Food, Food, Food

I’ve realized that food justice and eco-kashrut has made me kind of a foodie. I never thought the label applied to me – when I think “foodie,” I think “pays $30 for a jar of olives and then cooks for two hours” – but I’ve become addicted to the alchemy of cheesemaking, the creativity that comes out of figuring out what to do with the contents my CSA box. Each loaf of bread I bake comes out slightly better (although there’s nothing I can really be proud of yet). I love following the rhythms of growing seasons – although it’s pathetic that that’s some sort of novel concept – and throwing together a good, healthy meal. I grew up on KFC, Panda Express, and supermarket beef, but this week my husband and I made beet soup and okra with lemon, not because we searched out the recipes and then went shopping, but because beets and okra were what we had.

So when I saw that there’s a Jewish food conference happening in California next winter, I nearly jumped out of my seat. First off – a conference on the West Coast!? Isn’t there some law against that? You mean people in California actually exist? Secondly, this conference isn’t just about Jewish food and kashrut – it’s focused on issues like nutrition, food justice, and eco-kashrut. Right up my alley.

But there are a few problems. First off, judging from the description and last year’s schedule, it seems like more of a retreat than a conference. Lots of movie screenings and baking classes; not a huge number of workshops on how to get things done. I’d love to learn how to bake challah… but I’d rather spend that morning strategizing with other food activists on how to dismantle industrial agriculture, and then get their numbers and bake challah some other time. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be any way for participants to put together workshops or panels – the programming is completely controlled by the organization putting it on. Finally, the price tag for registration is – wait for it – $280, set to go up to $360 in August. Compare this to AMC’s $100, J Street’s $175.

So if good food is something that supposedly only upper-middle class Jews care about, then what does that say about how they perceive other Jews? If food comes out of the ground for free, and yet somehow it takes $360 a head to get together and talk about it, what does that say about their relationship to food? If they need the money because they’re going to spend four days holding cooking demonstrations and preparing meals – well, yum, but again, that’s not a conference.

Also, notice the date? The conference starts on Christmas eve. I can understand wanting to choose a date when most Jews are going to be free, but holding an event on the single most important holiday in the country in which we live ignores the reality of those of us in or from interfaith and multiethnic homes. If I went, I’d have to drive up to the Bay Area early Christmas morning to have dinner with my husband’s family, then drive back down to the conference that night.

There are a few scholarships available, so I’ll probably apply for one and then make a decision depending on what I get. Maybe I can meet some other scholarship people there (something tells me that I wouldn’t have much in common with the people who could afford the ticket on their own). But still – if this is how the progressive Jewish community approaches food issues, then the eco-kashrut movement does not exist.


14 Responses

  1. I’ve found this to be a major problem within food activism at large: a lot of people in local/sustainable/etc. movements don’t want to address that not only food is expensive, but more specifically the resources for pursuing a slow food lifestyle are expensive in both time and money.

    In college, I started out a very active member of my college’s slow food group, but I got frustrated because it felt like all we did was go to a chocolate convention and have cheese tastings (which, while it did give anyone in the school who showed up the chance to sample some amazing cheese, I think that its purported goal–to educate people on local artisan cheeses and American artisan cheeses–missed the mark both in audience and, well, in general. At best, a few of us could pass the news on to our parents, but I’d say the vast majority wouldn’t feel like spending money on this cheese.) Another group called “Food Truth” soon rose up, which focused more on food justice: talking to the farmers, learning about the farm bill, talking about the factors that make food expensive, talking about why many minorities feel excluded from the food movement, etc. I felt much more at home there. After graduating, I heard from my Food Truth friends that they tried to merge with Slow Food because the leader of Food Truth felt that our group essentially was working with a Slow Food message, and joining would create a complete food movement, but the Slow Food people were not interested in dealing with the activism side of things. Which, I guess, is fair enough, but it bugged me that there was this club associated with the food movement that generally did a bunch of stuff that most of the other students couldn’t pay for (Official Slow Food membership, food conventions, etc.).

    So, yes, I feel like so many of the food movements (though I don’t know much about eco-kashrut,) have decided to rely on the upper-middle class market that will eat up $30 cookbooks with recipes that most people have no time to make because it’s more profitable, and emotionally easier than address the tough questions. It makes me so sad. 😦

  2. There’s a lot here I agree with, but a few little words that made me pretty angry. Food only comes out of the ground for free if you think labor is worth nothing.

  3. Chingona, that’s very true. I was thinking “free” in a purely monetary sense (as in, food is something that isn’t inherently a product of capitalism) and I should have phrased it differently.

