I'm a a professor of religion at Wheaton College in MA, a Reconstructionist Rabbi, and a member of the Zephyr Farm CSA and the Southside Community Land Trust in Rhode Island. I teach a First Year undergraduate Seminar on “the Rituals of Dinner” which will culminate in a sustainable banquet. I’m working on an English translation and interpretation of Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher’s 14th century handbook on Jewish table ethics and etiquette , in an ongoing effort to reconstruct him as a sort of Jewish Brillat-Savarin. So as my family will attest, I’m a little too obsessed with food, both in theory and in practice.
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“I know it’s your day, but it’s not all about you…Why have a wedding if you’re going to be like that [serve only vegetarian options]? Just print a bumper sticker.”
Did this article that concluded with this choice comment in today’s NY Times Sunday Styles section annoy others as much as it annoyed me? Of course weddings should reflect one’s values, so if you’re kosher, or vegan, or vegetarian, why wouldn’t you serve kosher, vegan, or vegetarian food? As the vegan Kathleen Mink quoted in the article said, it was a “no brainer” to have a vegan menu at her and her husband’s wedding. But another vegan pastry chef served meat at her wedding because she was afraid celebrity chefs like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud would think she and her husband “were crazy” if they didn’t serve meat.
If you didn’t catch Jonathan Safran Foer’s wonderful piece “Against Meat” in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine Food Issue, it’s well worth reading. He writes how his Holocaust survivor grandmother’s “obsession with food” formed his own vegetarianism, and how his Jewish values and experiences informed his and his wife’s decision to raise their children vegetarian. But Safran Foer also points out his way to vegetarianism was not a straight path. He very nicely captures the ambivalence of those of us who lean towards vegetarianism, but still eat meat, as well as what appears to be a kind of ethical inconsistency in our enjoyment of the taste of meat. As he bluntly puts it,
When Job reflected upon the wisdom of God’s creation “Truly the ear tests words as the palate tastes food” (12:11), could he have been alluding to the remarkable evolutionary development of the bones in our middle ear? According to Natalie Angier in her article in the Science Times section of the New York Times today,
“Imagine what a dinner conversation would be like if you had decent table manners, but the ears of a lizard. Not only would you have to stop eating whenever you wanted to speak, but, because parts of your ears are now attached to your jaw, you’d have to stop eating whenever you wanted to hear anybody else….Sometimes its the little things in life that make all the difference – in this case, the three littlest bones in the human body. Tucked in our auditory canal, just on the inner side of the eardrum, are the musically named malleus, incus, and stapes, each minibone, each ossicle, about the size of a small freshwater pearl and jointly the basis of one of evolution’s greatest inventions, the mammalian middle ear. The middle ear gives us our sound bite, our capacity to masticate without being forced to turn a momentary deaf ear to the world, as most vertebrates are. Who can say whether we humans would have become so voraciously verbal if not for the practice our ancestors had of jawboning around the wildebeest spit.”
Dan Barber’s recent editorial ”You Say Tomato, I say Agricultural Disaster” in last Sunday’s the New York Times reminds us that even when we try to opt out of the agribusiness system, we’re still part of the eco-system. In our efforts in the Northeast to grow our own tomatoes, it looks like we home gardeners may have inadvertently contributed to the tomato blight plaguing our local CSA’s and other small farms. I had really been looking forward to the tomato harvest, but instead I’m reminded sharply how sharing the harvest especially this year is sharing the risk. How are others dealing with the tomato blight crisis?
Is it bad that home cooking is on the decline? Should we accept the advice of Harry Balzer, the food-marketing analyst Michael Pollan quotes in his disturbing piece in yesterday’s NY Times Magazine: “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.” Personally, like Pollan, I don’t like that we are moving from a nation that prefers to watch cooking on television as a spectator sport than to do it ourselves. But why do I have such a visceral reaction to being reduced to a cultural dinosaur? Maybe it’s partly because living a Jewish life in the 21st century is as much a creative and meaningful “anachronism” as cooking meals at home.
