5 Reasons Vegans Shouldn’t Publish Disturbing Animal Pictures

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Last week I got into a FaceBook discussion with someone who posted a picture that was disturbing to me, a pregnant cow whose throat was being cut.

I never, ever look at these pictures and have several times unfriended and unfollowed those who post them. That’s too bad because PETA and others have good and important information to share.

Because I want to follow certain people and organizations for the good information they share, I usually friend or follow them again at some point in the vain hope they have amended their ways. Inevitably I end up unfriending and unfollowing again, and the cycle repeats itself. Unfortunately it’s usually after yet another disturbing image has forced itself into my line of vision.

Surely someone somewhere thinks these photos are effective? A particular action-response is expected when they post? Kind of like attack political ads which I also won’t listen to or watch? I have to question that possibility, though.

Here are five reasons I think these disturbing images should not be posted:

  • Who is supposed to be influenced with these images? Non-vegans?  “I think I’m going to find those who put out pictures of animal suffering that will make me weep and gnash my teeth and friend them or follow them.” Said no non-vegan. Ever.
  • Is it vegans we hope to influence? What would be the point of that? Anyway, vegans mostly friend and follow other vegans and vegetarians, people who share their philosophy and have ideas to share with them. Vegans want those ideas. What will disturbing images accomplish with them?
  • Anger and violence generate anger and violence. If you’re not completely desensitized to animal suffering, seeing the violence and insensitivity projected in many of these pictures will generate more of the same. And if you are completely desensitized…as I said, what’s the point?
  • Images out of context may say something different than intended. That video of the pregnant cow being slaughtered? Turns out it was a “mercy killing” performed to save the calves and spare the mother needless suffering. It was done in the kosher manner, an ethical system based on minimizing animal suffering. Aversion to blood doesn’t equate to ethical consciousness — and being willing to kill an animal in certain circumstances and in certain ways doesn’t equate to lack of it. If the whole world isn’t going to become vegan today, would we not rather regulate meat production in a framework of ethical considerations? Temple Grandin thought so.
  • Responsible news agencies decline to post videos of human hostages being beheaded. Maybe there’s a reason? Maybe there are many reasons?

In recent months, I have experimented with vegan cooking and am on the path toward vegan living. To the extent that the reality of factory farming moved me in this direction, facts communicated with words and references were sufficient.

I believe that what moves people to improve the world is not generally horrifying images thrown in their faces but rather the possibility of experiencing and sharing joy and fulfillment.

I look for people and organizations to follow and friend who inspire me. I look for those who can provide me with good information on which to base my decisions about how I want to live. Finally, I look for those who are willing to share with me what they know about the practicalities of living in the way I choose.

It amazes me how many good and inspiring people there are in the world to friend and follow! How many people are working to alleviate suffering and improve lives — all lives — in practical ways. Someday those people will be the world’s biggest and most effective army.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

The FoodShed: Cooperative Transformation

foodshed

Published 4/2/2015 in The FOODshed Coop blog.

I admit I am something of a skeptic about the possibility of experiencing sudden (and lasting) transformation. That’s not to say I don’t believe in the possibility that we can be transformed.  I experience that and see it around me every day. These lasting transformations happen over time, though, through small steps.

In my experience, transformation in a person happens when, by choice or by accident, they are surrounded with a different reality. In the context of that different reality, a series of moment-by-moment experiences can reshape a person, transform them. When people are transformed through experiences in a different environment, their relationships are also transformed.

It works the other way around too. In a different structure, people relate to each other differently. When relationships are different, the people in them change as well. It is a reciprocal and dynamic arrangement: transforming individuals impact relationships, and transforming relationships impact individual experience.

An example of a path to transformation is in the idea of the Sabbath. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the Sabbath “a palace in time.” Specific activities are directed toward setting aside a regular space in the long continuum of time, a “palace.” Within that palace, certain actions serve to create an ideal world, a reality that is different from the every day reality that surrounds us.

A second century rabbi says that if two Jews observe the Sabbath in all its details twice in a row, the Messiah will come. Just two people can transform the world! How?

If two people participate with whole hearts in a reality that is different from the one in which they live every day, each individual will have taken a large step in the journey toward transformation. Their relationship will begin its own journey toward being transformed and transforming. Who knows where that might lead as others see and are inspired by this process?

I have now seen Food for Change three times and recommend it enthusiastically to anyone who hasn’t seen it. One of the things that struck me as I watched it were the transformative possibilities in the cooperative movement.

A cooperative, like the Sabbath, is a structure that is different from the one in which we live every day. In the framework of that structure, people have the possibility for transformation as do their relationships. As people see and experience how this works, more will be drawn into the “palace,” allowing themselves to be shaped and to develop a different understanding of how they can relate to their world.

Something I learned from Food for Change was how the cooperative movement began to alleviate the effects of the depression. The cooperative movement was composed of many cooperatives, a different philosophical, social and economic structure than what existed at the time in the United States.

The path out of the depression via the cooperative movement was slow but steady. Sadly, we will never know the end of that story of possibility because its progress was interrupted by a world war that catapulted the United States out of the depression.  The war was a sudden change that produced welcome results for many in the economy and led the way to a period of unparalleled prosperity. The early cooperative movement declined.

Remember what I said about being skeptical of sudden transformations and the possibility of them lasting?

Despite all the supposed safeguards that were put in place after the Great Depression and despite all the claims that it could never happen again, it pretty much did happen again in our time. We scramble around looking for another quick fix. Is that what we really need?

Rich and poor are further apart than ever in our current structure. Neighbors often don’t even know their neighbors much less help them or work with them toward their mutual benefit. Our food supply has been corrupted and poisoned, and the poor, as always, suffer from the effects of a broken system more than the wealthy. Some say our democracy no longer exists.  Will a quick fix help this situation, or do we need to look more deeply at the structure of how we live and conduct our relationships?

