Food Conference Reflections

Thanks to Debs Gardner for this great guest post.  Debs maintains the food blog, Seattle Local Food.

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It was Friday morning at the Hazon conference, and we were already deep in weighty conversations about social justice and corporate food production. We’d watched The Garden, a documentary about Latin American immigrant farmers protesting destruction of a gorgeous 14-acre garden they’d built in industrial South Central Los Angeles. I’d participated in a media panel, discussing misleading marketing, the role of blogging in media, and the challenges writers face. Like needing a salad after too much kugel, it was time for something at least a little lighter. So, I went to hear one of my favorite experts on Jewish food tell stories and make nosh.

Joan Nathan was on stage, multitasking. Busily adjusting the top of a food processor, she was demonstrating how to prepare two different dishes, while overseeing an assistant chopping vegetables and simultaneously talking into a microphone, held by another assistant, about the history of Jewish foods in France.

She hopped fluently from story to story. The history of challah and brioche. Finding a delicious kugel recipe involving pears and goose fat. French Jewish food writers hiding Jewish identities. The arrival of New World ingredients in France. An anecdote about a bar mitzvah. “My daughter’s says I’m not organized,” she confessed. “I’m all over the place. She’s going to be mad at me.”

But it was an all over the place we followed fluently, perhaps because it was so very articulately, charmingly Jewish. Several of us agreed: she reminded us of our mothers, our grandmothers, our friends. Her storytelling shifts made sense; like in a braided challah, the narrative threads connected back together at the end. Her history of Jewish cooking in France – the Jewish origins of foie gras and brioche, the cultural shift to North African Jewish foods like the harissa she’s teaching us to make – showed her incredible scholarship on these subjects, but her speaking style felt so familiarly engaging I’d have been contented to hear her talk about the history of toast.

I’ve enjoyed being at a conference where our ways of interacting and talking are so very Jewish. We reason, we debate, we explore subtle nuance, we make jokes. And it’s not surprising; we’re over 600 Jews passionate about sustainable food, packed into a retreat center on and about December 25th with bellies full of Chinese food from our Erev Christmas meal. Not that we all agree about everything; we are Jews after all. There are passionate vegetarians and fierce advocates for eating pasture-raised, sustainable meat. There are Orthodox and irreligious Jews, East Coasters and West Coasters, infants and senior citizens. We’re a tsimmis of Jewish foodies, and we’re having a thought-provoking blast.

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It’s delightfully overwhelming. I can’t remember the last time I was around this many Jews at once, let alone Jews involved in the sustainable food movement. We are educators, students, rabbis, city dwellers, farmers, writers, parents, cooks, gardeners, staff of Jewish organizations, and people conscious about how we eat. And, like Joan Nathan, we are – in our many ways – so very Jewish.

It shows up in the humor, too. It’s not just a Jewish sense of humor, but a Jewish belief that humor can and should be mixed in with serious subjects. In Joan Nathan’s demonstration, someone asked for advice on how to grill eggplant in an apartment with only an electric stove. Joan confessed something like, “I’m going to sound like I’m name dropping, but I have an electric grill Wolfgang Puck gave me.” The audience member called back, “I’ll ask him for one!” We all cracked up.

Joan was making a vegetarian eggplant caviar from France, and talking about how traditional French Jewish foods are getting lost in the changing demographics of France, as North African Jews immigrate and bring with them delicious dishes and spices. How this shift and the loss of older Jewish French foods is abetted by a history of Jewish assimilation and closeted identity, the same force that has kept throngs of Jewish food writers from identifying openly as Jewish. Back in the conference social hall, I pull out my laptop and Google a few French terms: recette Juive (Jewish recipe) and nourriture Juive (Jewish food) and the results jibe with what Joan said; the top hits are nearly all North African.

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Later, Rabbi Steve Greenberg points out that Jews are not so much one ethnic population tied only to the land of Israel, but more a multi-cultural, multi-racial family tied to different soil around the globe. This, he points out, is highlighted by the fact that we have so many different definitions of Jewish food.

And really, that’s the point; we’re meant to be living where we are, focused on the land where we live, eating and enjoying what’s local. We’re meant to eat with intention, to remember the stories behind our food and build new ones. When she spoke of food history and recipes, Joan Nathan emphasized, “It’s the stories that bind us to who we are, and it’s really sadly missing in America.”

Jewish culture stresses the importance of remembering stories, so that we don’t forget who we are, what we eat or why. This tradition of storytelling is valuable to the Jewish food movement. Storytelling helps us remember who grew our food, how a recipe changed, or what food traditions we’ve lost and might like to regain.

Our families and food traditions and cultures and choices may change, as we learn more about nutrition and sustainability, move from place to place, or try new foods. Within the Jewish community and even within the Jewish food movement, we’ll continue to debate things like how to balance kashruth and sustainability and what sustainability really means.

I’m just glad we’re having these conversations. I’m also glad we’re doing practical work. From farms to educational programs, from books and essays and blogs to CSAs in synagogues and in communities dealing with hunger, there’s a diverse amount of work going on, of which we should be proud. To the tsimmis that is the Jewish food movement: l’chaim.

