When making Kosher-for-Passover dishes like Shakshuka, keep animal welfare in mind.
For ten days, I consumed all the shakshuka my heart desired. During a Birthright trip in Israel, in addition to hiking, sightseeing and making many new friends, I developed a love for this delicious Middle Eastern dish. When I returned home, I decided to embark on a personal journey with the goal of cooking the ultimate sustainable shakshuka dinner for my family. As an environmental eater, I soon realized that this egg-heavy dish comes with some challenges.
Shakshuka is a classic Israeli dish consisting of poached eggs in a homemade tomato sauce, and if you haven’t tried it yet, you should. Popular for breakfast and kosher for Passover, it’s great for any meal — especially for any vegetarian or environmental eater like myself looking to diversify their menu.
A week after returning home, we organized a mini Birthright reunion where I was excited to discover that my friend Eden learned how to cook shakshuka during her weeklong extension. I was eager to watch and learn.
This first shakshuka attempt focused more on the methods than the materials. We walked down the street to the local supermarket to buy our ingredients. The vegetables we purchased were likely “organic,” given the particular supermarket we chose, but the eggs were unlikely to have been sustainably sourced. I didn’t object, but took note for my next attempt.
Back at our friend’s apartment, the only pan we could muster was without a cover, so the sauce took a while, but then the eggs cooked much faster than anticipated. Regardless, it was quite delicious. I was happy to discover that the typical shakshuka recipe is fairly simple: heat up some tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers, add some spice, and cook in the eggs. There’s room for creativity if you’re experienced in the kitchen, but not too much to ruin if you’re not.
I vowed to make my second attempt even more sustainable and just as tasty. Since they are a staple for many vegetarian diets, I expected it to be fairly easy to find sustainably-sourced eggs in NYC. Unfortunately, eggs are distinctly intertwined with the same factory farming system that is despised by both animal welfare advocates and environmentalists.
Close to 99% of the US’s chickens, just like most of our country’s livestock, are factory farmed. In this system, chickens, particularly hens, are crammed into spaces the size of piece of paper to live out their lives and produce eggs. This is just one of many, many problems with factory farming, such as antibiotic resistance, dangerous genetic modifications, excessive water use, huge greenhouse gas emissions, and terrible conditions for the farm workers involved.
How does one ethically cook the ultimate shakshuka knowing all this? I grappled with this question as I geared up for my next attempt. BuyingPoultry.com has compiled a list of sustainably-sourced, humanely raised, cage-free options for buying poultry and eggs. I consulted the website and headed back to the supermarket.
I perused the aisles slowly, not recognizing any of the brands I’d seen on BuyingPoultry.com. I decided that “The Country Hen” brand of extra large organic brown eggs seemed trustworthy, given that the packaging boasted “cage free” living and “sunlit barns and porches,” and both a “Natural Food Certifiers” label and a “USDA Organic” label.
But when I researched “The Country Hen” on BuyingPoultry.com, I found disheartening results. I soon realized that the labels and promises I had trusted were misleading. Unfortunately, “The Country Hen” chickens that produced the eggs in my Shakshuka were “raised to a level of welfare that, at best, offers very limited benefits over standard industry practices, and at worst, may be identical to those practices.”
After further research, I found that some of the only labels that are meaningful for animal welfare are “Certified Humane,” or, even better, “Certified Humane + Pasture Raised,” and “Animal Welfare Approved.” These third-party labels certify that hens were raised under humane animal welfare standards. I also learned that Jewish organizations and individuals can take responsibility and commit to buying only higher-welfare eggs.
While my shakshuka was not the environmental victory I had hoped, the journey was a true learning experience. I impressed my parents with my shakshuka-making skills. My second shakshuka was even more delicious than the first, and the eggs were perfectly cooked. It is more difficult to find eggs from humanely raised chickens than one would think, and I know now that impressive labels often have little to no value.
On the bright side, my family was so pleased with my shakshuka dinner that they encouraged me to cook it again. Until my next attempt…
Julia Widmann is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is majoring in Environmental Policy and minoring in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She interned at Hazon during summer 2016.