  4. I will add, though – and I’m sorry if this sounds defensive – that I’d prefer it if you didn’t accuse me of “think[ing] labor is worth nothing.”

  5. Hm. It sounds like a bit of a rip-off to me. I grew up on take out as well, and with several years of trial and error (I started getting into cooking in college) I can cook most anything. Challah really isn’t hard, fwiw. You just have to remember to start it Friday morning (ugh).

    Also, I agree–putting it on Christmas Eve is somewhat offensive and in denial of lived reality.

    It’s too bad they don’t have a conference on, say, developing sustainable kosher meat that we can all afford, or how to make CSA’s affordable to more people. We joined for the first time this year, and it’s not an insignificant expense…

  6. Julie,

    I apologize for not responding to your response. I was nearly completely off-line for a couple weeks because of moving. And writing something as aggressive as my previous comment and then disappearing was not very cool on my part. So I apologize.

    And I apologize for attributing thoughts to you. I do think you know better. But I often get from your writing a certain romanticization of agriculture. You know from your own experience that there is a lot more to getting enough food than simply planting seeds. People who engage in traditional agriculture pay for it with a sometimes brutal toll on their bodies and their health. I have very visceral images in my head of what people look like when they come in from the fields.

    And I disagree somewhat with your statement that food is not inherently a product of capitalism. That’s only true, I think, of hunter-gatherer societies. The beginning of agriculture is also the beginning of division of labor and economically significant social distinctions. And without assigning monetary value to food, there is no reason to produce surplus. And it is that surplus that makes every other human endeavor possible. Without it, we are all subsistence farmers.

    And even as a slip or mis-wording, characterizing food as “free” is very problematic and makes a political statement. I agree with you food sustainability means nothing if good food is out of reach of poor people. And yet many of the problems with our current agricultural system, from labor abuses to soil depletion to monocropping to the nutritional deficiencies of many modern diets, come from the imperative that food be as cheap as possible. Again, I think you know this. And it’s not an easy problem to solve and I don’t have the solutions. But characterizing food as “free” reinforces ideas that take us down a negative and unsustainable path.

    I’m not trying to beat a dead horse. I know you already said you should have put it differently. But I do want to explain why I had such a strong reaction (though, if I had it to do over again, I, too, would have expressed myself differently).

  7. Chingona – thanks for the clarification. I didn’t realize I was idealizing agriculture, so I’ll check that in the future.

    I disagree, though, that food can only exist outside of a capitalist framework in hunter-gatherer societies. You yourself mention subsistence farming – isn’t that an example of non-capitalist food production?

  8. You yourself mention subsistence farming – isn’t that an example of non-capitalist food production?

    Sure it is. But it’s only, well, non-capitalist isn’t quite the right word, but non-monetized – not assigning monetary value to food – if everyone does it. And if you think it is possible for everyone to produce all of their own food and to still have all sorts of other things that you value culturally, socially, etc., then I think you are very much underestimating what is involved with producing all of your own food.

  9. And if you think it is possible for everyone to produce all of their own food and to still have all sorts of other things that you value culturally, socially, etc., then I think you are very much underestimating what is involved with producing all of your own food.

    I don’t think I’ve made this claim – or if I have, I monumentally mispoke, because I don’t know enough about food production to even begin to consider what a world in which everyone produced all their own food would look like.

  10. I think we’re talking in circles a bit at this point. You didn’t make that claim – at least not explicitly – and I wasn’t trying to accuse you of making that claim.

    But you did say that food is not inherently monetized. That’s only true if you produce it yourself or find it yourself*. I brought up subsistence farming to make that point, and you responded by saying subsistence farmers aren’t capitalistic. Which is true. But if we don’t all produce all of our own food, we are relying on surplus produced by farmers – meaning we need farmers to be not just subsistence farmers – which in turn means food must be monetized, or that surplus goes away.

    *And really, even in those cases, the effort invested in producing it and finding it still has value and opportunity cost.

  11. It is possible to trade food for other things without using money.

  12. Do you want to return to such a system?

  13. My question is … are we debating semantics or is there an “ought” or a “should’ buried in there somewhere? If there is, come out and say it and explain how it would work. If this is just semantics, then I think we’ve exhausted the debate.

  14. I went to this conference last year. As a feminist, religious (but not Orthodox or Conservative) vegan, I felt totally excluded from the goings-on. It was basically a four-day commercial for kosher meat and almost all of the panels were 100% male. And I got a 100% scholarship.

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