Thursday, January 5, 2012

Polyculture vs. Monoculture

"Rabbi Meir used to say: He that studies Torah with a single teacher, to whom may he be likened? To one who had a single field, part of which he sowed with wheat and part with barley, and planted part with olives and part with oak trees. Now that man is full of good and blessing. But when one studies with two or three teachers he is like him who has many fields: one he sows with wheat and one he sows with barley, and plants one with olives and one with oak trees. Now this man's (attention) is divided among many pieces of land, without good or blessing."

Avos d'Rabbi Nasan Chapter 8

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Growing Food Versus Buying It

"R' Achai ben Yoshiya says: One who purchases grain from the market [to make his own flour], to what can he be compared? To a baby whose mother died and they pass him from door to door among wetnurses and he is not satisfied. One who buys bread from the market, to what can he be compared? It's as if [his grave] is dug and [he is] buried. One who eats from his own [which he grew] is like a baby who is raised at his mother's breasts.

"He used to say: At the time that a person eats from his own, his mind is settled/tranquil for him. Even one who eats from his father's and from his mother's and from his children's, his mind is not settled/tranquil, and you don't [even] need to mention if he eats from that of others."

From Avos de'Rabbi Nasan, brought to my attention "Food For Thought," the Hazon sourcebook.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bread - The Staff of Life?

There is a parodox in the Jewish tradition that has bothered me for quite some time. Bread is considered the perennial "staff of life" and yet bread today isn't particularly nourishing.

If we look at bread in Jewish tradition, we see that it plays a central role and is considered the nourishing food par excellence. Pirkei Avos teaches (3:17) that Torah cannot exist without flour, nor flour without Torah; also,(6:4) the way to acquire Torah is to "eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure," etc. Bread is the only food for which the Torah commands that we bless G-d in thanksgiving after eating it (Deuteronomy 8:10 "Ve'achalta ve'savata u'verachta" etc.), the other brochos having been instituted by Chazal. According to the opinion of R' Yehuda in Brachos (40a), wheat was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. His opinion is because he reasons that "a child doesn't know how to say 'father' and 'mother' until it has tasted of grains."

Also in chapter 5 of Tanya: "[Torah] is therefore called the 'bread' and 'food' of the soul. Just as physical bread nourishes the body when it is ingested and absorbed within it, and when it is transformed there into blood and flesh of one's own flesh, and only then will the body live and be sustained." We see from all these sources that bread is considered to be very bound up with knowledge and learning.

I am particularly fond of stories of Jews of Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, illustrating that many individuals were literally sustained by bread, day by day, week by week. For instance, this excerpt from The Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs (p. 119) describes a simple Jew who lives by bread alone: "Yet, although Shlomo grew up to be so ignorant, he nevertheless had an urge to be frum. . . As he only knew the brachot for bread and water, these were the only items of nourishment he would allow himself." In pesukei dezimrah every morning we read of bread as a metaphor for all food, as for example in psalm 147: "He makes grass grow on the mountains; He gives the cattle its food ("lachma," literally "its bread.")." These sources show how bread has truly been a unique source of nourishment.

In Judaism, a meal is not considered a meal without bread. As Tamar Adler phrases it in An Everlasting Meal, "'Breaking bread' means eating. 'Our daily bread' means food. It is also called the staff of life, which I like: bread there, all life leaning against it. Our lives don't lean against it anymore: we've decided that bread is bad for us." As, indeed, it is.

I'm not going to go into detail, but there is sufficient data to suggest that many of today's breads are actively bad for you in various ways. So is it a staff of life or a cause of disease?

As it turns out, there is no paradox. The bread of Jewish tradition and the bread we have today are radically different from each other (excluding non-yeasted breads).

This revelation started for me when I read Tartine Bread, which is master baker Chad Robertson's paean to bread. As he writes (p. 8), "My strongest inspiration came not from real bread but from images--images of a time and place when bread was the foundation of a meal and at the center of daily life. . . This was elemental bread that sustained generations. To find this bread, I would have to learn to make it. Thus began my search for a certain loaf with an old soul. . . The bread would be a joy to eat fresh and would keep well for a week."

