I work for the largest Jewish environmental organization in the United States. The kind that has a written food values policy which outlines the steps we, as an organization, take to ensure that the food we serve to our guests, participants, and each other is kosher, ethical, healthy, delicious, and a conversation starter.
Why then, do I have a five-pound bag of Halloween chocolates in my desk drawer?
Because somewhere around 4pm, it’s time for chocolate. And I don’t mean the good-quality, fair trade, dark chocolate (I keep that hidden in a different drawer), I mean that sugary, processed, preservative-laden, “exactly what I wanted right now” chocolate.
This year make room for chocolate in your Sukkot celebration. Sukkot’s theme of openness symbolized by the leafy ceiling and flimsy walls tempts creative approaches to menus, decorations, and customs. Deuteronomy 16:14’s challenge “v’samachta b’chagecha” (to rejoice in the festival) could easily be fulfilled by layering chocolate onto the holiday’s menus. Sukkot’s custom of welcoming honored guests, known as ushpizin, (traditionally Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David; additionally more recently, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, Esther) into the Sukkah. What better way to honor a guest than to treat them to tantalizing chocolate concoctions.
It could also be fun to recall some of the earlier Jews with significant connections to chocolate by extending a symbolic Sukkah invitation of ushpizin to colonial American traders, retailers and manufacturers such as Aaron Lopez, Rebecca Gomez and Daniel Gomez. From the first of the Jewish chocolate makers ever, in Bayonne, France, include Abraham D’Andrade. Cite Jews who developed the navigational sciences of the 15th-16th centuries which in turn created the opportunity for European first contact with cocoa beans, such as Abraham Ben Samuel Zacuto.
One year ago I was sitting in an overly warm classroom at the University of California, Davis, at a workshop called “Chocolate: Our Dark Addiction,” which was part of the 2011 Hazon Food Conference. The session begins with the question, “What is good chocolate?” Hands shoot up and comments immediately start flying: “Texture”; “Mouth feel”; “Creaminess”; “Cacao percentage”; “Ratio of bitter to sweet; “Added ingredients like fruits and nuts”; “No fruits and nuts.” Etc.
I think about the word “good,” and then I raise my hand. “Chocolate that is produced without slave and child labor, by workers paid a fair wage?” I ask. I am a bit tentative, because I don’t want to sound like one of those holier-than-thou food-obsessed people who proclaim their ethical choices in a manner calculated to shame those around them . One of the two presenters pauses for a moment, smiles slightly, and says, “That’s what we’re going to talk about today: other meanings of ‘good’ as it pertains to chocolate.”
With Shavuot around the corner, I’m thinking about milk chocolate and Israel, where there are several unique local options. As Janna Gur, Editor of Israel’s Al Hashulchan–The Israeli Gastronomic Monthly explained to me in a phone conversation, Israelis love chocolate and have a distinct preference for milk chocolate. The history of these chocolates tells us something about the growing years of the country itself.
The Elite brand developed several favorites in the milky realm. M’kupelet, bars of thinly folded milk chocolate similar to the Flake Bar of Cadbury from 1920, have been produced by Elite since 1935. The fondly remembered Hayal-Hayelet, a fifty-gram milk chocolate bar, was sold to Israeli soldiers at subsidized prices at canteens. Chocolate eating in the Tzava, the Israeli army, provided, as one person described to me, another means to klitah or absorption into Israeli society for what he called “exotic populations, immigrant groups from Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia.”
“In every generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as though he/she had personally been redeemed from Eqypt,” we read in the Haggadah during our Passover seders. In recalling our people’s experience in Egypt, we are urged to remember that we were once slaves. We tell the details of the story, act it out, and eat charoset, symbolizing the mortar with which our ancestors made bricks for the Egyptians — we attempt to “experience” what slavery felt like.
Though we may not be actual slaves ourselves today, our history moves us to ask “Where does slavery exist today?,” “Who is enslaved?,” “What is that slavery like?” Unfortunately, this is the issue with most chocolate in the world. The majority of all cocoa is grown in West Africa, where hundreds of thousands of children have been documented working in their cocoa fields. They spend long hours working in hazardous conditions, and losing their childhoods to bring us our favorite chocolate treats. The situation is particularly serious in the Ivory Coast (the source of about 50% of our cocoa), where the U. S. Department of State estimates that more than 109,000 children in Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa industry work under “the worst forms of child labor,” and that some 10,000 are victims of human trafficking or enslavement. Those who labor as slaves also suffer frequent beatings and other cruel treatment.