I love the quote from Avot de Rabbi Natan 31:1 included in Hazon’s Food For Thought curriculum book (thanks Nigel and Anna):
R. Achia ben Yeshaya said: One who purchases grain in the marketplace – to what may such a person be likened? To an infant whose mother died, and they pass him from door to door among wetnurses and [still] the baby is not satisfied. One who buys bread in the marketplace – To what may such a person be likened? It is as if he is dead and buried. But one who eats from his own (what he has grown himself) is like an infant raised at his mother breasts.
This Shavuot I baked, with the assistance of my son Max, a siete cieli (“Seven Heavens”) challah. It’s become a regular tradition in our family, along with cutting roizelekh (“roses”) from origami paper, to bake this Mt. Sinai-shaped round challah adorned with various symbols of Torah and revelation – the 2 tablets of the covenant, a ladder, a fish, a bird, and a hamsa.
Max made the fish that you can see in the picture. There’s an excellent, illustrated description of how to construct the “seven heavens” challah in the cookbook by Rabbi Robert Sternberg, The Sephardic Kitchen, though I don’t use his recipe for challah. Rather, I use my favorite whole wheat challah recipe from Marcy Goldman’s Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. By the way, this is a fantastic cookbook. I have yet to bake a recipe from it that I haven’t liked. The whole wheat challah recipe follows below the break. I have also adapted this Shavuot hallah to celebrate the end of the term with my Wheaton College First Year Seminar “Rituals of Dinner” students, adding other, more contemporary dough symbols, i.e., a mortarboard hat and diploma.
Following the lead of such projects as Yale Sustainable Food Project and inspired in no small measure by the popularity of such books as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, sustainable food has become an increasingly hot topic at college campuses around the country. Over this past summer and semester I have been involved in a collaborative project with two biology professors, Betsey Dyer and Deborah Cato, and over 30 First Year Seminar students to educate ourselves and the broader Wheaton College community about food and sustainability.
We concluded our semester earlier this month with a sustainable banquet using food which we ourselves harvested, got from local farmers’ markets, supplemented with Wise kosher organic chickens, and cooked – inspired by the “perfect meal” at the end of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was the required summer reading for all first year Wheaton students. The students from my seminar, “The Rituals of Dinner,” having studied dinner rituals ranging from Plato’s Symposium to the Passover Seder, the meals in Genesis, Leviticus, and the Gospel of Luke to Babette’s Feast and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, designed the ceremony for our sustainable harvest banquet. For me personally, it was a way in which my Jewish foodie and environmentalist commitments moved me into increasingly broader circles of connection with other people and with nature. The whole project was an intensely Jewish experience for me, even though I was doing it primarily in a non-Jewish context. The project itself was featured in the Winter 2008 edition of our alumnae/i magazine, the Wheaton Quarterly and you can read the full text of the article after the jump here:
The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery ended this past Sunday and I’ll share some highlights that I think will particularly interest our readers.
- “Ecotarian/Ecotarianism” – What do we call ourselves? “Ecotarian” was proposed as a catchall term for most perspectives basically against industrial food, but which vary in emphasis: locavore, vegetarian, sustainable, organic, committed to humane conditions and slaughter of animals for meat – i.e., that diverse group that is us. But is it precise and universally understood enough let’s say to become a meal option on a plane flight, asked Jessica Lee, who proposed the term?
- “Conscientious Production” – another pair of speakers attempted to categorize eco-friendly values as “conscientious production” (in contrast to conspicuous consumption).
One of the big international foodie events, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, starts tomorrow, 9/8. The topic this year is Food and Morality
- Food and quality – should food be good?
- Food and safety and the environment – should food be clean?
- Food and justice – should food be fair?
- Food and human nature – is it right to take pleasure in food?
There have been some very interesting issues raised about kashrut in recent months on The Jew & The Carrot, particularly regarding the compatibility of traditional kashrut with the ethical, ecological, gastronomical, and cultural sensibilities of many of our readers and and contributors. And of course, there are the reports about the the blatant abuses of some of the kosher meat processors. However, while the kosher dietary rules (which I personally observe) are an important source and means of expression for Jewish values about food, they are not the only ones. There are also many rituals connected with the table and the seasons that have also shaped how we think about and eat our food.
Reading books at the dinner table is something most of us Jews take for granted, based on our experiences of the haggadot scripting our Passover seders, Tu bishvat haggadot for Tu Bishvat seders, benchers for birkat ha-mazon and zemirot after Shabbat and holiday meals.