As with almost all food today, industrialization of the bread industry has completely changed what bread is. Here are some of the differences:

The single most outstanding difference is yeast. Baker's yeast, also known as bread yeast, used almost universally today for making bread, became widely popular just in the last century. Before then, if you wanted an airy loaf it required a lengthy fermentation period with sourdough cultures.

However, as Robertson points out in Tartine Bread on the topic of French breads, by which we can generalize to all breads, that the introduction of baker's yeast was the beginning of the end of real bread: "As bakers added more yeast to their dough, they found they could inflate their dough quickly and omit the time-consuming bulk fermentation. This made their bakery production more efficient, but the quality of the bread was radically degraded. Bakers were aerating the dough instead of fermenting it, sacrificing flavor and altering the very nature of French bread--the soul of the bread had gone from it. Bread that was once revered around the world now gained the reputation for staling within hours. . . Although bread was still considered the staple of the French diet, historians note that bread consumption in France sharply declined after the 1940s." (p. 125) As French bakers succumbed to "progress" so did bakers around the world.

Stored as a whole grain, wheat and other grains can remain viable for a long time. But once ground into flour, the same material goes rancid very quickly. For whole wheat the time limit is months and for refined flour maybe a year. The taste and smell of rancid flour is noticeable, but probably only perceivable to those with attuned senses. We're probably all used to the flavor and smell of rancid flour by now since most of the flour products we eat are probably rancid. However, more than the flavor degrades, the nutritional quality of the flour changes.

Additionally, flours of antiquity were probably often made of what we today call sprouted grains, as Sally Fallon states in Nourishing Traditions (p. 112): "In the past we ate most of our grains in partially germinated form. Grain standing in sheaves and stacks in open fields often began to sprout before it was brought into storage. Modern farming techniques prevent grains from germinating before they reach our tables." The nutrient profile of sprouted or germinated grain and non-germinated grain is very different.

Classical bread was composed of three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. Today you find all kinds of fillers and conditioners in bread, from refined oils to who knows what. Obviously that makes a difference.

So it seems that a fellow like the Shlomo mentioned in the beginning of this post who lived in the 18th century, or the pious individual of Pirkei Avos, were eating what is today considered a delicacy, only available at a small handful of the finest bakeries around the world. That bread was nutrient-dense, flavorful, did not go stale for a week, and even after it had gone stale was an excellent and hearty addition to soups and sauces.

I have not found any commercially available kosher (pas yisroel) real bread, by which I mean bread living up to Tartine Bread's standards.

The closest I have found is Vital Vittles bakery in Berkeley, CA which is pas yisroel and sourdough fermented and organic whole wheat, but the flavor is noticeably sour, there is no crust, and it is rather crumbly and doesn't keep very well. The other closest option is Ezekiel Bread, which is pas yisroel and is made from sprouted grains but is not sourdough fermented and also doesn't keep very well outside of refrigeration.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Kosher Kimchi

I have noticed a recurring meme on the internet recently of people searching for kosher kimchi (or sometimes kosher kimchee or kosher kim chee), or asking the question, "Is kimchi kosher?" or "Where to buy kosher kimchi?"

Since numerous studies have been completed (see here and here) showing the many health benefits of kimchi, it will be important for the kosher-keeping public to be aware of the kosher issues regarding kimchi as they desire to have access to it. I want to address these issues in this post.

What is Kimchi?
Kimchi is a traditional Korean pickle made through the same process of lacto-fermentation which is used for sauerkraut, beet kvass, and other traditional cultured vegetable dishes.

The minimum legal definition of kimchi, according to the international organization Codex Alimentarius, is a salt-fermented cabbage product processed with red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, and onion (see the full legal definition here (opens as a PDF)). Many commercial variations exist.

Whether or not it is kosher depends on the particular recipe.

Some of the common ingredients you'll find in commercial kimchi are cabbage (Napa cabbage is most common), daikon radish, chili powder or hot peppers, garlic, ginger, and onions.