So I wonder: what might have happened had the cooperative movement of the early 1900s continued its slow, step by step growth? If the cooperative movement, with its different philosophy and different social and economic structure, had continued to play its role in slowly bringing the country out of economic depression? Where would we be today? What would we look like?

In Woodstock, we are fortunate. It seems the time is right to try out another cooperative vision. In the course of building our cooperative, we will have an opportunity to create a structure that is different from the one in which most of us live now. Building this cooperative unit gives us an opportunity to transform ourselves and our relationships. We will be able to create a structure that provides opportunities for relationships among those at each juncture of the food chain to begin a process of transformation.

The FoodShed cooperative we are building might be just a small corner of our world right now, but our success will lead to other efforts.

Two people whole-heartedly creating a world. That’s all that is required for transformation to begin! We already have so many more than two people working hard to build our new reality.

If you’re not already active in this wonderful effort, isn’t it time for you to join us as slowly, step by step, we create the lasting structure of a better future?

What’s the Beef?

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The following is part of an article that appeared in a local publication a couple of years ago:

In early August 2013, scientists held a taste-testing for burgers made from laboratory grown meat. This report came out just about a year and a half after the “pink slime” report of March 2012.

For anyone who missed that story, pink slime is filler that was found to be present in 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets and at the time constituted about 25 percent of every hamburger.  It is gelatinous material made from the most contaminated parts of the cow formerly used only for dog food and cooking oil.  To make it USDA approved “safe” for human consumption, trimmings are simmered at a low temperature, fat separated from tissue by centrifuge and the result sprayed with ammonia gases to kill germs.  Safe and delicious.  Really?

Now we have burgers created by extracting stem cells from the muscle tissue of a dead cow, nourishing them in a chemical broth and engineering them to produce something like muscle tissue. Strands of tissue are compacted into pellets and frozen, then defrosted for cooking.  The artificial meat starts out white, so dyes are added to make it look more like the real thing.  And there we have it . . . tissue created in a laboratory from a dead cow’s stem cells bathed in chemicals and dyed to the appropriate color.  Safe and potentially delicious when they get the chemicals right.  Really?

The arguments in favor of this “magic meat” are that it requires killing fewer animals, is more sustainable and vastly more environmentally friendly.  I get it.  But there are other paths to the same goal.  For me, at least, those paths are healthier, tastier and more spiritually satisfying.

Speaking of “magic meat,” I was curious if the concoction would be considered kosher.  The Jewish dietary laws are centered primarily around meat, fish, poultry . . . and insects, in other words, living creatures.  I understand this body of laws as an expression of reverence for life.

I did a little research and found that while there is as yet no definitive ruling on this question, there is an interesting Talmudic discussion about the status of “magic meat,” meat that descends from heaven or is miraculously created by human beings.  The argument was presented (in the 16th century!) that this meat could be eaten without kosher slaughtering.  The meat could even be eaten live, limb from limb — otherwise forbidden — since normal laws do not apply to it.

Biblical and Jewish dietary regulations express deep and important values about living creatures, the line between life and death and our place as human beings.  The discussion of “magic meat” along with the rest of the discussion about the status of this manufactured meat expresses those same values and lays bare the complexity of ethical dilemmas involved in meat eating.

I’m often asked why I’m vegetarian.  The assumption is that it is for reasons of health.  It isn’t.  It also isn’t environmentally driven.  Although I disagree with the agri-business model for meat production current in our country and believe it is dangerous for our eco-system, our health and our spiritual balance, I can see there is a way to include meat in one’s diet that is healthy for ourselves and the planet.  For those who do eat meat . . . as Michael Pollan says, pay more and eat less.  There are options other than meat from factory farmed animals.

My own vegetarianism is driven by my spiritual values.  In that context, pink slime and “magic meat” are no more an option for me than supermarket plastic wrapped packages.  Meat from grass fed animals is also not an option for me.  I never eat or make meat “substitutes.”  I make good food from plants, which offer a world of delicious and spiritually satisfying options.

Here’s one: Falafel.  When eaten in the traditional way with Tahina, Falafel are a complete protein package.  Along with protein, this combo packs essential fatty acids and high fiber.  Falafel were not created to substitute for anything and in their long history were never anything but Falafel.  The beans are not cooked, just soaked, so they retain a wonderfully crunchy texture.  They can be loaded with lots of green stuff and seasoned with some of my favorite seasonings.  Occasionally frying foods in good oils at the correct temperature is, in my opinion, much less likely to damage to your health than “magic meat” or pink slime.  Certainly it will do less damage to your soul.

Keeping kosher

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As I have begun to explore a vegan pathway, I am once again thinking about the laws of kashrut. How does this practice relate to my life as a vegetarian and my journey toward a vegan lifestyle?

The Torah tells us the purpose of the dietary and other regulations put forward in it: to shape a “holy people.” What does that mean? I believe it means that following the laws given in the Torah, including the dietary laws, will teach those who follow them to stand in a particular relationship to G-d and creation.

What is that relationship? One view is that of Martin Buber, who describes two ways of relating to our fellow creatures and even G-d: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. In an “I-It” relationship, we view the “other” in a utilitarian mode. How can we use this creature to our benefit? Other creatures and even G-d are minimized to suit our utilitarian purposes.

Conversely, in an “I-Thou” relationship, we recognize and respect the uniqueness of the other and approach them in all their (and with all our) fullness. It is not a utilitarian relationship. It is not necessarily a safe relationship. It is a relationship based on freedom.

We may move in and out of these modes of relating and may relate to a particular person, for example, in an “I-Thou” mode at one point in time and in an “I-It” mode at another point in time.

