafeteria was covered in a gloopy tomato sauce that had the consistency and texture of liquid soap, and was so oversalted so as to taste akin to eating an actual salt-shaker. I could not eat anything red for an entire month.
“I was at US Army basic training during Passover 2016. A local Chabad rabbi ran a Seder on the first night, and gave us all boxes of those microwaveable kosher for Passover airplane meals. I don’t think I ate a single one of them — we didn’t have access to microwaves and they were just beef stew — no carbs, etc. During Passover I got medically discharged for asthma and anemia. One of the NCOs at the med center asked me if I needed lunch, and I pulled out my kosher for Passover meal. He wrinkled his nose and brought me some “real” food (an MRE). I ended up just eating the regular food for the rest of Passover.”
“Cafeteria food growing up reminds me of potatoes cooked and served with too much oil.”
Navigating with Restrictions
“…the coveted “African peanut” soup, which was delicious for me but reaction-inducing for a friend who could not have legumes. On the advice of her house mother, this friend once faked anaphylactic shock to try to convince the school cook how serious her allergy was- previously, the cook hadn’t believed her when she insisted that putting out peanut butter cookies on a communal table could keep her from breathing.”
“College was really interesting because my food allergies got really bad for a while after I had mono. Having a hard time eating in the dining halls was actually one of the reasons I moved out of housing. They tried really hard to be accommodating and avoid cross-contamination, but the options were limited. The South cafeteria opened my second year, and I did a walk through with the staff and someone from housing, which was really helpful. I had my own designated pan for pasta that was safe from cross-contamination, and a place to get my own milk. They even took me down to the food storage facilities so I could see how things were packaged/stored and so I could read comprehensive ingredient lists. It was actually way more accommodating than I expected.”
“To use the flex points, however, I actually just starting buying meals and drinks for other people, even when I’d just met them. I think on one occasion I treated about 5 people to the campus Starbucks, just to get rid of the points. But I recognized how much the school was charging for these meals, and they absolutely weren’t worth the expense. The only problem was that meal plans were required unless you were in an apartment. Before the start of the next semester, my mom called the school and told them their poor labeling made me sick because I was lactose intolerant (not a lie), but the real kicker was that she sealed it with “and eggs aggravated her eczema.” It worked, and I think my food expenses dropped to only $100-$200 a month for groceries.”
Jonathan (Me, Your author)
“At Chicago, I ate a lot at the vegetarian station when I was living in the dorms, which had some decent things (fried zucchini! things with black beans!) and again, some things that required doctoring with hot sauce. The kosher station was reliable. I did not trust the other cooked food stations that much because I had so many contamination incidents – ham in random things, chicken in a scoop of ice cream, other bizarre moments. I also got food poisoning a few times from the other places, so I played it very very conservative in the cafeteria, especially in my second year. One of my worst food poisoning incidents came from some stuffed peppers and I still cannot eat them.”
“Jewish sleepaway camp Shabbat dinners were completely inedible for me, as were meals with red meat or cream sauces, but my counselors flipped when I asked if I could just have bread instead of PBJ because I had a huge aversion to PB at the time, which was SO MUCH FUN. Same at BBQs.”
“The funniest part of the day when I did study abroad [in Russia] was to watch fellow American students try to avoid sour cream in their soup. Woe to anyone who was next in line after them though, because if you asked for soup without smetana there was likely already a dollop in the current bowl. The current bowl would be set aside, a new bowl poured, and then the next person would get the already dolloped bowl.”
“I remember visiting Cornell Hillel during my time at UMD and was so impressed with the variety their dining hall offered both during the week and during shabbat. They offered dishes like lamb and beautiful Mediterranean salatim. That same week my friend and I feasted on the lamb and salatim one of the people there apologized that the food was “not so great that week”. I’m pretty sure we burst into gales of laughter at the comment.”
Jonathan note: this happened to me at Penn, which had significantly better food than my alma mater of UChicago.
“Also Yale had (has?) waffle irons with a “Y” that prints in the middle of the waffle and it’s all I want in life because it’s so extra.”