In some recipes, you will also find shrimp, squid, or other patently non-kosher ingredients, rendering the dish completely non-kosher. Other recipes include vinegar or "fish sauce" which are suspect without proper kosher supervision. Some companies use laboratory-produced strains of cultures to ferment their product, which is also suspect without kosher supervision. Other recipes include sugar (regarding which I wonder: why ruin such a healthy food with sugar?) or soy sauce.

If It's Vegan, is It Kosher?
These days, you will find many vegan versions of kimchi. There are two main issues with these vegan versions:

1) Whether the producers followed proper protocol for checking the vegetables for tolaim.
2) Whether kosher knives/cutting boards were used, and in particular for the "sharp" ingredients like ginger, garlic, radish, and onion.

Without supervision by someone well-versed in these kosher protocols, it is anyone's guess to what extent even a vegan kimchi is "kosher."

Are There Any Certified Kosher Kimchis?
That being said, there is at least one kosher kimchi on the market right now available from Brassica and Brine (it's called Kimchi Karma). It's available in Los Angeles and retails for $10 a jar, which is 20%-30% less than what you'll find in stores like Whole Foods for comparable organic, small-batch kimchis (which are not certified kosher) and it's delicious. The company is certified by KSA. If you live in the area and are hankering for some kosher kimchi, go check it out.

Make Your Own Kimchi
Another option is to make your own kimchi at home. For recipes and fermentation tips, I highly recommend the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz which you can either check out from your local library or purchase for long-term use (which you won't regret, if you love traditional fermented foods).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shehechianu on New Fruits

"On the second night [of Rosh Hashana] the new fruit should be eaten [immediately after Kiddush and] before the washing of hands for the meal." Kaploun, Uri (Ed.). (1994) Sefer HaMinhagim (English). Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, p. 118.

On Rosh Hashana this year I was surprised to hear the rabbi instructing people that, as a rule, we don't say shehechianu on adamah produce (which would exclude strawberries, watermelon, and cantaloupe, to name a few). This instruction troubled me so much that I took out the Shulchan Aruch HaRav and showed the rabbi the section on shehechianu in Seder Birchos haNehenin (11:12) where it says : "[H]e should bless 'shehechianu' first and afterwards 'borei pri ha etz' or 'borei pri ha adamah' etc"*. I showed the rabbi and asked him if he knew a source other than Shulchan Aruch that said you can't say shehechianu on adamah produce. He told me that he was mistaken and then announced that he had been mistaken.

A similar situation happened again just last week. A friend of mine questioned me when I made a shehechianu on Jerusalem artichokes, which are potato-like tubers in the sunflower family, whose harvest season just began (which I was very excited about!). He was doubtful whether you can say shehechianu on adamah produce.

Now, it seems to me that
the idea that "we don't say shehechianu on adamah produce" shows a vast disparity between one way of seeing the world, and the way Chazal expect us to see the world. It shows me how far we are removed from intimacy with our sources of food, and, in some ways, from intimacy with the Source of Life.

Why is it such a big deal?
Shehechianu on seasonal foods grown from the earth was instituted as an expression of the immense joy and gratitude a person feels after going six months, nine months, or maybe even eleven months without enjoying a certain food, and now it has grown back, and he's so excited that he must use shem u'malchus to thank G-d for it ("A person is obligated to bless [shehechianu] for every joy of the heart which comes at infrequent intervals to him from the good of this world." Luach Birchos Hanehenin, (11:1)). Why is there an assumption that I'm allowed to be joyous and thankful for a bland, imported dragon fruit on Rosh Hashana, but not on a sweet, flavorful Junebearer strawberry in June?

The idea of saying "Blessed are You... Who kept us alive, and sustained us, and caused us to arrive to this very time" is meant to be an outburst of excitement, of joy, of gratitude. It's the opposite of rote, of the status quo.

Chazal expected us to be so excited, they established the saying of shehechianu upon SEEING a new item of produce in its season ("One who sees a new item of produce that recurs from year to year, or even twice in a year, and he delights in seeing it, he blesses shehechianu even if he sees it in his friend's hand or on a tree; and if he doesn't delight in seeing it, then he doesn't bless until he eats it" (ibid 11:2)). The fact that we say it when tasting the fruit is only an extension of that principle, which is why the Alte Rebbe paskins that, if you are about to eat this new item, you say shehechianu before the bp"e or bp"a (Seder Birchos HaNehenin 11:12).

