The Foodlums of Connecticut

One Sunday this past August, I stopped by the farmers’ market in Morris, Connecticut. Morris is a small town (population about 2,400) in lush, hilly Litchfield County. It’s probably best known as the home of luxury resort Winvian, and its main intersections are governed only by a stop sign or a single red flashing light.

At the market, couples holding reusable bags meandered past tables covered with produce. One table had a banner above it that read: “Young Jewish Farmers. Changing the World One Pickle at a Time.”

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I first noticed a new energy swirling around Jews and food in Connecticut. When I was growing up here in the 1980s and ’90s, Jewish food — aside from what my mom cooked at home — meant a trip to the kosher-style Gold’s Delicatessen. There my dad would buy lox and rye bread and the man behind the counter would lean over and hand me a pretzel stick. But when I returned to the state in 2007, it appeared that local Jews were becoming increasingly passionate about what they were cooking and eating.

In 2010, an almost 85,000-square-foot Fairway Market with a kosher catering department opened in Stamford. Early this year, a family-owned kosher grocery that had served customers in and around Hartford for nearly 75 years was saved from impending closure by three local businessmen who bought the store and renegotiated the lease. In September, an event called the First Annual Southern New England Kosher BBQ Championship & Festival was held in suburban Fairfield County. But where the trend seems strongest is in the world of farming and farm-to-table cuisine.

Art historian turned food writer Liz Rueven, who runs the blog Kosher Like Me, is a kosher omnivore at home who sticks to vegetarian and pescatarian restaurants when dining out. She focuses on food that is “grown with care [and] prepared with respect for the animals, the vegetables, [and] the workers in the kitchen.” She blogs about restaurants and local food sources in Connecticut, where she has lived for 25 years, as well as in New York and at her favorite travel destinations.

I met Rueven at her home Westport, the town where I grew up. (When I lived there, it did not have the year-round farmers’ market that now provides Rueven with many of the gorgeous produce shots she posts to Instagram.) I asked her how much of the trend I’d noticed was Jewish, how much was Connecticut, and how much was part of something larger.

The trend was national, she said, but “as Jewish eaters we can drill down even deeper.” Her editorial calendar for Kosher Like Me is structured around Jewish holidays, as well as by the seasons. Eating locally and seasonally, she pointed out, is what our ancestors did.

“There was no other way to eat, there wasn’t a supermarket to shop in,” said Rueven. The holiday recipes she features on her blog are inspired by what’s available from local farms.

She had also noticed that many small food producers in Connecticut were going through the rigorous and expensive process of getting their kosher certification. Jewish culture, too, was becoming intertwined with the region’s food scene in other ways. The local UJA-Federation invited Rueven to present recipes at an upcoming seminar on breast health, so attendees could learn not just which foods to eat but also how to prepare them. (They also sponsored the kosher barbeque competition, where Rueven was a celebrity judge.) And she wasn’t even the only Jewish food blogger in her immediate area; there were three others that she knew of just in the southwestern portion of the state.

But as far as she was concerned, the most significant Connecticut force in Jewish food was the educational center Adamah, which Rueven said “has an enormous influence on creating Jewish food thinkers.”

A few days later, I stood outside a synagogue in the leafy suburb of West Hartford, eating Adamah apple butter spread on a cracker and talking to pickle apprentice Awren Schwartz.

Schwartz and another Adamahnik were selling jars of the apple butter along with pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. But their main task that day was distributing boxes of produce to members of Jewish Local Greens, Adamah’s community supported agriculture program. The CSA is the primary distribution method for the vegetables grown on Adamah’s farm about 40 miles away.

The next day, I drove to the farm, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, located in the town of Canaan in the Berkshires. (This year Isabella Freedman merged with Hazon, which also partners with the Forward to produce the blog the Jew and the Carrot.)

Sarah Chandler, who teaches Adamah fellows how Jewish agricultural laws can inspire environmental awareness in modern life (her official title is director of earth based spiritual practice), walked me around the 450-acre property. It felt like a cross between an eccentric country estate and a kibbutz. Organic vegetables grew in fields and greenhouses. Chickens strutted around the compost pile, and a few very persistent goats butted their hard little heads against me as I took notes.

