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Learning To Ask Where Our Food Is From

The fall holidays are a time when we re-evaluate, take stock of our actions and future endeavors. Starting with Slichot and moving towards Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we spend time thinking about the big questions in our lives. However, as I cook and can foods, putting up jam and chutney and pickles, freezing apples for wintertime pies and applesauce and arranging with a farmer for my freezer lamb, I reflect on my future in a different way. I do these preparations, in part, to commit to thinking about food—where it comes from, and how we eat it—for months to come. It also tastes good, is less expensive, and likely healthier than some of the other options. It’s also “fast food!” In winter, I grab a jar from my basement pantry and put it on the table. It’s ready to eat faster than take-out.

In a bigger sense, asking why and where are Jewish concepts. Long discussions in Talmud tractates cover the smallest details of our lives by asking why and how and where and how much. While many of us don’t manage Daf Yomi — studying a page of Talmud a day —we can continue asking these important questions. I heard the beginnings of that kind of traditional questioning recently.

It was 6:15AM. One of my twins squirmed on me as I tried to rest for a few more seconds. “Mommy,” he asked, “Where do melons come from?” I woke up fast. I explained that melons come from gardens…from plants that look a lot like squash plants. Maybe, I suggested, we could try growing melons in our garden next year.

Later, we went to see “our farmers” who give us a CSA (Community Suppported Agriculture) share each week at the local farmer’s market. I spotted a small, ripe melon behind the counter and asked a favor. Would the farmer couple share a bit of melon with the twins? Immediately, the husband whipped out his pocket knife and cut the boys slices. The juice dribbled down the boys’ chins as we all discussed where these melons grew and who grew them. I hoped that the exchange would make an impression on my kids and that the farmer would feel our gratitude.

I realized how Jewish values shaped the way I eat and think about food…and what I hope to pass along to my children. Judaism teaches us to think critically about what we eat, where it comes from, and how we conduct ourselves in the marketplace where we buy it. In fact, Jewish texts cover every detail from bugs in our produce to food purchases on pagan holidays. We’ve been thinking about where food comes from, how it got there and why it’s there for thousands of years. It’s important to us. It can make food holy — or not. Thinking critically about food is what ties together many of our society’s special diets, from gluten-free to glatt kosher, from nut allergies to veganism.

This two year old phase of “Where does it come from?” isn’t uncommon. I know a lot of parents find these Where and Why questions get old quickly. I’m different. I love them. These early signs of intellectual curiosity are something I want to nurture. They show the kind of people my guys may become some day…and I can’t wait. I hope they will join my family’s tradition of wanting to know where things come from, how they are made, and making stuff from scratch themselves.

By choosing local foods, cooking from scratch, or eating plain whole foods…an avocado or a potato, an egg or chicken, we can control what we eat. We can make thoughtful, informed, or even holy choices through asking questions. We can feel physically full and perhaps even more spiritually satisfied.

Through these choices and this kind of cooking, I feel connected to Judaism and to my foremothers — activities they also did with great care. Towards the end of the fall holidays, I love Sukkot, which we associate with harvest, because it allows me to celebrate the season, the weather changes, the hard efforts I have physically made to feed my family’s future. This winter, long after the snow falls and the sukkah is back in the shed, somebody at the table will ask where that jar of pickles or raspberry & gooseberry jam came from…and I’ll know what to answer.

Joanne Seiff is the author of Knit Green and Fiber Gathering and the mother of twin toddlers. She likes to make things from scratch.

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