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine feeling so excited by the absence for nine months of tomatoes or watermelon (both adamah) that when you see the first ripe one, you burst out with gratefulness to G-d for bringing you to this moment in time?

Even more telling, is you can say shehechianu on different VARIETIES of the same species, even if they taste the same but look different. ("A type of produce that has many varieties, you bless shehechianu on each variety" ibid. 11:14) An example: If you already said shehechianu on granny smith apples but not winesaps, you may say it on the winesaps.

Foods associated with the changes of the year are so central to the Jewish understanding of time, that our seasons are named after the foods which are harvested during each season. Cases in point: Aviv, spring, literally means "ears of barley;" it is the time of the barley harvest.
Kayitz, summer, according to Rashi is the name of ripe figs gathered for drying during the summer months (Breishis 8:22). Choref, fall-winter, according to Rashi, is named for the barley and legumes which are planted during that time "hacharifin lehisbashel maher" ("which are quick to ripen in a short time") (ibid.).

Now, what I'm saying here is not innovative. Lehavdil, it's like Ruth Stout's crusade for mulch and the no-till method of gardening. She didn't invent mulching, but she showed how such a simple method could have such vast effects in a garden. She took a really prosaic idea and showed how it is a foundation of sustainable gardening.

So here, everything I'm saying is printed very clearly in Shulchan Aruch, it's not a secret or even a diyuk on my part. But living with the seasons and having the awareness that G-d designated different foods for different times of the year, and rejoicing with those seasons and rejoicing in the diversity of that produce, that is the way a Yid is supposed to see the world.

That is the foundation of sustainable Torah ("Im ein kemach, ein Torah. Im ein Torah, ein kemach (Pikei Avos 3:21)," and--notice how the kemach comes first--wheat is an adamah species mentioned explicitly as requiring shehechianu when it is new in season ("If the new season's produce is easily recognizable by its taste and also by its appearance, we bless shehechianu on it, for example ha'rifos (bulgur) which they make from new grains which are easily recognizable as new by sight and also by their taste that they are better ("she'hu le'shevach") (Luach Birchos HaNehenin 11:5).

Now, all that being said, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch does mention (59:17) that "We have the custom that we don't bless shehechianu on yerakos and types of turnips [presumably including other types of root crops] since they remain for a long time [in storage] through burying them in soil and sand, and they're also available, and also there's not so much joy associated with them." That could be the source for people mistakenly assuming that we don't make shehechianu on any adamah produce even though it is clear from the sources above that there is no innate distinction between etz produce and adamah produce with regard to shehechianu. Additionally, we have an explicit instruction from the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l who wrote that, "By us, it is our custom to bless shehechianu also on yerek." (Sefer Hasichos 5749 p. 754)

*All translations in this post are my own, adapted for readability.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Honey on Rosh Hashanah

*A version of this article also appears in the High Holidays issue of SoulWise Magazine.

On Rosh Hashanah we eat many symbolic foods. The most salient is honey—we eat honey cake, we dip challah in honey, and we dip apples in honey with the request, “May it be Your will to renew a good and sweet year for us.”

The custom of eating symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah comes from the Talmud: “Abaye said '[A]t the beginning of each year, you should accustom yourself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates...',” each of which symbolizes something good for the coming year.

But why honey? Why not cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or agave syrup? Firstly, because those sweeteners were unavailable or hadn't been invented yet when the custom came about. On a wellness level, honey has antioxidant and antibiotic properties which the others lack. As long as we're asking Hashem for health and wellness, we might as well do our part.

On a deeper level, the Talmud teaches that honey is 1/60th of the mann which sustained our ancestors in the midbar. This comparison is no accident—it is to remind us on Rosh Hashanah that, like the mann, all of our material “sweetness” comes from G-d.

