Learning the Science of Food

By Hannah Lee

When I was enrolled in chemistry in college, it was a humbling experience to realize that I do not have the spatial intelligence to imagine organic molecules in three dimensions. However, I am an avid cook, so I was intrigued to register for Coursera’s free online course on the science of gastronomy.

The months of waiting until the start date was announced led me to wonder if the company was waiting for a threshold number of registrants, but by the time it was launched this summer, it was very well subscribed. By Assignment 9, the course had 5,438 students from all over the world, including Germany, Mexico and the Philippines.

This course was taught by two professors from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, so the deadlines for the weekly assignments were in Hong Kong time, 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time zone. Each week offered about two hours of video lectures, divided into smaller units of 15 minutes or less. The assignments were usually graded immediately on-screen. To pass and qualify for an “e-Statement of Accomplishment,” the student must score at least 70%.

There was a discussion forum for the students’ use. For the assignment on gluten development in dough, students shared ideas on what to do with the remains of the experiment: Their ideas included turning the non-yeasted mass into pizza, short-crust pie, and Christmas tree ornaments. I did not attempt to join a “Meetup” group, but I learned that 185 self-identified Philadelphians were taking a Coursera class.

The topics covered included: energy transfer, hunger and satiety, the sense of taste and smell, the sense of sight and touch, fruits and vegetables, a perfect steak, sauces, and dessert. I loved learning about the chemistry for what we cooks know from experience, and the two professors were thoroughly grounded in the scientific concepts. They also provided plenty of visual graphics, as well as student demonstrations from their campus.

I was particularly intrigued by the assignment on satiety, in which I was instructed (from among four different meal options) to eat nine small pieces of cracker followed by one piece of chocolate, separated in time by 3 minutes. I discovered that even after exercise (when I was ravenous), the slow eating allowed me to feel satisfied by about the fifth or sixth piece of cracker. Mindfulness eating allowed me to stop my intake earlier.

One assignment was on the importance of our sense of smell for our enjoyment of food: Much of what we consider taste actually comes through our nose, which explains why a stuffy nose impairs our sense of taste. Another fun experiment was on how sweetness suppresses sourness, as we compared solutions of vinegar and sugar in different concentrations.

The assignment on gluten development was one that I was eager to do, because each of the test ingredients — oil, vinegar, and salt — is part of my regular challah recipe. I demonstrated to myself that each of the three hinders gluten development, yielding a mass with shorter strands of protein than the control portion of flour and water. I suppose they are included in my challah recipe for flavor and texture.

When I registered for the course last January, I noted a list of recommended books. Being the kind of college student who would purchased the books for interesting courses that she did not have time for, I ordered every one of them. I later found that while none of them were essential, they were useful references. If you are a foodie, the following titles are fine additions to your culinary library:

Coursera is a pioneer in offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), and since its launch in April 2012, it has rapidly added academic partners, which now total 66 institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Exploratorium, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. New partners are the University of Chicago, Yale, and Tel Aviv University.

Last March, Coursera announced a milestone number of over 3 million students, enrolled in 325 courses. I have not yet identified my next online class, but I can tell you that two local professors will be featured on Coursera: Paul Offit of the University of Pennsylvania will be teaching a nine-week class on vaccines, and Jonathan Biss of the Curtis Institute will be teaching a five-week course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Both classes will start on September 3rd.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3456/learning-the-science-of-food

Book Chat: Kosher Nation

By Hannah Lee

Kashrut, the kosher dietary laws, is the original practice of mindful eating, set within a holistic framework”, said Sue Fishkoff at the symposium “How Kosher is Kosher?,” held on April 15th as part of the What Is Your Food Worth? series, hosted by Temple University and coordinated by its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.

Fishkoff is the author of the 2010 book Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority and editor of J., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. For about ten years before she began research for her book, she said that Americans had expressed an interest in where and how we get our food. What galvanized her to write the book was that Jews were beginning the same conversation from a Jewish perspective. “Every Jewish household has a kosher story, even if the family does not follow kashrut.”

