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.”
At a training given by the People’s Institute on undoing institutionalized racism, I heard a story. It was about a group of friends headed on a picnic by a river. The first friend shows up, basket in tow, to see babies (!!) floating down the river. In astonishment, she drops her bag of baguettes and cheese and immediately grabs an infant. The second friend arrives, and the first shouts, “Drop your things! There are babies in the river!”
The rest of the party arrives and they too, forget their lunch plans and begin plucking babies out of the river, feeding and burping them in astonishment as they try to keep up with the flow of babies by the minute. Finally the last friend arrives. “What are you all doing?” she asks. “Come on! There are babies in the river!” the group replies. She looks at them, puzzled. “Haven’t you seen what is happening at the top of that hill? Someone’s throwing babies into the river…”
While headlines about the Farm Bill focus on the role of commodity subsidies in creating the ubiquity of processed foods in the U.S. (and increasingly in the global) food system, on the final day of the 2011 Hazon Food Conference, some of the most passionate and committed members of what some are calling the “new Jewish food movement” got a deeper look at the details of the policy landscape that shapes the way the U.S. food system functions and influences the rest of the globe.
At the “Farm Bill 2012: How the Jewish community and you can make a difference” workshop, presenters Oran Hesterman of the Fair Food Network and Dahlia Rockowitz of American Jewish World Service provided a background into why our policies look the way they do — the intentions with which they were designed, and how we can change them. Illustrating the critical role played by many of the Farm Bill’s sections other than the commodity payments, both presenters raised some serious questions for the audience, and pointed us in the direction to begin to use our voices as citizens and voters to answer them:
I just came back from an inspiring tour of University of California Davis’ food science program led by Sean Lafond, a Ph.D student in food sciences, who recently prepared tomato ice cream as a fun experiment in his home. “It tasted like tomato ice cream,” he said, though he doesn’t usually dabble in experimental ice creams, like the avocado ice cream made in one of the test kitchens by another researcher.
For the food conference participants, seeing the four-building complex replete with food kitchens, a wine laboratory, a brewery, a processing plant and an experimental garden was a full-circle kind of experience, where we could see the kind of work that goes on behind the scenes to put the ideas behind the food movement into action.
Writing about food can be an experience to savor, according to Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan. “For me, writing about food is talking about culture and history,” Nathan said at a presentation on food writing on Friday at the Hazon Food Conference in Davis, Calif. The author of ten cookbooks, Nathan also writes about food for the New York Times and other publications from her home in Washington, D.C.
New York journalist Jeffrey Yoskowitz and California food blogger Amiee Kushner also shared their insight into the field of food writing to an audience of around 35 people at the University of California Davis. Yoskowitz, who keeps kosher, chronicles Judaism’s complicated relationship with pork at the website porkmemoirs.com. Meanwhile, Kushner writes a blog for an audience of Jews and non-Jews alike called Jewish Food in the Hands of Heathens.
August 18, 2011 marked the first day of Hazon’s annual Food Conference. The four day gathering at UC-Davis, a global leader in sustainability projects, united people from Colorado to Japan under open blue skies and amongst beautiful trees, flowers, creeks, and even a dairy farm and winery. Food, fun, and activities aside, the 311 person gathering had an intense agenda including seven program tracks like Food Systems and Policy and Jewish Agriculture.
The Food Justice and Tikkun Olam track provided an opportunity for community activists, teachers, students and foodies alike to learn from one another about our complex food system and a broader movement to address hunger, poverty, workers rights, and food access both locally and abroad. Pursue, a project of American Jewish World Service and AVODAH, hosted a session called “Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA): A Vehicle for Collective Action and World-Changing!” The workshop provided a platform for learning, idea sharing, and, ideally, continued conversation and collaboration. All three presenters were recipients of the Pursue Food Justice Scholarship, a pilot initiative to strengthen the food justice programming at this year’s conference.
We’ve gotten our hands dirty making pickles. We’ve pounded sauerkraut like bubbes from the Lower East Side. We’ve planted herbs in havdallah gardens and we’ve learned amazing new braids for our challah, which we’ve leavened with natural sourdough. The DIY food movement has taken hold of the Jewish community — and it’s logical that after the vegetable growing and the bread baking that our thoughts turn to meat.
Ironically, though the DIY movement may be fueling interest in kosher slaughter, though, it’s not something you can read about on an urban homesteader blog and try in your backyard. The laws of shechita (kosher slaughter) are carefully guarded, and one must undergo rigorous training to become a shochet (a ritual slaughterer), at least according to orthodox standards. That said, there is still an opportunity for hands-on learning, and communities across the country have been gathering at farms and community centers to watch kosher shechita and in some cases, pluck a feather or two. The experiences are profound, and participants often have the opportunity to wrestle with important issues of meat eating, kashrut and Jewish tradition as a whole.
Tshuvah, the Jewish idea of repentance is usually associated with Yom Kippur and atoning. But it’s actual meaning is return, an idea that Ilana Margolit, a nutritionist with a spiritual bent and Nigel Savage, the director of Hazon clarified in their Hazon East Coast Food Conference session “The Tshuvah of Feeding oneself,” this morning.
They applied the idea to food and the opportunity to use the act of eating and our food choices to return to our most pure and true. This opens up an interesting perspective when we look at our food habits. Instead of feeling guilty for eating bad foods or giving in when we have cravings, we can orient ourselves towards the experience of eating in such a way that we end up making the “healthy choices” for ourselves and not because our doctor, parent or nutritionist told us to. It is a truly liberating meal that leaves us desiring nothing.
I re-joined the Hazon staff at the beginning of the summer, after a three-year stint at ADAMAH. Since then, one of my major projects has been pulling together the East Coast Hazon Food Conference (our California staff is simultaneously working on the Hazon Food Conference – West Coast).
At Hazon, people often ask about what goes into planning a food conference, particularly one that represents the New Jewish Food Movement. Our conferences are the center of the conversation about Jews, food, and contemporary life, and they must show those values, as well as talk about them. We can’t just teach, we must also do. There are a lot of questions that we ask ourselves while planning the conferences. Here are some examples of how we begin to them.
Join Jewish farmers, rabbis, nutritionists, chefs and foodies to explore the dynamic interplay of food, Jewish traditions and contemporary life at Hazon’s 5th Annual Food Conference this Winter.
There will be dozens of sessions and hands-on food workshops, joyful Shabbat celebrations, and delicious, consciously-prepared food at the December 23-26 conference.
Prices go up Monday so sign up this weekend.
Haaretz reports on “The Yiddish Housewives’ Cookbook,” the rare 1896 tome of 668 recipes by Oyzer Bloshteyn.
The New Yorker tells us of an 117-year-old cheese that Clare Burson, a docent at the Tenement Museum’s Jewish paternal great-grandfather was given as a going away present when he emigrated from Lithuania to Johannesburg.