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

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

 

Bryn Mawr Vgë Café Gets Kosher Certification

By Hannah Lee

Photo by Judith Lynn Huczko.

I first wrote about the vegan Vgë Café in Bryn Mawr when it just opened last spring. On a visit some time later, the Brazilian proprietor, Fernando Peralta, expressed to me his interest in obtaining kosher certification because his customers were asking for it. I advised him to speak with the owners of other vegetarian establishments. Lo and behold, I was delighted to hear right before Pesach that he is indeed now certified kosher.

The kosher supervisors are Rabbis Eli Hirsch and Zev Schwarcz from the International Kosher Council, the same agency that certifies other local establishments such as Singapore Vegetarian Restaurant, Blackbird Pizzeria, and Sweet Freedom Bakery. The IKC is based in New York (it supervises the popular Blossom restaurants) and they’ve recently expanded to Mexico, Portugal, and Ukraine. It was Rachel Klein of Miss Rachel’s Pantry who led Peralta to IKC.

“We are a vegan restaurant and already had proper procedures in place for cleaning vegetables, so the process was quite simple,” said Peralta. He only had to change the balsamic vinegar that he was using. The inspection covered all the ingredients and products used in his establishment. His café will be inspected on a biweekly basis, with no advance notice. Being non-Jewish, Peralta was not asked to close on Shabbat.

Vgë Café, located at 845B West Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, is open Mondays through Saturdays from 11:30 AM to 8:30 PM and Sundays, from 11:30 AM to 3:30 PM. Catering is available. Phone: (610) 527-3091.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3165/bryn-mawr-vg%C3%AB-caf%C3%A9-gets-kosher-certification

Michael Solomonov and a Sustainable Lag B’Omer on the “Beach”

Medford, New Jersey is the home of the largest Jewish day camp in North America (according to the Wikipedia) and that was the venue for Hazon‘s “Beach, Beer and BBQ” celebration of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Sunday, May 22nd.  Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day — lag being the gematria for (numeric equivalent) of 33 — of the counting of the barley offerings (the quantity being an omer, about two quarts)  in the ancient Temple, commencing with the second day of Pesach (Passover) and culminating with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.  Traditionally, it is celebrated in Israel with bonfires.  As observed by the Chassidim, the bonfires commemorate “the immense light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced into the world via his mystical teachings. This was especially true on the day of his passing, Lag B’Omer, when he revealed to his disciples secrets of the Torah whose profundity and intensity the world had yet to experience. The Zohar relates that the house was filled with fire and intense light, to the point that the assembled could not approach or even look at Rabbi Shimon.”  For everyone else, it is a joy simply to be outdoors.  For Hazon, it was an opportunity to link a ancient holiday to a celebration of the trendy– and important!-goals of a sustainable future.

I was eager to attend because Michael Solomonov, the chef and owner of the Philly restaurant Zahav was scheduled to serve as chef for the event.  Earlier this month, he’d won the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic region (and one of three Jewish chefs to be so honored this year).  Last Wednesday, the Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan invited Michael to his Live Chat feature.  LaBan chatted with Michael Solomonov  and I got to post my comments to him: “I’m looking forward to the Hazon event that you’ll be “cheffing” for this Sunday.  One reason is that your restaurant, Zahav, is not kosher!  I want to be able to eat your food too!  Was your nuclear family (parents, siblings) ever kosher?”  Michael wrote back: “I grew up in a kosher-esque household so we didn’t eat pork or shellfish in the house.  We did, however, turn into bacon zombies the moment we stepped OUT of the house.  Seriously, if “kashruting” our restaurant wasn’t such a “balagan” in the States, we might have considered it more.  But my mission is to expose and celebrate Israeli food, in its entirety, and we would seriously limit our reach if we were kosher.  We don’t serve shellfish or pork or mix dairy and meat on any plate, so we call it “kosher style”.”  My 22-year-old daughter who is usually critical of “kosher-style” catering later commended Michael for his response.  Upon meeting the Chef that evening and identifying myself, he said that I was much nicer than some of the other posters who did not pass censure or decency for their comments.  So, I was all agog to go and I’d signed up my husband as driver and our teen daughter.

The JCC Camp in Medford has plenty of sand for the “Beach” as advertised.  It occupies 120 acres in Burlington County in southern New Jersey and it boasts of a lake too.  A small fair of vendors offering organic and sustainably sourced products kept us engaged until supper time.  I greeted Toni Price, whom I’d seen earlier in the day at Headhouse Square, the largest farmers’ market in Philadelphia.  Toni is a retired English teacher whose husband, Steve, is the chief beekeeper for their Busy Bee Farm located in the nearby Pine Barrens in Tabernacle, N.J.  Last year, their farm was awarded a Pollinator Habitat Grant from the New Jersey National Resource Conservation Service and the USDA.  As a Master Gardener of Burlington County, Toni handles the care and use of the farm’s lavender and other herbs, as well as her flock of free-range pet chickens. She invited my family to visit on lavender harvesting days.

Negev Nectars was also on hand to offer taste tests of their gourmet products from small-scale Israeli farmers.   Their olive oil comes from trees nourished from an underground aquifer of brackish (salty) water- sparing the scarce “sweet” water from Lake Kinneret for human consumption.  I bought several jars of their kosher confitures, spreads, and honey for use as hostess gifts, in particular the items from Kibbutz Neot Smadar, since my husband’s sister is named Smadar.

Jack Treatman, Coffee Buyer and Vice President of Old City Coffee was on hand to explain how their coffee was harvested and culled by hand, with colorful photographs to illustrate his point.  The coffee beans, really the seeds of the plants’ “cherries”, are then raked into fields that resemble sand for drying.  The kosher certification comes at the point of roasting and Jack says that the only reason Old City Coffee is not certified is that its store in the Reading Terminal Market is open on Saturdays.

So, the BBQ dinner!  Michael’s food was a celebration of the flavors of Israel, executed with a modern flair and a gourmet spin.  I loved everything, especially the roasted cauliflower (even my non-crucifer-loving hubby enjoyed it!) and the grilled eggplant.  I cannot report on the meat– chicken shislik and chicken cooked al ha’esh from Grow and Behold Foods — which I didn’t eat because I’m a vegan-wannabe.   Dessert was s’mores made with marshmallows toasted on sticks over a real honest-to-goodness bonfire and chocolate from Holy Cacao,  which is made in small batches by observant Jews on the hills of Hebron “at the edge of the Judean Desert” in Israel.  Electric Simcha’s http://www.facebook.com/Electr… Hasidic rock music and Israeli dancing added to the ruach (lively atmosphere).  I was so inspired by the whole celebration that I volunteered to work on the next Hazon event in Philly, especially if it involved Michael Solomonov.  And I’m happily married!