I do not know much about my maternal grandfather except for a few stories. I know that he passed away not long before my parents’ wedding, he was mistakenly captured as an Italian spy during the war, and his favorite snack was a piece of rye toast, a slice of raw onion, and a schmear of schmaltz. Schmaltz is in my history, it’s in my family’s traditions, and it’s in my blood (hopefully not literally, but you know what I mean). So when I picked up The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat, by Michael Ruhlman, I knew immediately that I would enjoy this short collection of recipes all featuring this most fowl of lipids.
The Book of Schmaltz is more than a cookbook; Ruhlman has set out, with this book, a series of applications as an argument for the use of a once very popular ingredient in Jewish cooking. As described by his neighbor and inspiration to the book, Lois Waxman, schmaltz is looked at as a “heart attack food,” and has been phased out in many of the traditional Jewish and Eastern European dishes which once featured it. He notes in his introduction that schmaltz is so unused today that his dictionary does not even define the word as a food product, but instead as something which is overly sentimental. So why would we ever want to bring back the use of such a product?
Tnuva, the giant Israeli food company, made headlines this week with an admission that was stunningly candid, if not exactly a revelation.
In documents filed in Jerusalem District Court, Tnuva admitted that the slaughter of farm animals, if exposed to public view, “would horrify most meat-eating consumers.”
It’s one thing for Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, to famously say, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” McCartney, after all, has become a leading advocate for the compassionate treatment of animals.
But for a supermarket chain, for a business that sells meat, to say something of a similar vein … Well, that’s big news.
My late grandparents lived in a small city on the Canadian prairie when I was little. With no butcher anywhere close by, my grandfather took it upon himself to purchase kosher meat for the entire community. He would have the meat the meat flown in from Montreal, which was thousands of miles away. And, when the order finally arrived, he would divide up the meat and personally deliver it to the various households.
Things are different today. My grandfather would be startled by news of a kosher meat delivery service called The Kosher Express, which delivers kosher meat ordered online to your doorstep anywhere in North America.
The Aurora, Colorado-based company, which sells kosher certified beef, lamb, veal, chicken, turkey and even bison by mail order, was launched in 2010 by Robert Bernton, who was only 23 years old at the time. All of the products are certified glatt kosher by the Orthodox Union and are frozen fresh for shipping — first to The Kosher Express warehouse in Missouri, and then from there to customers’ homes and businesses (many deliveries go to hotels and vacation destinations, including one that went to Disneyland).
Through my study of anthropology, I have found one area particularly compelling: the relation of food and culture. For instance, the well-known anthropologist Sidney Mintz has devoted his research to find the cultural implications of certain foods, specifically the link between the taste of sweetness and the power divisions it inspires. Mintz argues, “The foods of different peoples, shaped by habitat and by our history, would become a vivid marker of difference, symbols both of belonging and of being excluded.” For me, my interest in food and culture began as an innocent observation of a particular phenomenon: the attraction of Jewish college students to any event that promised free meat. I witnessed friends flock to any event that offered kosher meat, and even celebrate the opportunity to eat meat on Shabbat. And although I first noticed this in college, in fact this phenomenon is deeply ingrained in every Jewish community to which I’ve belonged. My curiosity peaked. I wondered, what was the cultural connection between Jews and meat?
My mother-in-law’s favorite restaurant is a deli called TooJay’s. Whenever I visit her in Florida from my home in Portland, Oregon, that is where she wants to eat. It is rarely where I want to eat. I’d much rather sit out on a sunny deck and drink a margarita than squish inside an unprepossessing diner and eat greasy meat. One day we tried to sate her craving by bringing Too Jay’s takeout back to the pool. Come dinnertime, I asked her if she had any restaurant suggestions.
“How about TooJay’s?”
Over the last decade, the concept of mindful eating has spread through communities across the country. Most Americans now understand that there is an ethical way to eat, and that our food choices have a wide-ranging impact. And with a farmer’s market offering local, sustainable, cruelty-free foodstuffs seemingly on every doorstep, it’s easier than ever to eat the “right” way. For many Jews, keeping kosher doesn’t seem as important as making responsible choices. Does kashrut still have relevance for us in the era of sustainability?
For my family, what keeping kosher really boils down to is this: the limitation of and sanctification of eating meat as part of the Jewish emphasis on the celebration of life. The kashrut laws are designed to make us aware of the enormous responsibility that we hold as caretakers of animals and of the earth. We venerate life through the practice of kashrut every time we prepare and consume food.
Food was also a hot topic at the URJ Biennial [URJ RAC]
Find out what happens to “Jewish” food when Eastern European Jews end up in Mexico… [WNYC]
…or San Francisco! [SF Weekly]
Growing interest in kosher organic meat gets a boost in the UK [Barnet Today]
But non-organic meat in the US will see no relief from antibiotic use [Grist]
Happy New Year!
I recently came upon a thoughtful piece from Dr. Janet Chrzan of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and Founder of the Oakmont Farmers’ Market in Havertown, PA. Chrzan wrote about an experiment she did (as a mental break from her academic writing) about the cost of food. While trolling through old advertisements on the “Philadelphia Inquirer”, she found one from 1951 advertising Thanksgiving turkeys for 73 cents per pound. That caught her eye because it’s so much more than what they cost nowadays at the supermarkets. She assumed it was used as a “loss leader,” a retail term that depicts merchandise used to entice shoppers to step into the store and at a price that may not actually reflect the costs. She recalled that the price last Thanksgiving was 39 cents per pound, which she remembers because she tracks loss leaders, comparing them with the prices at the farmers’ market she runs.
Using an online calculator, she translated the old advertised price into 2011 dollars, arriving at $6.40 per pound, based on inflation of 3.68%. Conversely, 39 cents in 2011 translates into 4 cents per pound in 1951. “Wow,” she wrote, “that demonstrates just how much industrial farming has decreased the cost of food over 60 years…but it also puts into perspective the value of the turkeys that my turkey farmer produces, using methods similar to the methods used in 1951. He charges $3.50 a pound for pastured hormone-and-antibiotic — free birds, almost half the comparable price of the loss leader of 1951. And the turkeys taste really good.”
In this week’s parsha, as Noah stands outside the ark surveying a post-deluge world, God blesses him and gives him new dietary parameters: “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.” (Genesis 9:3) This divine permission to eat meat is a big departure from the instructions given generations earlier to Adam and Eve, who were only allowed to eat a vegetarian diet.
No explanation is given in the torah for this change, which is bundled together with other injunctions against eating the blood of animals and against murder. But the rabbis argue that the permission to eat meat is an attempt to put boundaries on something people were doing prior to the flood, killing animals wantonly and without regard to the fact that to eat an animal was to take a life. God was setting up checks and balances to explicitly prevent this cruelty.
But “This concession to human weakness is not a license for savagery,” argues scholar Nahum Sarna. Meat cannot be eaten without recognition of its origins in life; God’s permission can be seen as the original injunction to eat mindfully.