One might be tempted to make a quick value judgment, viewing an “I-It” relationship as negative and an “I-Thou” relationship as positive. On that basis, we would assume the Torah requires us to maintain an “I-Thou” relationship to the world. I think this assumption would not be correct. The Jewish dietary laws provide us an opportunity to see how the Torah and Jewish ritual offer a more nuanced approach, an approach that maintains a tension between these two modes of being in the world.

Much has been written and spoken about the details of kashrut, the dietary regulations, in an attempt to understand their meaning. One thing stands out to me above all the details: these regulations center around the possibility of killing and eating other living creatures. Were that not a possibility, there would be no need for these laws since all plant foods are kosher. It is the burden of taking life that calls these laws into effect.

Like a blessing or prayer said with full intentionality before or after a meal, the dietary regulations serve to focus our attention on the gravity of what we are doing in eating a creature that once lived. These laws provide us with an opportunity to eat and be satisfied but to do it in a state of full awareness. Observing kashrut places us in a certain relationship to creation and to G-d.

There is some ambivalence in the Torah as I believe there is in most cultures about killing and eating living creatures. The first human beings, living in “the Garden,” were herbivores. Meat eating was a concession and only allowed after the flood. Killing and eating another creature once it was permitted was surrounded by ritual activity. This ritual activity served to heighten awareness of the fact that we are taking life to sustain life.

Similarly, in hunter-gatherer societies the hunt is surrounded with rituals that heighten awareness of the action in which one is engaging. These rituals guide the hunter to approach the hunt with a fullness of presence and encounter the fullness of the Other, the hunted. The outcome is never certain.

There are and have been other ways of dealing with what Michael Pollan calls the dilemma of being omnivores. Certainly one way, perhaps the most direct, is total abstention. This is the vegetarian and even more so, vegan path. At the opposite extreme is complete indifference to or alienation from the processes of life and death, a kind of thoughtless or thought-free consumption. This state of indifference or alienation is too easy to slip into today, as separated as we are from the sources of our food. We can eat and drink without much thought about the ethical dilemmas that would confront us if we were more directly engaged in our own survival.

Between these two extremes are the many symbolic structures of religions and philosophies that can guide us through the “omnivore’s dilemma”.

When I originally became vegetarian more than forty years ago, a primary motivation was that it simply felt wrong to buy the flesh of a creature neatly packaged in styrofoam and plastic at my local grocery store.  There was no direct connection to the fact that I was involved in taking the life of a creature. There was no connection to the process of life and death and survival and my place or role in that cycle. I could understand there might be an argument for eating the flesh of animals if one were prepared to hunt and kill the animal oneself. I couldn’t justify purchasing it in a styrofoam tray and having no personal connection to the life that had been.

There were other thoughts behind my vegetarianism at the time. I was inspired by the social consciousness of Frances Moore Lappe, presented in Diet for a Small Planet. I was inspired by the words of Adelle Davis, that she would “eat only the products that animals give us painlessly.”

Whether it was true at the time, that there were products animals give us painlessly, I’m not certain. I know it is not true now. The way our modern factory farms and industrial food processing operate currently means the products of it will cause ethical problems for many aware people — even when ethical consciousness allows eating meat and other animal products.

Which brings me to veganism. Personally I love eggs and cheese. Although I never gave up eggs when the doctors said we should, I was delighted they are once again on the “ok” list healthwise. I subscribe to the Sally Fallon school of thought on food, put forward so well in Nourishing Traditions and at westonaprice.org. I have often wished I lived in an environment where I could have my own milk cow and chickens, make my own cream and butter and more. I don’t live in that environment, though, and as I learn more, using these products of agri-business is becoming increasingly problematic for me.  It is even more problematic because I know this kind of food is not required for my good health.

What I have been forced to become aware of is that anything I use that is part of this system involves me in a world with a morality that is not what I consciously choose for myself. How so? There is a rabbinic statement: “It’s not the mouse that’s the thief; it’s the hole.” To the extent that I purchase and eat products that are produced through means that are unacceptable in my moral universe, I am more responsible for the existence of that system than the producers of those products.

I have learned that much of what I eat, I can enjoy only because its production is hidden from my view. Our current system is a vast mechanized empire operating under the surface and out of sight. The system engages in practices that if they were happening before my eyes would make me cry out in shock and horror.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the practices that are too often at the foundation of bringing animal products to us is the anonymity of the system. We are completely separated from this world and can remain unaware of what is happening if we wish. By the time any animal product arrives to us, kosher or not, it has been completely separated from its source in life and completely sanitized of the death involved in its production. Our beef and our cheese and our eggs have no relationship to their source.

This is a moral scenario that has particularly painful echoes for Jews, as I was reminded recently when I watched a powerful video presentation by a Holocaust survivor: http://www.jewishveg.org/ (scroll down to the video presentation of Alex Hershaft).

Sadly the kosher industry is also built on the back of agri-business which includes practices contrary to Jewish law. These practices affect the animal long before arrival at the moment of kosher slaughter. Even in the absence of deliberate physical abuse, I cannot imagine that the Torah and later Jewish values envisioned or would accept the massive destruction of life and indifference to the process that is endemic to the production of animal products today.

Others have detailed the ways in which eating meat and chicken, even kosher products, from today’s factory farm system transgress many commandments and are completely at odds with the worldview of the Torah: http://www.jewishveg.com/course.html (see in particular the sections on “Judaism and Animal Rights” and “Judaism, Vegetarianism and Ecology”).  Kosher meat, too, is sold in styrofoam and plastic packages. Cows — and chickens — “produced” in huge numbers for a utilitarian purpose live out their short lives in unnatural situations even when they are destined for kosher slaughtering.