The land had a long history as a Jewish retreat (for female garment workers from New York, for singles, then for seniors), but it wasn’t until about a decade ago that some young educators first envisioned a farm here. (At the time, Chandler told me, the vegetables eaten at Isabella Freedman came “off a Sysco truck.”) In 2003 they planted their first fruit trees and herbs. The next summer, they acquired some goats. This was the beginning of Adamah.

Since then the program has inspired educational farms at institutions like Maryland’s Pearlstone Center, Toronto’s Shoresh, and the Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia. There is now an Urban Adamah in Berkeley, California. A favorite source of kosher meat mentioned by several Jewish foodies I spoke to was Grow and Behold, a New York-based company founded by a couple who met in Falls Village.

And while Adamah sends ideas out, it draws people in. They might come as fellows, CSA members whose interest has been piqued by their fresh vegetable boxes, or individuals who encounter the program through pickle tastings and talks given by the staff. The annual Hazon Food Conference is held here, as are shabbatons and other activities for various Jewish groups who may not come to learn about sustainable food, but who encounter it here nonetheless.

In the dining hall, I found Dr. Shamu Sadeh, co-founder and director of Adamah Falls Village. His grandparents had been farmers in Hungary, and as a child in Washington, D.C., his parents exposed him to organic gardening and composting at a time when such practices were not prevalent. It was Sadeh’s family who provided Adamah’s first goats; his mother also came to Connecticut to teach the early Adamahniks how to make cheese.

Sadeh seemed reluctant to label any growing interest in food and farming as particularly Jewish. “Anything’s a Jewish thing that we make a Jewish thing, to some degree,” he said. “We have a history of being concerned with what we eat.” Of all the agricultural laws in the Torah, he told me, none are strictly agricultural. “We come from a holistic agricultural society.”

I heard the same ambivalence when I spoke to Ben Harris, who started Root Down Farm in Coventry, in the eastern part of the state, earlier this year. He told me he didn’t see an explicit Jewish connection to his work, though he acknowledged that being Jewish was a large part of who he was. “It’s hard for me to disentangle,” he said as he stalked through a field, harvesting okra and corn and occasionally pausing to curse at a cucumber beetle. It wasn’t like he was giving voice to some part of his soul, he said wryly, “but I’m giving voice to some part of my soul, and there is a lot of Jewish stuff in there.”

When he isn’t tending to the vegetables in the two fields and greenhouse he leases, Harris is an editor and writer for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. (His essays on farming for JTA have also been published in the Forward.)

When he started at JTA in 2006, he often found himself reporting and writing on food. He covered the Agriprocessors scandal and the Hazon Food Conference at Isabella Freedman. In 2010, feeling disenchanted with journalism, he went — “kind of on a lark” — to work on a small farm in Vermont. The experience was “totally awesome,” Harris said. “The best six months ever.” He then trained further in California and worked on other Connecticut farms before striking out on his own.

“Overtly everyone was very supportive,” Harris said. His parents were “shockingly supportive.” Initially, he used their West Hartford home as a pickup location for his Root Down CSA. “I just like this life,” he said. “I like feeding people. I feel like this is really important work.”

Harris saw the growing local interest in farming as mirroring a national trend. The moment, he said, was “very exciting to be part of.”

In the late 19th century, a different set of circumstances brought Jewish farmers to Connecticut. German Jewish banker and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch established an eponymous fund to support the relocation of Eastern European Jews from New York’s crowded tenements to farms in New England, New Jersey, Canada and even South America. Many of these new Jewish farmers settled throughout Connecticut, building the state’s poultry industry and occasionally baffling their Yankee neighbors. In time most of their descendants moved on, but their history can still be seen in the humble synagogues they constructed, several of which still stand in Connecticut towns.

It can also be found in rural Lebanon at Himmelstein Homestead Farm, which owner Frank Himmelstein told me was “maybe the longest continuous running farm by a Jewish family in Connecticut.”

