Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reimagining the Jewish Deli

Larry Coyne has been doing a series of posts on Lower East Side Jewish food, which reminded me of one I started months ago. I’m damned well going to finish it, given that a) the subject is one of the better panel discussions I’ve seen, b) I watched it twice in preparation, and c) it’s really interesting! The event, which took place in February at the Jewish Community Center of East Bay in Berkeley (partnering with Saul’s Restaurant and Deli), is “A Referendum on the Jewish Deli Menu.”

I recommend the video (tried to embed it here but it seems to start playing automatically, so I won't subject anyone to that, but do watch it!) and won’t say much other than to point out what I liked:

  • the whole idea of reconsidering the “Jewish deli mission” – thinking about it in terms of justice and sustainability – and of doing so in full consultation with the communities involved (would have been nice, to put it mildly, to see more workers…).

  • the challenging of the conservative attitude and false static notion of culture embodied in the idea of “comfort food,” while at the same time recognizing the need for familiarity, community, and continuity.

  • the appreciation that the Cold War era, commonly thought of as embodying “authentic tradition,” was (in this way among many others) anomalous. The menu-tomes, “Cadillac sandwiches” and general celebration of bigness and excess, and “anything anytime” concept were not, of course, a continuation of earlier food traditions – seasonal, revolving around special occasions - but a break with them. Thus, reimagining the Jewish deli is in an important sense returning to tradition.

  • The public recognition that kosher doesn’t mean what people commonly assume it does: ethical, decent, sound. Importantly, just prior to this event, and in response to appalling practices, new kosher guidelines were instituted:
    [W]hen the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the preeminent group of American Orthodox rabbis, issues new ethical guidelines for food production, as it did this January—including protocol on animal mistreatment and misconduct towards employees and customers—and it's endorsed by the OU, it's bigger news than you might imagine. Outside of government agencies, the OU is arguably the most influential food-related body in the country. Companies pay handsomely to have their products certified as kosher; it's considered a sound investment. And while the new guidelines are far from sweeping, and there's no guarantee they'll be honored or enforced, they represent the potential for meaningful extra-governmental oversight.
    I have no illusions that these guidelines have any meaning beyond what people do with them, but it’s a recognition and an opening for action.

  • The desire to remake the deli as part of the current food revolution, with attention to AGW, pollution, and workers’ health and rights, in a way that conceives of the change not in terms of self-denial or sacrifice but as an opportunity to offer satisfying alternatives and a deeper, more genuine and more democratic form of comfort.
  • 1 comment:

    1. Fascinating!

      The greatest extent to which I have attempted to be involved in anything like this is Community-Supported Agriculture. I'm part of The Food Project, at a chapter north of Boston. Their produce is amazing, too.

      I occasionally entertain pipe dreams of establishing a fair trade bakery some day. The video is a very enlightening and encouraging lesson on how I might go about doing it!