“When I did the Naval Academy summer seminar after my junior year of high school, the food was actually quite good, though the cadets assured us that it was not always this good (one would assume they were trying to make a good impression on prospective students…). There are all kinds of rules around how you eat at the Naval Academy, especially in your plebe year––an upperclassman can call on you at any time to state the menu for the entire day, you have to square your corners when eating (hard to explain what this means––it has to do with your fork coming up off your plate and making a sharp corner at mouth level, then the same path on the way back down). Oh, and you don’t leave the table until everyone is done, and at that point, you bang on the table three times and stand up; ideally you have knocked over the empty cups. And what I remember most clearly is the two cadets who were SO EXCITED about having “buff chicks” for lunch. I was extremely confused until we arrived and lunch was buffalo chicken sandwiches. (“You guys don’t know how lucky you are! Buff chicks!”)”
“In elementary school our milk was literally frozen? We would all get it and open the carton and try to chip away with it with plastic sporks so we could eat some of it.”
Jonathan: at my workplace this sometimes happens and I’ve gotten adept at crushing enough out to add milk to my coffee. The hot coffee melts it.
“Let’s talk about how ridiculous it is that we had a soft serve ice cream machine in our high school cafeteria for a while… I loved it, to be fair.”
“ But the best memories I have of cafeteria food are the Friday night brownies we would always try to steal extras of at Camp Ramah in New England, and how we would coordinate in advance of the summer to make sure we would have enough shkedei marak* to dress up the Friday night chicken soup.”
Jonathan’s note: shkedei marak are little Israeli soup croutons that you pour into soup to add some crunchy-carby flavor. They are standard fare in Israeli cafeterias and are oddly addictive.
This is the first of two posts on institutional cooking.
People who cook for large groups do not get enough respect. In our deeply problematic classification of jobs in this country, cooking for large groups is considered “unskilled” labor – whereas somehow moving imaginary quantities of money is considered “skilled.” (Capitalism is really absurd at times.) Cooking may be a menial, manual labor, but it is a labor that requires deep skill – especially when you are turning out food to feed a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. When you are cooking in a complex institutional setting, it becomes a skill of almost super-heroic proportions.
I and friends have learned this truth the hard way by wandering into occasional institutional-size cooking gigs ourselves. Back in my college days, I somehow ended up cooking lunch a few times for a small, lovely Lutheran church near my campus. Cooking lentil soup and pasta for ten people is a fairly straightforward matter. Cooking for a congregation of over one hundred is a much different undertaking, and after a few hours I found myself completely, utterly exhausted. The fatigue came not just from the physical labor, but from the mental labor of working with much larger quantities, having to adjust my normal cooking habits to the huge quantities I was making, and learning how to work with a soup pot large enough for a small person to fit inside. (I discourage cannibalism.) Other friends have come to dread “cooking duty” in the Israeli, South Korean, or Finnish Armies, which thrusts one into a context where one has to go from zero to feeding a hungry platoon on often substandard ingredients fairly quickly. It is an egalitarian approach to push everyone through the hard labor of large-scale cooking. In another context, I have watched friends spend hours as the institutional mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for college Shabbat dinners, supervising large quantities of food for halachic minutiae. Many of my friends and relatives lived (and some still do) on kibbutzim in Israel that had huge, communal dining halls of varying quality. And of course, there have been the other encounters: helping friends navigate hospital food systems, reading about the unionization of cafeteria workers, and the flurry of articles last year about kashrut in the American prison system.
I have been thinking about institutional food for a while, and how it affects the way we approach and think about food. When I say institutional food, I am referring to food cooked as part of a wider institutional framework not primarily focused on food. These institutions include school and college cafeterias, nursing homes, armies, prisons, hospitals, and places of worship. Institutional cooking, in my mind, has two other defining characteristics. One is that such cuisine is generally made for large groups – institutions provide for the needs, food and otherwise, of hundreds or thousands of people on a regular basis. Those people have a variety of needs and preferences, allergies and aversions, practices and metabolisms, which compounds the challenges of cooking, already made difficult by the scale of the endeavor. The other defining aspect is that institutional cooking has a certain industrialization or standard process to it – necessary to even cook at that scale. Though we often think of processing and industrialization as a modern endeavor, the idea of producing rations in a standard way for many institutions dates back centuries, to madrassas in the Ottoman Empire, monasteries in Western Europe, and armies the world over.