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5 Responses to “Food Conference Reflections”

  1. Richard Schwartz Says:

    Kudos on your informative report and the wonderful work that Hazon continues to do in getting food issues onto the Jewish agenda, However, there is one issue that I hope Hazon will address more.

    At a time when the world is rapidly approaching an unprecedented climate catastrophe, I think we can best respond by increasing awareness of the inconvenient truth that even Al Gore has been generally ignoring: the major impact that animal-based agriculture has on global warming, A UN FAO 2006 report indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than all the cars, planes and other means of transportation worldwide combined. And a recent cover article by two environmentalists in World Watch magazine argues that the livestock’ sector is responsible at least 51% of the human-caused greenhouse gases. Hence to avoid the impending climate disaster and shift our imperiled world to a sustainable path, a major societal shift to plant-based diets is essential.
    Such a shift would reduce the many other negative effects of animal-based diets: disease, increased hunger, water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, rapid species extinction, desertification and many others.

    As to global climate change naysayers, we should ask them to please explain why the glaciers and polar ice caps are melting faster than climate scientists’ worst scenarios, why so many areas are experiencing such severe droughts, why there are more and larger wild fires, why this decade is the warmest on record and much more.

    In summary, by promoting plant-based diets we can do the most to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

    For further information, please visit JewishVeg.com/Schwartz, where I have over 140 articles and 25 podcasts of my talks and interviews and ASacredDuty.com, to see our acclaimed documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.”

  2. Michael A. Bedar Says:

    My thoughts are evolving as I give my dispatch on how I experienced the Food Conference. I now have an intimacy and trust with the Hazon community, and I thank you for hearing me be authentic and speaking to what I sense. This is a similar post to what I placed under another section of jcarrot, slightly edited.

    What I see is, people are hungry. I see it in their eyes and feel it in my heart. We are hungry at the permaculture session, hungry at the shechting, hungry at the sustainable ranching session, hungry at the GMO session, hungry at the raw vegan session, hungry at the Torah text study, hungry at EVERY session–and we are really hungry for neither meat nor milk nor millet nor maca. We are all Jewish foodies hungry for G-d.

    There is so much energy in “Vision,” in “Hazon,” and I choose to dwell in the thoughts that will help this powerful energy go towards aligned divine service, united.

    We know that we get to feel connected to G-d through God’s givingness, and living a lifestyle of Torah themes such as sheirut (service), l’hitpalel (prayer and meditation), holy sheket (silence), devotion…and dietarily there is a part of it.

    I know, for me, and for the people of all ages who overflowed Toyon Hall for our live (raw) plant-based eating session, live food plant-based nutrition can be a supportive foundation towards stoking that divine fire within us, and finding satisfaction within that divine yearning. Once we are eating closest to sunlight, chlorophyll as a basis of nutrition, and doing it in a balanced way for our physiological constitution, many people have little care nor taste for the stepped-down, converted, re-metabolized calories that come from animals. Our vessel is emptied of what feels as sludge. I feel the difference, and thousands of people surveyed who have been eating live-vegan for years attest, they feel the difference and don’t want the stepped down flesh energy getting in the way. I have an intensely present, abundant, not-”bambi-ized” relationship with animals while they are alive. Two wild animals came to the window of a room I was in on Shabbat morning – did you notice the two buck deer in a modest territorial duel? That connection to living beings while they are alive helps us turn our spiritual energy towards filling the world with more blessing and helping the Earth turn green again. Jews so much respect this lifetime we are given, not a path for the lost in the afterlife; yet I’ve been intrigued by our feeling of a spiritual connection coming with animals after their lives.

    Live-food, plant based nutrition is jet fuel, and flying jet engines takes jet fuel flying training. That is why there is a forest of things to learn for life as raw vegans. It is funny, I see as many raw vegans gain bulk as I see become thinner, at first. They there is a return to generally optimal weight. After an initial weight loss, I stayed stepping forward and I now have the same weight I had when I was a daily meat-eating iron-pumping university varsity athlete.

    What really matters is opening to connecting with what we are very hungry for, and that is the Divine. As far as the spiritual experience during a shechting, and the spiritual experience of living closest to the sunlight for nourishment, only each of us can know what really happens spiritually within us. Yet, I can address a narrow question: Is it possible for something else to masquerade as a holy spiritual experience? I do know there are stimulations and agitations that do come out of an animal, as well as out of the sun. So again, it’s personal: what creates the conditions that bring us closer to G-d? What fills the body-mind with light and inspires lightness of energy and pure focus on service? If there is “raising the sparks” in eating a kosher animal, how much more intimately and close we can access the Force of Shefa/Ruach/Shekhinah in being filled with the light and purity of an organic, live-food, high-water, bloodless, high mineral, plant-sourced only diet. I feel some people were touched to explore the Jewish chlorophyll-for-sustenance-energy approach.

    Let’s just be honest with ourselves, all of us, all around. For us an any diet, if some manner of agitation in life is mistaken for a spiritual passion for the dietary lifestyle we are choosing, then simply don’t let anything, including the arguments in books, your livelihood or income, your past, other people, or anything, get in the way of going for what our soul really yearns for: G-d and to live on the mountain of G-d in G-d’s presence.

    That’s what’s coming through. Thank you all for everything that made this Hazon conference a blessing.

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