“One hundred years ago, there were more Jewish farmers in Connecticut than there are farmers in Connecticut now,” Himmelstein said. We were standing in front of his new barn, the first building constructed on his family’s farm since 1943. Inside were boxes of squashes: butternut, buttercup, spaghetti, acorn, hubbard and other varieties I’d never heard of before.

Just over 100 years ago, Himmelstein’s grandfather bought this farm with a partial loan from the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, a subsidiary of the Baron de Hirsch Fund. Himmelstein believes he himself was the last Jewish student to get a bachelor’s degree through the Fund; he studied plant and soil sciences at the University of Connecticut. He would go on to earn his Ph.D. and spend 17 years as a professor at UConn’s agriculture department.

Now he works the 157-acre farm by himself. He grows organic hay and vegetables, and is preparing to turn the old farmhouse into a museum. He has had his share of the property permanently preserved as farmland through the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, ensuring that whether or not his two daughters continue the family business, “there will be a farm here for someone to take over.”

“There is a big connection between the Jewish religion and agriculture. Otherwise why would there be all those agricultural laws?” he said. “A good Jewish farmer is taught that all this produce is not necessarily due to the result of his sweat and work, it’s a gift from God.”

It wasn’t until I drove away that I thought of Lebanon’s Puritan founders, who named their settlement after the Old Testament’s famed cedars, and would probably have viewed farming in much the same way.

Steph Sperber would likely have made the connection. I had met the high school administrator and resident of West Hartford’s Moishe House at the Jewish Local Greens pickup. She was trying to use Connecticut’s only Moishe House, part of the international movement in which Jewish 20-somethings share a living space and run programs for the wider community, as “a platform for pushing the connection between Judaism and food.”

“In New York,” she felt, “the Jewish food scene is more restaurant-based.” In Connecticut, though, it was about working the land. Alluding to the state flag, which features grapevines climbing above a Latin motto thought to refer to Psalm 80’s comparison of the Jewish people to a vine, she said, “People moved here because they wanted to sustain themselves and be prosperous. With grapes!”

In a sense, they still do. Adam Sher, Isabella Freedman’s director of transformative experiences, came seven years ago from Seattle. Food and farming, Sher thought, were “bringing Jews” — especially secular ones — “together in a way that religion… has not been able to do and has sometimes done the opposite.” Sher, who met his wife at Isabella Freedman and has since settled in Falls Village, told me that the Falls Village Inn served a signature Pickle-tini, made with Isabella Freedman pickle juice and a kosher pickle spear. It was a little thing, but in a state with a population of under 3.5 million people, little things can add up.

“I know the Department of Agriculture is trying to encourage people to buy local. Every town has a farmers’ market now,” said Frank Himmelstein, adding that local restaurants also bought his produce. Ben Harris said that five years ago, there were hardly any CSAs in the Hartford area, but recently, “it’s exploded.” His own CSA had 42 members and a waiting list of about 12 for the next season.

Isabella Freedman chef Adam SaNogueira, who grew up in Newtown in western Connecticut, said of the landscape: “[It] feels like it’s in my DNA.” According to Sanogueira, although farming “never really left this area, as it has other areas,” it has now become hip. “Rural is the new Williamsburg,” he said.

And then there was the one local development that had surprised and delighted every Jewish Connecticut foodie I’d mentioned it to: the Jewish Whiskey Company, incorporated in 2011 in the shoreline town of Guilford. The company’s Jewishness is two-fold: their humorous branding (they host an annual Whisky Jewbilee), as well as their attention to customers’ concerns about kosher laws. I called Jewish Whiskey Company president and co-founder Joshua Hatton and asked whether he also got such positive reactions in person.

“All the time,” he said. “When we do larger whiskey events we have our banners up and one will have the Jewish Whisky Company logo.” (It has a little Star of David balancing on one of its points above the capital H in “Jewish.”) “We get people coming up… taking picture after picture after picture. Whether they’re religious Jews or cultural Jews, they see that and,” Hatton paused, “it’s cool.”

Johnna Kaplan is a freelance writer who lives in Hartford, Conn. She blogs at www.thesizeofconnecticut.com.

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