I am only offering some thoughts here. I am a civil servant who does food history as a hobby, and there are many people who have built a career out of studying institutional cooking, not to mention the multitude of institutional cooks themselves. (“Nothing about us without us” should also apply to discussions of labor.) These thoughts are essentially evidenced ideas about how Jewish food and institutions intersect both at the individual level and at the systems level. At the end of this, I will cite some things that you should read, whose have informed my thoughts.
And why does institutional food matter? It is tempting in our craft-addled food culture to forget that institutional food is real food with real influence on the way people eat, what people think of as “good” or “bad” or “normal food, and how people approach the labor of food at all. Many assume that craft culture, with its (expensive, anachronistic, and white) renditions of (often normally inexpensive and created by people of color) “real food” influence people the most. Certainly, it is an influence. But unless you are incredibly rich or have an incredibly unusual upbringing, much of the food you will eat during your most formative life phases in North America, Europe, and Israel is institutional. Cafeteria food at schools, universities, and army mess halls, food at synagogues and churches, food from mass kitchens if you are hospitalized or imprisoned. Tastes are formed by the often-“disappointing” preparations of certain ingredients, and other dishes are looked forward to on a rotation. When many students graduate to cooking on their own, the reference points for a normal meal have been shaped not just by food at home or out, but by years and years of institutional food. Jewish communities, with their own schools, hospitals, yeshivot, synagogues, and institutions – and not to mention kashrut practices and traditional foods – are no exception. Even craft culture imitates the food of institutions and seeks to influence it.
With these ideas in mind, I will now go through a few small discussions of institutional food. Keep in mind that these are brief and extremely incomplete, each of these seven points could be the topic of a doctoral thesis on their own.
Jewish communities have a lengthy discussion on the kashrut of institutional food, but not the labor and logistics of it. Cooking is work, and I cannot labor that point enough. It intersects with disability, with race, what we eat and do not, and how we even conceive of food. It involves strenuous movements like chopping, lifting, and straining in areas of high temperature, often for hours on end. At an institutional level, this labor takes on special characteristics, such as large implements, huge quantities of ingredients, and vast industrial kitchens. It is dangerous labor, and it is hard work. This work is also often taken for granted – and as unpalatable as cafeteria food can be, there is a lot of labor behind it. Even beyond labor, the logistics of actually getting edible food in large quantities to huge, hungry groups of people are astounding. There are trucks that bring food in, pipes to carry waste water away, hiring systems for workers, quality checks, safety checks, and the very task of moving huge quantities of material. So little do we discuss this outside of nerdy food studies circles, or professional circles themselves. Why? The faces of the labor are probably one clue.