The fundamental problem with the modern meat and animal product industry from my perspective is that the tension between an “I-It” mode and an “I-Thou” mode has been dissolved. We are not moving consciously back and forth between the two modes, guided by principles of Torah. By participating in this system, whether we consume kosher products or not, we are perpetually in an “I-It” mode in relation to the world. The world and the creatures that inhabit it are here for for one purpose, and that is for us to use in order to gain benefit from them for ourselves. Worse, we can do that without carrying any ethical burden in relation to that activity, even if it involves practices that are not in accord with the principles of the Torah. Those practices are conveniently hidden from us.

Nowadays more and more people are becoming interested in sourcing and localism — personally knowing the sources of food, knowing how that food was managed through its life. If we are so concerned that our fruits and vegetables are handled properly, that they are “sustainable” and free of substances we think are bad for our health, shouldn’t we be even more concerned with looking into the handling of creatures that produce meat, eggs and cheese? Shouldn’t we want to be certain they are not part of a system that is so devastating to our moral health?

For someone who does eat animal products in a kosher framework, tho, backward vision can stop at the meat counter of the kosher market. The product has a heksher so is ok — but where did it come from? We are always shocked when we discover that a kosher facility is engaging in practices contrary to Jewish principles — but what about before the animal arrives at the facility? What were the practices associated with life and death that brought it to this place? Was there any reverence exhibited for the life of this creature? Respect for its creaturehood?

Certainly we live in a world where we cannot do everything ourselves. Most of us cannot have our own cows and chickens, and none of us can have cows and chickens that are not the result of a massive utilitarian system. It is hard to imagine sourcing human productions without finding utilitarianism, suffering and even abuse at some point along the way. It is even harder when we consider the veil of modern marketing and labeling practices that put yet another unreliable layer between us and the sources of our food. In order to eat anything, we probably have to draw a line for our backward vision, for how deeply into sourcing we want to go. For each of us, the place where that line is drawn will be different.

As I have often said when I teach, one’s food choices depend on how much of an ethical burden one is prepared to carry. For me, keeping kosher on the back of a food production industry that operates in ways completely contrary to what I understand as the intention of the Jewish dietary laws does not solve the ethical problems involved in taking life to sustain life. Increasingly I am aware that being vegetarian is also not a resolution or even a pathway through the dilemma. I continue to experiment more with vegan foods.

I don’t yet know exactly where my line is. What I do know is that the one required task for each of us is to become aware and to make thoughtful, informed, aware choices for how we will live, specifically what and how we will eat.

Keeping kosher continues to be an important part of that process for me. With pausing as I shop to be certain that everything I purchase fulfills certain requirements, with thinking about what is in my kitchen and how it is used, with considering the counters I work on, the utensils I use and the pots and pans and dishes that are part of my environment, with a blessing before food and an extended blessing after food, I am provided with ample opportunities to think about what and how I eat and to consider my place in creation.

On Making “Water Challah” for Shabbat

Two challot, plated and tucked under their cover and ready for Shabbat dinner.
Two challot, plated and tucked under their cover and ready for Shabbat dinner.

Thirty-five years ago, I made challah weekly. In recent years, my schedule has not allowed me to continue this practice. When we began to host Shabbat dinners in my Cafe, some of our regulars always brought in whole wheat challot from a bakery forty minutes from us. On a recent week when that particular group was unable to attend, I decided to try my hand again at making challah.

These days I have considerations I didn’t have thirty-five years ago. One is that I like more of a whole grain loaf than I did in years past, and grains require time and patience, as Sally Fallon points out in Nourishing Traditions.

Another consideration is that I wanted the challot to be vegan, that is, they should use only plant food ingredients, no animal products. With the traditional egg challah, that changes the program considerably. Since my favorite challah, though, is water challah, which I remember fondly from my days in West Rogers Park, that didn’t strike me as a problem. Wrong.

Try searching the internet for a water challah recipe! Many of the recipes with that name included eggs, at the very least an egg wash on the crust to hold the seeds on top. More often the eggs were in the challah itself. Puzzling.

In other search results, it was clear that the search engines simply brought up a result for water challah because the recipe was for challah, which contained water. In addition, all the recipes had quite a bit of sugar.

After much searching, I decided to try using my spelt and 7-grain cereal roll recipe. That worked – sort of. The loaves weren’t as pretty as I hoped and ended up going into my freezer for future home consumption. Back to the internet.

Finally I found an article about something called berches. With that new search term, I was able to find a host of appropriate recipes, recipes with no eggs and very little sugar. I actually did try one of those recipes, and it worked beautifully with one exception – the crust dilemma.

How could I get that beautiful, shiny crust so characteristic of challah and hold an abundance of seeds to the loaf?  Flaxseed and water can work as an egg substitute in many cases, so I tried a flaxseed/water wash. It turned the crust white, and all the seeds dropped off. I tried several other techniques, but nothing worked. Finally I gave up on the seeds, but I gave a little shine to the crust by brushing it lightly with extra virgin olive oil when it came out of the oven.

In the search for a water challah recipe, here are some things I learned about challah making that will enrich my own experience:

  • What I was calling water challah was an egg-free type of challah made in Germany and called berches. The word berches is from the word berach or “bless”. It refers to the challah or bread that one blesses at the Sabbath meal. Many Jews, German and other, no longer know or use that word for the challah, but there are a few bakers in Germany who continue to make it. I was enjoying a commercial variety in West Rogers Park under the name water challah.
  • Traditionally challah has seven ingredients, corresponding to the seven days of the week or to the fact that Shabbat occurs on the seventh day: 1) flour, 2) water, 3) yeast, 4) salt, 5) sugar, 6) eggs, and 7) oil.
  • When the Temple was destroyed in 70 c.e., the rabbis created a system of substitutions for Temple worship and a priestly sacrificial system. The family table substituted for the altar, and the ordinary Israelite took on the role of priest. The two loaves of challah on the table represent that transition with the challah substituting for the two loaves of showbread on the ancient altar.
  • Women were included in that transition as well, and challah-making is a place where we can see that clearly. Part of the ritual of challah-making includes separating the challah, removing a small piece of the dough, saying a blessing and burning the piece in the oven.  Since women, once upon a time, were likely to be the ones making the bread, this “sacrifice” would have been an example of their taking on the role of the priest in the absence of a Temple and priestly system.

