I have wanted, for a long time, to research how people figured out which foods were safe to eat. How were unsafe foods found? How were necessary preparations found? It is a huge topic, and my hubris became clear rather soon. There are scientists who have spent their entire lives figuring this out.
Even then, I have now spent a few weeks down the rabbit hole of poisonous food, poisons, and food. The big thing is that the historical study of food poisoning is completely bonkers. For example: we find a lot of early pottery that sort of looks like a colander. Turns out the items were used to make cheese, which is one of the first safe ways people had to eat milk. Before then, people would eat milk and get really sick, from lactose intolerance. But diarrhea when you are malnourished is dangerous, and people died. Cheese saved lives. Later, lactose tolerance became a more common genetic mutation in Europe and India. This was probably because that in resource scarce areas, where milk was one of the only reliable foods, people who could not digest it died. Then there are other mysteries. Corn was bred from teosinte grass in what is now Central Mexico several thousand years ago. At some point, ancient Mesoamericans figured out how to soak the corn in various alkaline substances. This process, nixtamalization, makes corn more nutritious and flexible. The initial moment was very likely an accident. But later “research” was probably toxic at times – too much alkaline, or not enough washing afterwards. Alkaline substances are sometimes fine for you. There were also certainly instances when someone burned the wrong tree for ash, with terrible consequences. This goes toward the major theme of a lot of what I read: what happens later.
Something that has struck me is how often people die after we know what foods are safe. Mushrooms are one example. We know that some mushrooms are poisonous, and they look like safe mushrooms. There are details that distinguish them. These were important things to learn in communities that relied heavily on foraging. (Communities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans foraged through modern times.) This knowledge was mostly transmitted orally through folk tales and folk wisdom. The knowledge was not always right! People were confident, forgetful, or rushed to assuage hunger or finish the day’s work. And people died. Elderly people, disabled people, and young children were most at risk. When even a mouthful of a deadly mushroom can destroy one’s kidneys, those most at risk died. People of all ages and bodies died, though, centuries after it became common knowledge that a mushroom could be deadly. Monarchs died, composers died, and countless ordinary people died. Even now, many people die from relying on folk legends about mushrooms, such as the idea that all deadly mushrooms are brightly colored. We also have known for millennia that ergot can render rye and barley dangerously unsafe. Yet it still ends up in flour – often under conditions of hunger – and was responsible for several medieval epidemics. Today, occasional incidents still pop up. And let us not forget the people who eat fish that is plainly rotten, drink raw milk despite the risks we know, and consume unwashed salad greens, e. coli and all.
You may have noticed that I switched into the present tense. This is a current topic: people still die from food poisoning every day. Besides, more than half of all food poisoning comes from food prepared at home. Obviously, this is relevant now. Our concern about restaurant safety needs to come alongside giving people the knowledge and tools to prepare food safely at home. Methods include an accessible kitchen, simpler and less risky food, or industrial food. But it also is important from a historical perspective. Until recently, almost all people mostly ate food prepared in domestic settings. The risk then was from the family hearth. The food that killed people was the peasant food, the mother’s food, and the grandmother’s cooking of yesteryear. This is where that oral knowledge comes in – and where it was forgotten.
In the Jewish world, this is no different. Deadly food is mentioned in the Bible. In II Kings 4, the prophet Elisha throws some flour into a pot of gourds and herbs to ward off “death.” Scholars now think that the plant mentioned is colocynth, whose flesh can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Flour may reduce the distress. The story is didactic: that some of G-d’s creations can kill you. In the Holy Land with sweet and toxic oleander, and colocynth with poisonous flesh and edible seeds, this was important and life-saving knowledge.
Later Jewish communities had to deal with the dangers of their local environments. In Europe, one found deadly mushrooms, dairy products made with rotting milk, and badly brewed alcohol. In the Middle East, you had the risks of oleander, colocynth, and algal blooms in the sea. Adulterated or diseased grain was a threat everywhere. Many Jewish foodies have embraced a romantic history of Jewish food. We rue lost traditions of food preservation and certain delicacies and ties to the land. And while the traditions are beautiful and worth keeping, it is also important to remember why our grandparents embraced industrial foods. Homemade killed, and food was risky. Abundant, relatively safe food was the promise that pushed immigration. The idea of clean, Jewish food contributed to the rise of Zionism. The search for safe bread motivated Bundist movements in Europe and leftist Jewish movements in the Middle East. Food was, and is, life.
Death and deadly foods are a glaring omission from romantic histories of food. I get that it is not fun to think about the food that kills people. A food activism that focuses on yesteryear why we have to go forwards, not backwards. We are all familiar with the horrors of industrial food, but let us take a moment to remember the horrors it reduces. People died trying to figure out what we can eat, and people die figuring out what they are able to eat. Should we not avoid meeting our fate at dinner too?
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.
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: