My favorite non-fiction book in 2007 was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, written with her biologist husband, Steven Hopp, and their two children about their experiment in growing all of their food on their own land in rural southwest Virginia. It also powered the growth of the locavore movement. I found the memoir fascinating in its intelligence, its honesty (mistakes were made!) and the family’s sense of humor. My favorite anecdote was when Kingsolver quipped to her friends that when you’re ranked as “number 74 (on a Doomsday author’s book about the dangers of 100 people who were destroying America), you try harder,” as she endeavored to eviscerate a turkey.
In Wednesday’s New York Times (its Dining section being the highlight of the week for me), readers learned what the family has been doing since their milestone year. They wanted to expand the lessons learned to their blue-collar, Appalachian community. First, they contemplated creating a year-round farmers’ market but the growing season is short. So, Hopp decided that a restaurant would be more viable, one in which the produce, meat and cheese would be sourced locally. As reported by Jane Black, “Coffee and tea would be allowed because they are dried, but they should be organic, fair trade or both.”
How has the Harvest Table, as Hopp’s restaurant is named, fared since it was launched in October 2007? It’s been difficult, and they have yet to make a profit. This isn’t a “progressive, urban enclave” such as exists in Brooklyn or Berkeley, so most of their neighbors have not even bothered to step in, thinking the meal would be too expensive. As for attempts to reaching beyond the choir (of like-minded folks), you first have to get them in the door. And the labels, “farm fresh,” “organic” and “local” do not muster the excitement they do in urban communities where entrepreneurs (food impresarios, I call them) charge up to $200 for a dinner served in the fields (as I heard reported on NPR last week). So, they keep the prices low (comparable to Applebee’s though the reporter noted that the portions are larger in the chain restaurants) and the profile humble, the opposite of the marketer’s urge to scale up in sophistication. Black gives an example: “What might be called “fennel pasta with pecans” in Brooklyn and served with a detailed description of the vegetable provenance, is “pasta primavera” here.
But Hopp’s quote that hit me personally was this: “We are always trying to figure out how to educate people more, but with the recognition that most people don’t want a lecture.” I’ve just returned from a visit with my daughter in Chicago, where I stayed in the lovely home of a young couple found through the Airbnb lodging-rentals website. My host was a New Zealander (with an American wife) and he’d never met a religious Jew before. He was curious about some tenets of the Jewish faith. So, do we give the short, flippant answer or do we attempt the more thoughtful and accurate explanation but risk losing our audience? My daughter has been through the cauldron of fire before when we transferred her from a religious high school to our local acclaimed public high school (the beloved alma mater of basketball star Koby Bryant) and it was during the social studies freshman unit on the Middle East and she was called upon to explain all of Jewish past, present, and future. Trying to educate and defend Israeli politics is a challenge far beyond most 14-year-olds. But, she did engage her peers and she’s matured into a thinking, articulate adult.
So, we found ourselves having a more engaged conversation about faith and ritual with our host than is encountered at the usual Shabbat table. What struck me anew is that every Jew must conduct herself as a diplomat, a model representative of her people (forgive my use of the distaff (feminine) possessive pronoun). The people you encounter may not have ever met another earnest, committed Jew before. You may have this one opportunity to give them not only a positive impression of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but you may also have the privilege and challenge to un-do and clarify erroneous impressions conveyed by others, who were less careful, less knowledgeable, less sophisticated. Would you pass your test? This may have been our test for The Three Weeks of introspection as we Jews head towards Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, which falls on August 8th this year.