Most importantly, what I learned from challah-making is how rituals can create a thoughtful, meditative experience and, by the way, good (and nourishing) food. At the intersection of the rituals of bread making, rituals I have developed over the years for creating healthy foods, my newly developing ritual of vegan bread making, and the rituals of challah-making, I had an opportunity to experience with full awareness my place in the cosmos, in history and in the environment. As I ate the challah I made, I experienced it as the Staff of Life it once was and can still be.

Here is my recipe for spelt berches or water challah, which I now make every week again. Be sure to WEIGH the flour. Your challah will come out perfectly every time! If you’ve never used spelt, try it. It’s a form of wheat flour, and it is absolutely beautiful to work with. I use spelt in all my breads now.

BERCHES
(Makes 2 loaf pan-sized loaves or two double-braid loaves. 3 lb. 8.2 oz. of flour are required to separate and bless the challah, so if you’d like to perform this ritual, double the recipe).

Ingredients
(Still seven ingredients even tho no eggs!)

  • 1 lb. spelt flour, WEIGHED
  • 1 lb. unbleached wheat flour, WEIGHED
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1/4 cup + 2 cups warm water
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 white potato, peeled, cooked, mashed and cooled
  • 1 TB salt

Directions

    1. Peel and cut up the potato and place it in a small pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft.
    2. Drain the potato cooking water into a measuring cup. Add cold water or ice cubes until the water level reaches 2 cups.
    3. Pour the 2 cups of water back into the potatoes and mash thoroughly with 1 TB salt.
    4. Weigh the spelt flour into your mixing bowl until you reach 1 lb. Add unbleached wheat flour until you reach 2 lb.
    5. Stir the flours together and make a well in the center.
    6. Pour 1/4 cup warm water in the well. Add yeast and sugar and stir gently to dissolve. Let sit for 5-10 minutes until bubbling.
    7. Add the mashed potato, salt and water mixture to the flours. Add the extra virgin olive oil to the mix.
    8. Stir all together briefly.
    9. Knead the dough for 10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. I do this on my Kitchenaid Mixer with the dough hook. The spelt dough works so beautifully that I never have to clean out the bowl before the next step.
    10. Add a little oil to the mixing bowl, and roll the dough in it it until it is completely coated.
    11. Cover the dough in the bowl with a plastic bag (I reserve a garage bag for this purpose). Let rise until doubled in bulk, about two hours.
    12. Punch down, knead slightly and set aside.
    13. Get out your scale and mixing bowl again! Divide the dough into two halves, one for each loaf. Make certain the two halves weigh the same so your loaves will be the same size.
    14. Shape the challot. Divide each half into six approximately equal pieces. Roll into strips as in the picture, with the middle of each strip larger than the ends. Roll in very light flour so strips will remain separate from each other as they rise.
    15. Three strips will make a braid. Place one strip on your work surface, and place two strips over it in an “x” shape. Braid from the middle toward each end and tuck the ends under. Repeat with three more strips. Place one braid on top of the other, and secure the ends.
    16. Repeat this process with the other half of the dough.
    17. Place each loaf on a baking sheet sprinkled with semolina to prevent sticking.
    18. Cover the loaves again with plastic, and allow to rise until doubled, 40 minutes. DO NOT overraise. The top braid will fall to one side, and/or the loaves will flatten.
    19. During this second rise, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
    20. When the loaves are ready, remove the plastic and put the baking tray with the loaves into the pre-heated oven.
    21. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 30-35 minutes.
    22. Remove from the oven and brush the crust lightly with extra virgin olive oil. Cool.

challah04

challah05

At this point, I brushed my loaves with a mixture of flaxseed and water, an egg substitute which I hoped would hold seeds in place. It didn’t, and it turned the tops of the loaves white.  It did not affect the flavor. I’m going to do a little research for other solutions for a seed-sprinkled shiny vegan challah crust.

challah11
Challot rising…
Two double-braid loaves of Water Challah or "Berches," just in time for Shabbat.
Two double-braid loaves of Water Challah or “Berches,” just in time for Shabbat.

Body Language

matzah

I grew up in the Methodist Church. When I was young, my Dad was the minister in the church we attended. I remember the sights and sounds and how much I liked sitting in services surrounded by them. One sight in particular that imprinted itself is the little gothic arch-shaped board at the front that featured the hymn numbers for the day. The numbers on that board pointed to a rich sound experience, the hymns we would sing at three points during the service. There is something very powerful about a roomful of Methodists standing to sing those old and familiar tunes accompanied by an organ.  As I participated in the experience, I became part of it.

As I grew older, like so many young people, I was searching, but I wasn’t quite sure for what. I visited all kinds of services and read about various religions. I admired many things that I read or saw and experienced in the services of other denominations and religions. I enjoyed extended stays in some religious environments. For a while, I was Congregationalist — because my friend’s father was the minister of that church. It felt familiar and homey. I loved the splendor and color of Catholic services. Buddhist philosophy attracted me.  For awhile, I was Baptist.