In 2007, Fishkoff read a report stating that kosher food is the largest and fastest growing segment of the domestic food industry. “While there are at most a million kosher Jews,” she cited, “there are another 12-13 million Americans who buy kosher products. Who are they and why do they choose kosher items?”

In 1972, Hebrew National launched its historic campaign featuring the character of Uncle Sam biting into a hot dog with the slogan “We answer to a higher authority.” “This was at a time where Americans had a sense of fear of governmental authorities”, said Fishkoff, “coming after the civil rights protests, the publication of Rachel Carson’s environmental wake-up call, Silent Spring, and the Vietnam War. The ad portrayed kosher food as safer and healthier.”

In the book, Fishkoff cited that recent polls showed that 62% of Americans believe kosher food is better, 51% believe kosher food is healthier and 34% believe kosher food is safer. “In this country with the world’s highest numbers of believers in God and the most trust in religious authorities,” she said, “this translates into a $200 billion a year kosher certified food industry.

Who buys kosher? People who are lactose-intolerant (75% of African-Americans are deficient in lactase, as well as 90% of Asians) have learned to look for the pareve label, signifying the food’s dairy-free status. Fundamental Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists who follow Old Testament prohibitions on “unclean animals” buy kosher meat. Many Muslims were given dispensation to buy kosher meat when their own halal meat was not readily available. Finally, non-kosher Jews buy kosher food for the holidays, so that the Jewish food companies earn 40-50% their annual revenue from their Passover inventory.

The rise of kosher certification is tied with the advancement of technology. In 1925, less than 5% of the food in a typical American Jewish kitchen was processed. As food technology expanded and the use of additives and preservatives increased, the Orthodox Union stepped in to regulate the food manufacturing process. In 1923, Heinz became the first company to put a kosher label on a food item — its vegetarian baked beans. To avoid scaring off its gentile customers, said Fishkoff, it used a symbol, the U inside a circle, that was easily recognizable by Jews. In the United States today, a kosher label is a sign of quality. That is not true in most of the world, including Great Britain, where lists of kosher products are prepared by their rabbinic authorities, and kosher-keeping visitors are advised to obtain those lists before shopping for groceries.

There are over 1,000 kosher symbols recognized in the United States today, with the “big four” — OU, OK, Star-K, and Kof-K — controlling 85% of the market. Supermarkets often stock only the big four, or even the “big one”, OU. The reach of the big four is global, with half of the food products exported from China being certified kosher.

Along with the profits comes abuse, sometimes benignly — as when Fuji placed a kosher symbol on its packages of film (without approval) because it was thought to promote sales. The biggest price differentiation is in kosher meat, so that’s where most scandals have occurred. “In 1914, Barnett Baff, who ran a wholesale poultry business in New York City, was said to be murdered by a cabal of 100 butchers who’d paid for his death,” reported Fishkoff.

In the 1920s, half of all poultry in New York City was sold as “kosher,” but it was estimated that about 60% of it was actually not kosher. In 1961, Rabbi Morris Katz published a scathing exposé of the kosher sausage houses in the Midwest, where he claimed that up to 80% of all “kosher” meat was treife (not kosher). This incurred the ire of the local rabbinical councils for making trouble and making a public scandal.

“Selective kashrus” was a term first used in the early 20th century, mostly by Reform Jews, to delineate the red line so they would eat what Gentiles ate while refraining from other forbidden foods such as pork. In Boston, this meant allowing lobster; on Long Island, it was oysters; in New Orleans, it was crayfish. In California, “kosher style” is now known as “New York,” as in New York delis.