Who, specifically, is doing the labor of institutional cooking? How does this affect our foodways? Food work in the developed world and developing world alike is often the work of marginalized people. In developing countries, this may be migrants or members of lower castes. In the developed world, this is often done by working-class immigrants, people of color, and/or women. Jewish communities are no exception, and the United States is no exception. Institutions that serve primarily white clientele often have a cooking staff made up of entirely Black and Latina women. Again, Jewish institutions are no exception. There are two major notes to take from this fact.One is the way this work is closely tied to the way labor, race, and gender intersect. Not only is institutional cooking manual and menial labor, but it is also associated with groups marginalized in Jewish and wider society: people of color and women. This tie means that ordinary people are far less likely to respect that work than say, that of the mashgiach (though more on that later). Because people of color and women are also more likely to face workplace abuse, bad working conditions are less likely to be noticed or addressed. Many institutions simply do not pay their food workers enough to live on. Jewish institutions are among them. What would changing that system mean for our food practices?The other matter is that the cuisine changes. I discussed in a post last year the way Black domestic workers influenced and shaped Jewish cooking in North America. Not only were African-American women bringing home challah and kugel, but White Jewish children were raised on foods more frequently associated with African-American and Caribbean cultures. (Yes, most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States are White.) Let us leave aside that much of “mainstream” North American food was created by enslaved Black people; Michael Twitty’s book can never be topped by a few pithy sentences. What I want to note here is that the people of color, often women, who work in institutional food settings affect the cuisine that is served in institutions themselves. How so? Well, they are doing the cooking! They make adjustments to food when situations arise based on what they know. Sometimes seasonings are changed – actually, frequently. Cooking times are adjusted. The time something is left on a burner is increased. Last-minute incidents of spills and freezer problems cause all sorts of new things. All these change the final product, especially in large quantities. Often, workers make the foods they know how to make in large quantities from their own communities; it is far easier to make the things one has seen prepared many times over, and food workers are no exception to that rule. (Hence the frequency of rice and beans as a base in some cafeterias, hearty stews in others, or fried okra and biscuits in Southern Jewish institutions.) As much as any home cooking or elite TV show, these contributions shape the very idea of what food “belongs” in institutions.
I will share one favorite example. The Filipina and Palestinian Arab women and Mizrahi men who work in my grandmothers’ almost entirely Ashkenazi nursing home are responsible for feeding the residents. The great hits of Ashkenazi Israeli cooking are there: soups, salads, schnitzel. So too, are foods that seem to have started off as last-minute additions: certain rice dishes, stewed and stuffed vegetables, and okra in various forms. Those dishes are often the best-tasting, and beloved by many residents. Mind you, many of these happy consumers did not eat okra for the first eighty-five years of their lives with any regularity.
What does “Jewish” institutional food look like? What gets filtered through the process of industrialization and simplification? Is there an institutional kosher cuisine? I ask this for two reasons. One is that I often see the same things or combination of things being served at Jewish institutions, usually adaptations of Ashkenazi, Israeli, or Western European food. (I am distinctly aware that all of these terms are highly loaded.) In some ways, we can call this a “culinary” tradition of what ends up on school, hospital, army, and synagogue trays and plates. The other is that the combination of the minutiae of strict interpretations of kashrut and the challenge of cooking for large groups of people for a long time on a daily basis produces certain challenges. As a result, some foods become unfeasible because of the effort or cost involved – dairy if one practices chalav Yisrael, eggs if one is machmir (fastidious) about blood spots, certain green leafy vegetables if one follows certain rabbi’s guidelines on vegetable washing and preparation. Some foods are also much easier: breads, pastas, rice, cabbage, soups. Institutional kosher cuisine, to me, feels like an endless sea of soups.In tandem with this last point: if there is an institutional-kosher cuisine, why is so much of it meat-based? Given the expense of kosher meat, the commonality of vegetarianism in Jewish communities, and the number of additional rules involving meat, I am somewhat surprised at how many institutional kitchens are certified as “meat.” Part of me wonders if this is a cultural thing – meat is seen as “ideal” for a meal. Another part wonders if it has to do with the extended arguments about the kashrut rules on dairy and the general Haredi monopoly on kosher certification in North America, Europe, and Israel. And part of me wonders if it is simply … part of the culture at this point.
Even though I just critiqued this, what does institutional kashrut even look like? I know that I just excoriated Jewish communities for so heavily concentrating on kashrut a few paragraphs back – and indeed, I do maintain that the concentration on keeping kosher has masked the very real matter of who does the labor, how they are treated, and what that entails.I still find kashrut interesting for other reasons, though. Not for the matter of keeping institutional kitchens and food systems kosher, though that is fascinating too – much has been written about this by Roger Horowitz in Kosher USA, Sue Fishkoff in Kosher Nation, and by organizations providing kosher supervision themselves, such as Star-K and the Orthodox Union. Rather, I am interested in how people change – or do not change – their practice of kashrut in institutional environments. There are so many things to investigate, but these include:
How do people become looser with kashrut at institutions? Some institutions may offer food adhering to one’s normal kashrut practices, but even that can be limiting. How does one choose food, if possible, that meets one’s standards internally? How does one decide when and where to loosen the standards? For example, I myself would normally be upset if tongs used to serve non-kosher meat landed in the broccoli without being washed. But at many institutional cafeterias, I have not cared. Other friends have found themselves making exceptions or even redefining what they generally think of as kosher, not just in a given and unusual situation. People like maintaining traditions, but they also want to eat enough. Do people ever become stricter? If so, why?