As I look back on it, what attracted me to the Baptist Church was really a sign of where I was headed. When I visited a Baptist Church for the first time, I liked that there were Bibles stored in racks in the pews and that during the service, we took those books out of the racks and held them in our hands and read from them. Of course I loved many parts of the text, so familiar to me, but it was the physical act of taking out the book at a particular time and holding it and opening it that was most meaningful.

At a later time, I became interested in Judaism. Initially it was an intellectual attraction. What I read worked for me, and I wanted to read more. It wasn’t until I had been part of a Jewish community for several years, though, and constantly seeking and reading and experiencing as I was in that community, that I found the center point of my journey.

For several years, my experience and my learning were conducted in a Reform environment – and in an academic environment. I had a sense I was missing something but wasn’t sure what that something was. Then one day I visited a traditional synagogue where the scrolls were taken out of the ark with a cascade of ritual activity and bodily movement. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears  filled my eyes. I couldn’t have put into words then exactly what that experience meant to me, but I knew I wanted more of it. That morning was the first step of my journey into the traditional corners of Judaism.

Now I know that what so moved me was ritual engagement: I call it “body language.” Judaism is a life filled with ritual activity, life enhancing movements that point to transcendence and deeper meaning. It was always non-verbal body language, ritual, that communicated meaning to me, from checking the numbers in the gothic arch-shaped sign and taking a hymnal, opening it, turning to a page, standing and singing beloved songs, to the Bibles in pews that I could anticipate picking up,  opening and holding at a particular time to read well-known passages once again.

When I first glimpsed traditional Judaism, I felt as though I had come into an amazing and brilliant garden of ritual activity that spoke to me in ways and with a power I could have hardly imagined before I experienced it. At every moment of a day, whether in a worship environment or engaged in daily activities, there are ways to place or move one’s body  — or to eat! — that communicate meaning. Even sitting in an Orthodox women’s section, an experience that so many non-traditional women view negatively, offered me opportunities for joy and religious growth. The physical experience of my body in that space and in that time communicated to me in ways that nothing else could have.

I also notice that when people try to explain the meaning of a ritual or particular body language, for example, sitting in the women’s section during synagogue services, it loses me.  How is it possible to  communicate anything but the most general concepts in language? Completely lost is the specificity of individual experience since no person shares another person’s bodily experience except in the most general ways. It is the intense individuality of the ritual experience that can make it so deeply meaningful.

How can you explain the taste of a matzah to another person? Each matzah tastes different not only because of where and how it was made but because of the moment and surroundings in which it is eaten and because of the person eating it as they are in that moment and in all their prior moments. It tastes different because of the words that are spoken at the time of eating and because of the level of awareness.

Eating matzah may have a general meaning brought to it through the education and liturgy common to all who share in a seder, a Passover meal, but it can also have a very powerful and specific meaning to each person at the celebration.

Rituals exalt mundane activities and give them meaning. They point to something beyond themselves: in the context of religion, they point to transcendence.  Rituals do this not only within the general framework of what a religion teaches but in very specific and personal ways for the person in the moment.

As structured experience, rituals lift mundane activities like eating. They do this without words, which can educate and shape a person but can also distract one and disturb religious experience. I remember many occasions when a sermon included concepts that either irritated or alienated me — or included information that I wanted to be sure to check later. In those cases, I was more involved with trying to remember what it was that I wanted to check than with the experience I might have been having.

At one seder I attended, our host asked us to maintain silence after hand-washing and for a few moments while tasting the matzah. How powerful this wordless experience was, both in its general sense in the context of a seder and its deeply personal sense communicated through the experience.

Contrary to popular evaluations of ritual as mindless repetition, I believe ritual is an aid to conscious choices. Applied to my food choices, ritual heightens and focuses my awareness. It invites me to experience what I am eating more fully and to experience and express gratitude when I am satisfied.

Pilgrim’s Progress: To be or not to be vegan

eggsLast spring (there was one, I’m sure of it) a friend of mine shared an article explaining why she would not eat eggs even if she were able to gather them from her own home-raised chickens. The article was eye-opening, and I confess I wished I hadn’t read it. I’m not yet vegan, and eggs and good, vegetarian appropriate cheeses are a part of my diet that I very much enjoy.

I did read it, though, and having read it, I felt compelled to think about the content of the article and how it applies to my own life and values. I wasn’t yet ready to make a decision to become vegan, but I did decide to experiment more with vegan food. As part of that plan, I thought I might try growing microgreens in my home so I could enjoy fresh, nutritious salads every day, all year ’round.

Then I got sick. Antibiotics caused an intestinal infection that just wouldn’t go away. There was little I could eat, and I lost quite a bit of weight. Three doctors treated me and declared me well although I clearly wasn’t. I took matters into my own hands and tried to figure out how to manage what I was beginning to think might be problem for the rest of my life. I had some success with that but was finally told by a fourth doctor that I still had the infection. He treated it successfully, and everything is 100% now.

I’m rarely sick and never chronically. I was discouraged by this four-month experience. My microgreens experiment didn’t happen. I wasn’t able to eat any raw fruits or veggies! A succession of diets didn’t work. The diets recommended for intestinal issues exclude carbohydrates, some more extravagantly than others. They are built around animal products, some including more than others: eggs, some cheeses, fish, chicken and even meat. At first I restricted myself to eggs and cooked white potatoes, but as time went on, this became impossible.

My vegan explorations were at an end. Even vegetarianism was difficult. At one point, I was told the only thing that would work for me was bone broth. Hmmm. Nonetheless, I dutifully made bone broth, and when I sat to drink it, thanked the creature that gave its life for me.