Imagine a modern, hip Israeli incarnation of Willy Wonka and you have a picture of Shimon Pinhas, the man behind Raw Chocolate Love. His company is one among a handful in New York that produces raw vegan chocolate, and one of the few with kosher certification. Shimon, whose dark curly hair protrudes in every direction and almost resembles steel wool, gives the impression that he is a man who can do anything, a presumption that is not far from the truth. When he arrived in New York twenty years ago without a word of English, he had already worked in construction, electrical work, and theater in his native Israel. His present occupation as a chocolatier on the border between Brooklyn and Queens follows an 18-year career running a music studio in the East Village.
Chocolate balls are as iconic as falafel in Israel, yet most tourists have never heard of them. After all, nobody is hawking these colorful confections on street corners. Kadorei shokolad, as they are known in Hebrew, are part of the quintessential Israeli childhood but they’re rarely seen outside the home. They might be ignored by culinary aficionados but insiders know that the very best are made by enthusiastic kindergarteners.
It’s a one bowl wonder, made with cocoa, sugar, milk and biscuits, all mashed together into a dark brown goop. Preschoolers are usually relegated to bashing the biscuits with a rolling pin, a job they do with gleeful abandon. Little lopsided balls of the mixture are rolled into shredded coconut or colored candies and placed on a serving tray to set or popped straight into their mouths. It’s a plebian version of Belgium truffles.
Elaine Benes was onto something when she declared “You can’t beat a babka” in a 1994 episode of “Seinfeld” (clip below). Next to brisket and latkes, babka may be the ultimate Jewish comfort food. (For those unfamiliar, babka is yeasty, risen dough that twists around a sweet filling to create striations, or, in laymen’s terms, layers of deliciousness.) Sometimes spelled bobke, recipes for this treat have been passed down by Eastern European grandmothers throughout the Diaspora. And while it may appear as though chocolate is the traditional babka (didn’t Elaine also declare cinnamon “the lesser babka”?), the truth is that it is a decadent, twentieth century American addition.
According to Gil Marks in “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”, babka originated in Poland or Ukraine where the word baba (similar to the Yiddish word bubbe) means grandmother. Babka is the diminutive, and the name arose either because grandmothers were the primary purveyors of this treat or because the tall, fluted pans originally used resembled folds in a grandmother’s skirt. Marks notes that the Jewish-style loaves probably came about in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to turn extra challah dough into a Shabbat treat.
There’s something about an egg cream that can bring out the debate in some people. “There is egg cream on your face,” wrote one reader, “if you fall for those explanations of the egg cream.” Another simply wrote “Hogwash!” Luckily these were letters not to us but the New York Times, throughout the 1970s, in response to articles making one claim or another about the correct way to mix the drink. No egg cream article comes without a slew of detractors. Luckily our readers were more polite in response to Leah Koenig’s recent article, “Egg Creams Make a Comeback”, but were no less contentious. When Koenig described the delicious drink re-imagined to include maple, coffee, and even olive oil, some readers cried foul.
Arguments over the correct way to make an egg cream are nothing new. Disagreements can arise about the ingredients (most traditionalists say nothing will do but Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer), the order they’re placed in the glass, or the proper length of the mixing spoon. As a publication of record, the Forward might not be able to settle this historic debate, but we can at least contribute to the latest round. We want to hear from you on the new breed of egg creams, from the return to classic to the provocative nouveau. To get it started, we asked a range of experts for their take on the topic, inquiring, “What do you think of non-traditional egg creams?” Check out their positions below and add your own.
Last August, my husband and I chose to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary by going to Costa Rica. It was our first vacation with an ecological focus, as recommended by old friends who have more refined tastes and more stringent religious commitments. We were delighted to have our girls accompany us. It was a vigorous vacation with hiking, snorkeling in Puerto Viejo (newly discovered by surfers) and daily yoga sessions. My husband was able to decompress faster — and remain relaxed longer — than on any other trip and my review of our stay at the Samasati Nature Retreat posted on TripAdvisor has been read by enough viewers to garner me a free Shutterfly photo album (which, alas, I was too late to redeem). This was a great way to unplug from the world — no phone, no Internet, no television.