As Jews became more assured of their status in America, they became more comfortable keeping kosher in public. Previously, it was rare for kosher food to be offered, even at large gatherings such as Jewish Federation’s General Assembly. The turning point was the Six-Day War that Israel waged in 1967, after which Jews began expressing pride of their religion. Nowadays, for many liberal Jews, eating kosher has become a symbol of “membership in the tribe” rather than an indicator of a fully observant lifestyle.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3202/book-chat-kosher-nation

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Food Justice

By Hannah Lee

“The first incidence of food justice occurred in the Garden of Eden,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, “when Adam and Eve chose to defy divine prohibition and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This moral consciousness formed the basis of Jewish ethical system and it was a matter of food choice.” Yanklowitz spoke on April 15 at a symposium titled “How Kosher is Kosher?,” as part of the “What Is Your Food Worth” series, hosted at Temple University and coordinated by its Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.

Rav Shmuly, as he’s known, burst onto the Jewish communal arena five years ago, after the scandal of Postville, Iowa, where federal agents conducted the largest immigration raid in United States’ history at the Agri-Processors kosher slaughterhouse. The agents rounded up illegal migrant workers who had been abused, threatened, and paid below-minimum wages. At the time, Agri-Processors slaughtered 60 percent of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher chicken. Rabbinical students at the time, Shmuly and Ari Hart, had founded Uri L’Tzedek the year before, which then launched an international boycott, signed up 2,000 rabbis and community leaders, and demanded transparency in worker standards.

Uri L’Tzedek’s major contribution to Jewish social justice has been Tav HaYosher, an ethical seal certifying fair and just labor condition. Relying solely on volunteers in order to assure compliance, 100 food establishments now display the certification, and thereby declare that they provide their workers with a minimum wage at least, overtime payment and time off. Rav Shmuly said that one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world is Shabbat, incorporating the concepts of worker justice and animal welfare (giving both human workers and animals a day of rest), but a gap remains.

While the British philosopher David Hume famously declared that we care more about the stubbing of our toe than someone dying around the world, Rabbi Shmuly claims that today we are more aware than ever of the suffering in the world and it is time to expand our understanding of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, to include social justice and animal welfare.

Kashrut, said Rabbi Shmuly, is a powerful vehicle for social change, because we control the kosher industry with our purchasing power. Unlike the Conservative Hechser Tzedek (renamed Magen Tzedek), Tav HaYosher does not work directly with the kosher supervising agencies, for several reasons: the mashgichim, kosher supervisors, might be biased, they are not trained to look for ethical practices, and they might not be sensitive to the issues.

However, Shmuly cites an incident involving Rav Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement of ethical conduct: when Rav Salanter was invited to inspect a matzah factory, he noticed that the female workers did not get a single break in the entire time of the inspection. He concluded that they were over-worked and he resolved to not sign the kosher certification. Tav HaYosher focuses on highlighting the employers who abide by ethical worker standards, bestowing its seal of approval without demanding payment from their establishments.

Creating a new social movement is an uphill struggle to convince people to think beyond their wallet and how much their food costs. Rav Shmuly spoke about Primo Levi, who wrote about the worst day of Auschwitz being after the Nazis had left and before the Allies rescuers arrived. There were no rules and no one knew what would happen. Then, the inmates found some potatoes and they shared with one another. In this way, they regained their humanity, by not simply following a foreign sense of order.

Rav Shmuly declares, “We can build a community that cares about the environment, the workers, and the animals.” His newer Shamayim V’Aretz Institute promotes animal welfare and Jewish veganism.

In 2008, The Jewish Week recognized Rav Shmuly as one of the 36 most influential Jewish leaders under the age of 36. In 2009, the United Jewish Communities named Rav Shmuly one of five “Jewish Community Heroes.” Having earned two master’s and a doctorate degree (in Moral Development and Epistemology from Columbia), Rav Shmuly is now Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel in Kansas and he is the author of the 2012 book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice.

Readers who wish to become Tav HaYosher compliance officers, contact Uri L’Tzedek.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3201/rabbi-shmuly-yanklowitz-and-food-justice

 

 

 

 

Food Chat: How Jewish Food Became Jewish

By Hannah Lee

What makes food Jewish? “The iconic comfort foods of American Jews connect us with our heritage, but most of the items are not innately Jewish”, says Ariella Werden-Greenfield, a PhD. candidate in religion at Temple University. She spoke last week at the Gershman Y as part of the series on What Is Your Food Worth? coordinated by Temple’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. Some exceptions are bulkie rolls and matzo balls, which derive from challah and matzah, both prominent in Jewish rituals.