In addition, why do Jewish communities seem to only discuss the holiness or cleverness of the work of the mashgiach (kosher supervisor), but never the labor or discomfort it can bring? Being a mashgiach can involve long periods of time in hot spaces, like any kitchen job, with an attention to detail that evades many. One must often explain arcane rules to people who not only do not understand the rules, but may not have a common language with you. It is a standing, moving labor. Pay varies widely among mashgichim, as do work conditions. Do we consider how well mashgichim are compensated, especially given that some certified-kosher food products can often be so expensive? How much money from institutional food practices actually goes to the mashgiach? (At this point, I have to acknowledge that kashrut is not separate from labor.) And if a business is paying for certification, or a rabbinical authority with questionable business ties, what pressures do mashgichim face to choose between their interpretation of halacha and their job security? How have kosher practices changed in response to the work conditions of mashgichim? How have mashgichim changed their practices in response to “popular” kosher assumptions or concerns?
Let us zoom out to the urban level: how do Jewish communities build their own institutional food systems? Here, I am primarily thinking of certified-kosher food. The rules of strict kashrut are arcane and complicated, and many will only eat commercially prepared food that is under rabbinical supervision. For prisoners, members of the military, and people in hospitals far from Jewish populations, food must often be shipped long distances, and often in bulk. Take two to three meals a day and multiplying it by 30 days in a month, or 90 days in a quarter, and even food for two or three strict kosher-keepers becomes a hefty shipment. For the caterers and industrial providers that have arisen for this population, that is a steady stream of revenue – but also requires planning to make sure food is not left unsealed, shipped safely over long distances, and is still edible at journey’s end. In areas with bigger Jewish populations, hospitals and schools often have their own kosher kitchens or kosher catering, which draws from a network of trusted suppliers and certified sources. Those suppliers also provide to the other parts of the food chain – supermarkets, restaurants, and sometimes consumers. As a result, there is a whole Jewish food system parallel to the “mainstream” food system – just as there are other parallel systems.Much has been written by Roger Horowitz and Sue Fishkoff (linked below) about keeping these food systems kosher. I am more interested in the social dynamics of such a system and how it interacts with wider ideas of a Jewish community – and how such systems enable Jewish communities to form or dissolve. This, of course, is something I could spend a lifetime pondering.
People with disabilities often spend more time in institutions than abled people, and more time eating institutional food. Special schools for the Deaf and children with cognitive disabilities are often boarding schools; adults with cognitive disabilities often live in group homes or facilities. Many people with cognitive disabilities never learn how to cook. Those with chronic illnesses spend more time in hospitals, and college students with disabilities are often more reliant on cafeterias at their schools. Of course, elders in nursing homes are often wholly reliant on institutional food – especially if their disabilities prevent them from cooking, or living somewhere with access to kitchen facilities. As a result, institutional food often looms larger in a disabled person’s life.The tragic irony is that this food is often inaccessible. Food produced at an industrial scale is often difficult to tailor to severe allergies or specific dietary needs, or produced in ways that some people cannot consume. For example, I have volunteered at many soup kitchens that serve lots of hard, crunchy food. For a clientele that often lacks dental care, have untreated dental problems, or have swallowing problems, this sort of food is impossible to eat without pain or even danger. Never mind that many chronic illnesses are accompanied by a host of food intolerances.
The food is also, as we all know, not usually very good, and not just in terms of taste. For many people, the depressing matter of relying on terrible and often inedible food day after day is a major trigger for mental illness. For Jews and many other groups, the food is also not the food of one’s community or the foods that one might prefer or even know. There are huge Jewish institutional food systems, but that does not mean all Jews who rely on institutional food have access to adequate, nutritious, and appropriate food. Even being vegetarian can cause problems in institutional settings. The lack of control over what one eats is yet another stab to dignity.