Our bungalow overlooked the mountainside and we woke each day to the sunrise (about 5 am) and the chattering of the monkeys. It was the off season in the Caribbean coast, so we had the resort mostly to ourselves. My family had de facto private sessions with the yoga teacher in the beautiful, octagonal studio.
It rained hard most days we were there but at different times of the day. In the capital city of San Jose, the streets have deep and wide gutters, up to two feet in parts. The locals, called Ticos, carry their babies everywhere, not bothering with carriages, strollers or even slings. People can even steer their bicycles, while holding up umbrellas.
Growing up as Jew in Ogden, Utah, I attended a synagogue the size of a small house called Brith Sholem. When I was in kindergarten, Brith Sholem was the target of an arson attack that nearly gutted the entire building. The police never found the perpetrators, who lit two American flags on fire but left the Torah scrolls untouched.
Two months after the fire, a group of Mormon dignitaries pulled up to the synagogue in white Lincoln luxury vehicles and delivered shoeboxes full of cash to the temple leadership, all told, about $45,000 from Mormon church goers all over the state. This was enough to cover the amount the synagogue had to pay out of pocket for renovations after its fire insurance kicked in.
Max Brenner isn’t ashamed of his unconditional love of chocolate. “I can’t go a day without chocolate,” says Brenner, whose real first name is actually Oded.
In 2009, the Israeli-born Brenner penned a book of recipes — a kind of ode to all things chocolate — entitled “Chocolate: A Love Story.” In it, he draws similarities between his relationship with chocolate and a long-term love affair.
Brenner is first and foremost the Bald Man of Max Brenner, Chocolate By the Bald Man, an ever-expanding chain of restaurants that focuses on all things sweet. Sure, the restaurant serves savories (a couple of dishes even meld savory and sweet, such as French fries dusted with cocoa powder and onion rings served with a dark chocolate ranch sauce), but the desserts garner most of the attention. Customers go crazy for the chocolate fondue (recipe below), chocolate egg rolls and chocolate pizzas (there’s even a very popular chocolate syringe).
The Max Brenner chain began as a store in Ra’anana, near Tel Aviv, in 1996. In Israel, Brenner is a bona fide culinary star, a true chocolate icon. But his empire now extends to 34 locations worldwide — including Australia, the Philippines and Singapore. There are three locations in the U.S. — one in New York, one in Las Vegas and one in Philadelphia. A Boston restaurant is set to open in two months.
Chowhound argues that the world’s best chocolate babka can be found in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Israelis were surprised to see fraudulent posters appearing to be from the Ministry of Health decrying the health risks of drinking milk.
From a Swedish advertising student comes Neighbor Dining. Social media and hachnasat orchim (the Mitzvah of welcoming guests) come together!
This weekend will haunt Jewish parents with ambivalence about ghoulish begging for treats and taunt many of us with temptations of free, sugary treats. Despite my inner Halloween scrooge, my children enjoyed creative costuming and hoarding of the goodies as kids. Halloween’s roots are pagan and Catholic, with gluttony to be atoned for at Yom Kippur, al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha b’maachal uv’mishteh (for the sin we have committed before You through food and drink). This month’s chocolate abundance raises ethical questions as sticky as a chocolate morsel in the summer sun. Chocolate does not always mix well with Judaism’s values and ethics such as oshek, literally, “withholding wages” or “monetary oppression,” but also honest and fair labor practices.
Today’s chocolate industry often obscures the tragic psychological and physical torture endured by thousands of children who work as slave labor to harvest the cocoa beans needed to satiate the developed world’s chocolate addictions. Growers in places such as Ivory Coast and Ghana claim that the international low prices of cocoa require labor of their own or enslaved children. Currently, approximately twelve thousand children, some of them slaves, work in the Ivory Coast or Ghana.
Tomorrow Joan Nathan’s delicious new book, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France,” debuts. Nathan dug deep into the countryside and cities of France to unearth 200 wonderful recipes and the stories behind them. She talks with Forward Ingredients columnist Leah Koenig about her first food memories in Paris as a teen, the evolution of Jewish food and kashrut in France and culinary collaboration among Jew and gentile cooks.
To listen to the podcast, click here.
Below Nathan shares two recipes with us – a 400-year-old chocolate almond cake and a parve olive oil inflected chocolate mousse. Bon Appetit!
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