Jews have adapted recipes to the kosher ingredients available to them in whatever land they’ve landed. Pastrami, from the Turkish word, pastirma, we know as spiced, dried beef, but it originated in Romania where pork or mutton were instead used. The Romanian recipe arrived with the Jewish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. In Israel, it’s made with chicken or turkey. Corned beef, a salt-cured beef, is actually Irish, but the Jewish butchers sold cuts of brisket to the Irish, so they also offered it to their brethren.

Fish was not sold together with meat products and it was not easily accessible to Jews in the Old Country. The advent of the canning industry expanded the dietary options for all Americans. Jews gravitated to herring, which was familiar and cheap; whitefish, a colonial novelty from the Great Lakes; and lox and nova, from the salmon which was previously unaffordable to Jews.

Most Jewish immigrants started life in America as peddlers. Historian Hasia Diner has written (in Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration) about how these Jews kept kosher during their rounds. Known as “orange eaters” or “egg eaters,” they ate these items, which were kosher because they had peels, while staying at the homes of their mostly non-Jewish clients. Other Jews, as they became successful, could afford new foods and they nurtured an interest in other people’s culinary worlds.

The Settlement Cookbook, first published in 1901, introduced American recipes to new immigrants. The major food companies took notice of the spending prowess of the Jews. In 1919, Crisco introduced its vegetable shortening and single-handedly revolutionized Jewish cooking, freeing it from a reliance on chicken fat, schmaltz. Maxwell House introduced its Passover Haggadah in 1934 and Heinz offered a kosher version of its baked beans in 1923. An audience member noted that the Heinz factories are cleaned and kashered on the weekends, so the kosher line is processed on Mondays, transitioning to the rest of the company’s products later in the week. In 1965, when Hebrew National launched its slogan, “We answer to a higher authority,” in reference to Jewish dietary laws, it was both a marketing strategy and a testament that the Jews have become established members of American society.

The infamous Trefa Banquet of July 1883 that served clams, shrimp, and frog’s legs to the first graduating class of rabbis from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati was a clarion call by the Reform movement that they were not beholden to traditional Jewish dietary laws. An audience member suggested that Reform Jews would not be so audacious these days.

The process of assimilation also led to the delicatessen, the “temple of Jewish culture,” according to Werden-Greenfield. In “The Deli Man,” a documentary project by Erik Greenberg Anjou, the filmmaker claims that whereas 1500 Jewish delis used to be in existence, there are now only about 150 of them. This is also the message of David Sax’s 2009 book, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Werden-Greenfield disagrees with their dire predictions and their low estimates.

The assimilated generations of Jews have become “bagel-and-lox” Jews or gastronomic Jews who eat the foods of their ancestors as their sole connection to their heritage. The nostalgia for the Old Country have shifted to a nostalgia for the old neighborhoods of immigrants, said Werden-Greenfield, citing the ubiquitous display of photographs and memorabilia from the early 20th century in delicatessens and restaurants. As further illustration of their place in our Jewish consciousness, she recited this poem:

“By the rivers of Brooklyn, There we sat down, yea we ate hot pastrami, as we remembered Zion” by J. W. Savinar, in a play on Psalm 137:1.

Kosher became “kosher-style” where kashrut is negotiable. “How do we make sense of a young Jewish man opening restaurants [in Brooklyn] named Treife [non-kosher] and Shiksa [non-Jewish woman]?”, asked Werden-Greenfield.  ”He’s still engaging with kosher laws. He’s being naughty while confirming his discomfort with his heritage.” Werden-Greenfield also asked: Which is more Jewish? Matzah that is not processed according to Jewish dietary laws, or kosher-for-Passover bread? “Jewish food,” she concluded, “is always changing, always evolving.”

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3182/food-chat-how-jewish-food-became-jewish