Eventually I found a diet that did work for me as a vegetarian even though I still had the infection. If you are an IBS sufferer, I will be happy to tell you about this diet, which has proven effective in 90% of cases. It doesn’t exclude carbohydrates indiscriminately, just certain carbohydrates, and for very specific (tested) reasons. Although it was limited, it was less limited than all protein no carb diets. It also offered the hope that I might return to my former eating style, which is virtually all carbohydrates.

Although my plan to experiment more with veganism was temporarily diverted, and even vegetarianism was off the table for a while in the struggle to get well, I learned a great deal. I also had an opportunity to think even more carefully than I usually do about what is on my plate. In fact, I actually ate every meal on a plate! People in the food business are notorious for eating “on the run.” No more of that for me! Good digestion begins with sitting down in a focused way and thoroughly chewing every bite of food, at least 25 chews, to be exact. Try it: you will become very aware of how quickly and carelessly you usually eat.

So what did I learn? I learned about the digestive tract and how each part of it functions, including, as I mentioned, the importance of mental focus and careful chewing. I discovered  that a high protein, low or no carb diet, as unhealthy as it may be in the long run, will result in weight loss. I learned that certain sugars in carbohydrates are indigestible and that while this doesn’t cause a problem for many people — for some it does. I learned that meat and fish can be more digestible than carbohydrates for some and may be life saving. I gained more insight into the gluten-free wave that is washing over us, and I will write about that in a future post. I learned that for those who suffer from IBS, there is a way to manage it and live a normal life — perhaps even overcome it.

Most of all, I gained a new appreciation for the sentiment behind one of the daily Jewish blessings: “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has formed man in wisdom, and created in him a system of ducts and tubes. It is well-known before Your glorious throne that if but one of these be opened, or if one of those be closed, it would be impossible to exist in Your presence…”

We are amazing creatures, as all creatures and creation itself are amazing.

Now that I’m well, I look forward to once again experimenting with vegan foods. You can watch this process in my blog! Not all the recipes are  or will be vegan, but eventually I will offer vegan alternatives to all. It is a work in progress, as am I.

A Shabbat Meditation

sunrise

I hosted a Shabbat dinner last evening and shared with my guests the 39 categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath. These categories, set out in the Mishnah, reflect the work associated with preparing the showbread for the ancient Temple (agricultural labors) and with building the tabernacle and creating the priestly vestments.

These categories of work are relevant to a time and a place, and over the centuries, ongoing interpretation has made them relevant to other times and places. The question that generates these prohibitions is the commandment that we should “rest” on the Sabbath. The question, therefore, is “What does ‘rest’ mean?” I can almost hear the rabbis discussing that concept.

The rabbis also make positive statements associated with the fourth commandment, to honor the Sabbath. These commandments and traditions include wearing festive clothing and refraining from unpleasant conversation, reciting kiddush over a cup of wine at the beginning of Shabbat meals or after morning prayers, eating three festive meals, engaging in pleasurable activities such as singing, studying, spending time with the family and marital relations, and reciting havdalah at the end of the Sabbath. It is the prohibitions, though, that have the status of commandments.

It occurs to me that with the prohibitions, the rabbis create a space for us to experience the meaning of “rest” freely instead of dictating what our experience should be. They are, in effect, modeling the freedom of Shabbat, freedom of worship.

The rabbis are confident that if we do not engage in the activities which fill our days, we will have a different kind of experience, an experience that will revolutionize our worldview. The prohibitions create a space for each of us to have that experience. We enhance the possibility of experience by engaging in the positive activities.

A tradition says that if every Jewish person observed Shabbat in all its particulars twice in a row, the Messiah would come (Shabbat 118). I believe that possibility exists because a complete Sabbath experience  has the power to revolutionize perspective and worldview and as a result, one’s way of acting in the world.

Feeding the Soul: Veggie Cholent

Veggie Cholent

I am interested in the spiritual value of rituals.

When my grandson was born, I said, “We need a ritual!”  Sunday breakfast became that ritual.  Over the years, details have changed, but the basic activity remains. 

Sunday breakfast has layers of meaning, different for each of us.  Some meaning can be expressed in words…some not.  Therein lies the value of ritual as non- or pre-verbal meaning. 

So it is with Cholent (Yiddish) or Hamin (Hebrew), meaning “hot.” Cholent is a stew prepared and put on to cook before the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday and enjoyed as the midday meal on Saturday.  It is a way to enjoy warm food without violating the prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath.

Cholent has a very special meaning for me.  I am not a multi-tasker, yet I am usually doing at least three things at once.  I am distracted and hardly feeling nurtured. 

When I sit down to eat my cholent with friends and family, though, I am in a different space.  Something miraculous happens while the cholent is left untended — then this gift arrives effortlessly on my table. I am nurtured by it.  Enjoying cholent is a ritual that has layers of meaning beyond its taste and the fact that I eat it on the same day at the same time each week. 

Making cholent has itself become a meaningful ritual activity.  I gather ingredients and put them together.  I anticipate the miracle that will happen overnight in that pot and the pleasure I will experience when I am able to share the miracle with others the next day. 

This year my son gave me the gift of time by helping with some of the cooking in my Cafe.  In return, I gave him the gift of preparing cholent each week.  As I eat it, I can taste the layers of meaning it is taking on for him.  This is “cooking with love,” feeding the soul while feeding the body.  Soul food.

There are many ways to make cholent.  Here is my way:

Ingredients
(Makes 2 Gal. – halve the recipe unless you have a really big crockpot!)