What would accessible and good institutional food look like? I cannot provide the answer in a paragraph, but it ties to the systems I described above. To build a food system that is accessible at all, changes in the way we shop for, package, and talk about food are needed – and not to mention kitchen design and recipes themselves. On an institutional level, this may involve a larger workforce and much more separate “streams” for dietary needs – and less of an attachment to the craft-culture, slow-food mentality. It would also take into account different cultural approaches to food and expectations, and not impose the desires of dominant groups. I also believe that such a shift would need to start, first and foremost, with the input and ideas of the disabled people most affected by institutional food right now: elders, adults with cognitive disabilities, and those in medically-based assisted living facilities. “Nothing about us without us.”
The memory of institutional food is long-lasting. Originally, I was going to post some things and anecdotes told to me by people over social media, but so many people sent stories in that there will now be a subsequent post. Suffice to say that not only do memory and institutional food shape cuisines and how people cook, but also that this combination produces fascinating, funny, and often cringe-worthy stories. (The post will be a blast.)In any case, I have been wondering three things about memory and institutional food:a. How does institutional food create common communal memories of Jewish food? When I say this, I do not mean the abstract memory often cited by academics, but ideas and tropes that people have experienced themselves. Students who have eaten at Hillels and camps in the United States all seem to recall salty soups, Israelis all seem to remember meat loaves and oily, oily potatoes from Army service. The eggs at Jewish hospitals seem uniformly “bouncy.” Institutional food, clearly, creates the memories that turn into jokes, anecdotes, and common wisdom.
b. Institutional food “teaches” people the bounds of Jewish food. How does that carry over beyond institutions? It is well known that cafeteria food and school food is a place where people are “taught” what the food of a nation, group, or community are. Hence the recent emphasis on pork in French cafeteria food in response to growing diversity, or the focus on “national” foods in Scandinavia, Central Europe, and Japan. Jewish food is no different, and a simple scan of the menus from Jewish day schools and camps shows that food also has an educational element on kashrut, tradition, and conspicuous absences. There are Israeli salads, matzah ball soups, and stews, but certainly little fake treyf or, G-d forbid, real (Yael Raviv has discussed institutional cooking as a place of teaching extensively in her book Falafel Nation.) But after the Jew graduates from school, camp, yeshiva, and/or the Israeli Army, what effect does this education have? Do people subconsciously follow these lessons on what gets eaten and when, or are they intentionally subverted.
c. How does institutional food “reshape” people’s habits and approaches to “normal” and “weird” food? In tandem with this, how do encounters with emotional food determine what people see as “normal” food? I am thinking here of a few things. One might include impressions of what other people expect. Another might include what gets determined as normal food at all. And another are the feelings when your own communities’ foods and memories are not included in the institutional framework – and the way that shapes your approach to the foods of your communities as well. Institutional food is deeply white in the United States.
Tam ve-nishlam, here is the end of my scattered thoughts on institutional food. Two more notes:
First, look out for an upcoming post about readers’ memories, thoughts, and anecdotes on institutional cuisine. I have heard some wild stories, and personally seen a few myself. The tales range from gross and unappetizing to delicious and heartwarming. I have never been so excited to write a post.
Secondly, I am going to ask you, as the reader, to do a bit of thought. How have you interacted with institutional food – as an eater, as a worker, as an employer, or in other ways? What carries over into your home cooking, into restaurants, and into your food preferences? And how do you relate to the people who do the labor of institutional cooking and food supply – or not?
Some resources on institutional food:
The United Food and Commercial Workers’ International Union represents food workers across North America: http://www.ufcw.org/
More than slightly related: you should listen to Episode 2 of the podcast Farm to Taberto learn about unpaid prison labor and all the problems that come with that on farms, for the human rights of prisoners, and how institutions interact with our food system. Dr. Sarah Taber is awesome, too.