Even more than it is a symbol, honey is truly a special gift from G-d that many take for granted.

Bees make honey by fermenting flower nectar. On average, bees collect nectar from 10 million flowers to produce a little over four cups of honey. To visit those millions of flowers takes 10,000 hours of combined flight, or over 37,000 miles of travel. And bees don't just make honey. They also make propolis, royal jelly, and beeswax. Just over two pounds of beeswax represents the energy from over 15 pounds of honey.

The elegant alchemy achieved through this chain of events is baffling, mirroring the mystical concept of seder hishtolshelus by which our reality exists.

Plants catch the sun's light (beaming from about 93 million miles away) and convert that energy into nectar. The bees collect that nectar on the brightest days of the year and carry it into the dark depths of their hives where part of it is converted into beeswax. That wax is then harvested by the beekeeper and made into candles, which are then used to illuminate the darkest of our nights (there is a minhag to use a beeswax candle to light the Chanukah menorah).

Despite their historical role, the bees are dying. In the last ten years, up to 80 percent of commercial beehives in affected areas have been lost to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Factors contributing to CCD include exposure to pesticides, mites, and pollution. Almost 90% of wild honeybees have been lost since 1990 due to urban sprawl and destruction of natural honeybee habitat.

Bees do not only provide honey. They also pollinate over two-thirds of our crops which need pollination, including apples, tomatoes, almonds, and cucumbers. If we don't change the destiny of the honeybee soon, we're going to lose more than just honey.

As we dip our apples into honey and pray for a sweet year, let’s be aware that each of us CAN make a difference to ensure that there will be honeybees (and honey, and fruits and vegetables) for future generations. Here are a few simple tips:

*Plant bee-friendly plants in your yard

*Don't use chemicals and pesticides around your home

*If a colony of bees moves onto your property, call a bee rescue hotline rather than an exterminator

*Buy local, raw honey

*Buy local, organic produce

*And you can even become an organic beekeeper yourself!

Monday, July 11, 2011

City Prosecutes Family for Growing Vegetables

Eshes chayil mi yimtza?

A frum family in Oak Park, MI is being persecuted by their city government for planting a vegetable garden in their front yard.

They have set up a blog at and a Facebook group titled Oak Park Hates Veggies.

The poem Eshes Chayil (from Mishlei) comes to mind because one of the themes of Eshes Chayil is that a woman is praised who knows how to appraise a field for agriculture and knows how to produce the finest food from it. In this case, the matriarch of the Oak Park family, Julie Bass, decided to put in a vegetable garden after her front yard was destroyed after some sewage work.

To take a step back for a moment, am I wrong in my understanding that every Shabbos, when we sing Eshes Chayil, we are not indeed praising women and encouraging them to embody these praises ("She considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard")? I know it is also a metaphor, but Torah never leaves the p'shat.

There is a common thread here and in Koheles 5:8 where Shlomo Hamelech judges just about every earthly pursuit to be vanity and futility, except, he writes, "The advantage of land is supreme; even a king is indebted to the soil," by which he means that agriculture is one of the highest pursuits since every person, even a king, cannot survive without food.

Even though one of the greatest kings and thinkers of world history (as well as, lehavdil, many, many other great thinkers) thought that agriculture is one of the highest pursuits, it has largely fallen out of favor among frum Jews (and many in Western society) in favor of more rarefied pursuits like lawyering and accounting, or any other job which involves as little physical labor as possible and as much income as possible, without regard to whether or not said pursuit benefits humanity. Not that lawyering is bad, but a Jewish mother should be just as proud to say that her son became an organic farmer as to say he became a lawyer. But I digress.

The Oak Park city officials have used lies and deception to try to win their case, while Ms. Bass has made every effort to be a good and honest citizen. The very fact that a city would persecute a family for growing food in their yard rather than resource-hogging, useless grass or ornamental shrubs is madness.

It is very heartening for me to see a frum family fighting to grow food in their front yard and I wish the Bass family hatzlacha rabba in fighting the city of Oak Park. I hope that they will be an inspiration to frum yidden all over the world and to people in suburbs across the United States.