  • 1 TB Garlic
  • 3 TB Ginger
  • 2 TB Cumin
  • 1 TB + 2 TSP Salt
  • 2 Tsp Hot Paprika
  • 1 Lg Spanish Onion cut in 1 in. chunks
  • 2 Lg or 3 Sm Potatoes (Idaho), peeled & cut in 1 in. chunks
  • 2 Lg or 3 Sm Sweet Potatoes
  • 1 LB Dried Beans (Kidney, Pinto, White Pea)
  • 1/2 LB Dried Chickpeas
  • 1 Bunch Cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 Cup Barley
  • 1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Berries
  • 1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 12 Eggs in the shell

Preparation

  1. Mix all ingredients except eggs in a crockpot bowl.
  2. Add water to an inch above mixture.
  3. Tuck whole uncooked eggs in the shell into the top of the mixture, making certain they are fully submerged.
  4. Wrap foil tightly over top.  Put lid over foil.
  5. Turn pot on medium. Cook 10-12 hours or more.
  6. Remove eggs, rinse and shell.
  7. Arrange peeled eggs on top of cholent.

Here’s to joy-filled, soulful eating!

The Value of Cooperation

foodshed

This post was published in The FOODshed Coop blog.

I have learned many things from the experience of owning a cafe, but my most important lesson is that putting good and wholesome food on a table is by nature a cooperative venture. Even if we imagine ourselves to be independent, we are not. I believe that recognizing our interdependence and building on it makes us better.

As my son, Jeremy, recently wrote in his 3D printing blog, amazing things happen as the result of sharing resources and cooperation. I have come to believe that the vast challenges to our food supply and consequently our health cannot be resolved by a cafe here or a business there or by government intervention. These issues can only be addressed effectively through cooperation and sharing among like-minded individuals and organizations at every level of the food supply chain.

Until the recent economic downturn, I was privileged not to have to worry about the grocery bills from week to week.  I was able to raise a family on mostly organic food, for a period of time from my own garden. I was also blessed in being a stay-at-home mom during my kids’ early years. This meant I could take the time to read about health, search for good recipes and, most importantly, make all of our meals at home from whole foods. I was able to maintain the illusion that in my efforts, I was independent.

Now I work many hours, like so many folks out there.  I have learned how difficult and exhausting it can be having to worry about pennies and dimes.  I have learned how challenging it can be to work long hours and still try to plan a healthy menu of home-cooked meals, to shop for them and to cook them. And purchasing those beautiful organic and specialty items I was no longer able to grow or gather? Forget it! Here too were lessons about the importance of cooperation and a reminder that when it comes to food, independence is indeed an illusion.

Still, I had the advantage of what I learned during those years  when I was a stay-at-home mom, planting and caring for my large organic garden and experimenting with cooking until I found things I loved to eat that were usually easy to make. To the extent those meals were vegetarian, they were usually comparatively economical even when opting for high quality ingredients over cheaper processed items.

When I ended up in the restaurant business, I thought I would like to share what I had learned with others. I wanted to make the same healthy, economical foods in my cafe that I learned to make at home. I assumed that since I am vegetarian, and my cafe would be vegetarian, it would be easy to keep food costs down, and I would be able to make a small but sufficient living. I could just cook from scratch from whole foods as I had done at home and serve it up to people, no problem.

Right.

Anyone who has ever been in or had anything to do with the food business probably knows how naive that thought was. The food business is difficult under any circumstances, more difficult for someone with no business background or background in the food industry — and in today’s world, there are special challenges to doing what I want to do.

I want to prepare and serve delicious food, wholesome food, food prepared from scratch with love and with minimal and highly selective use of those ingredients that are a product of food factories. I would like to do that in a way that will make the food affordable for my customers. Good food, whole food made from scratch that is low-cost? At some distance from major cities? An oxymoron, perhaps?

Here are the special challenges of running a cafe featuring unprocessed vegetarian foods at some distance from a major city:

  • Not as many products are available locally as are available closer to the city.
  • Vendors don’t deliver to smaller operations at a distance from urban centers.
  • Preparing all fresh food from produce is labor-intensive. I hoped to do it myself. I can’t. Imagine cooking for a party of 60 or more people every day — and doing it as the guests are arriving!

It  costs a lot to run a food business, even a vegetarian cafe featuring unprocessed foods, perhaps especially a vegetarian cafe featuring unprocessed foods. Processed items are a ubiquitous part of our nationwide food supply chain.  Being off the beaten track either geographically or conceptually costs. We struggle to make ends meet, especially during the long, cold Midwestern winters.  So I should raise my prices, right? But then I can’t fulfill my commitment to produce affordable wholesome food for my customers.

It has occurred to me recently that many food solutions currently out there are solutions only for the wealthy: organic foods, small specialty food operations like mine. Recently I saw an organic food delivery business – great idea for those who can afford it.  I saw an indoor aeroponics system, another great idea for year-round home-growing for seed-to-table foods.  Also costly.

And yet one out of every five children in this country is living in poverty.  People in the Delta region of this country have a 10 year lower life expectancy than the rest of us, and one of the biggest factors in that is lack of access to wholesome food.

A couple of months ago, I was privileged to host a movie called Food for Change, a film that explores the development of the cooperative movement in the United States with a focus on food.  It’s hard to describe the impact this film had on me the two times I viewed it. It portrays a world I want to live in, a world based on cooperation more than self-interest.

As the movie unfolded, I recognized it as a giant step toward resolving our food supply problem.  A food cooperative is a system where each participant is an important part of the whole, and each participant both benefits and contributes.  There is an understanding that each must benefit, each must have a sustainable position in the overall economy of the cooperative.  This kind of cooperation is locally based so presents an effective model for areas that are remote from large cities. The principle of local cooperation celebrates our food interdependence from seed to table.

The movie was shown as part of a membership drive for a McHenry County food cooperative.  The Food Shed (www.foodshed.coop) is scheduled to open sometime during 2015. I am very excited about this effort and see it as a way to make wholesome food available and affordable to everyone in this country.

As my son said in his 3D printing blog, amazing things happen when people cooperate!