When I sat down recently with Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, in the great hall of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, the air in the room was still fragrant with lacto-fermenting pickles and lavender oil from the DIY Fair and Shuk that was held the night before. We were there for the Hazon Food Conference, and while we talked we were surrounded by conference-goers munching on organic rice cakes slathered with blueberry jam that had been made on the premises.
“Who is the David Chang of Jewish food right now going to be?” asked Davis, who wrote the book “The Mensch Chef: Or Why Delicious Jewish Food Isn’t An Oxymoron.” Davis had just finished giving the session he called Jewish Spice Mix And Other Manifestations Of Culinary Judaism.
“Right now in New York City, if someone comes and wants to experience an iconic Jewish meal, there’s nowhere to go,” he told me. “Russ & Daughters, which is newish and Katz’s, which is more Lower East Side than it is actually Jewish anymore, and there’s Mile End but that’s not it. Sammy’s Roumanian, you’d have to kill me to eat there, it might kill you if you do eat there! That’s weird to me. I’ve thought to myself. Do I need to open it? Do we need to make a place where the food is good, where the ingredients are well sourced but the traditional flavors are the same? That’s a crisis to me.”
Two hundred participants journeyed to the verdant Connecticut campus to explore the concept of the new Jewish food movement, to talk about innovations in sustainability and food justice, to take part in cooking demonstrations and to reflect on the Jewish food renaissance enveloping the American dining scene.
“We want to create doorways through the environment, food, the outdoors for people to have those experiences but also to approach that through a Jewish lens in new and unique ways,” said Judith Belasco, Hazon Acting CEO and Chief Program Officer. Now in its twelfth year, this was the first time that the Hazon Food Conference was held during the summer, enabling participants to learn how to make Shabbat-friendly flavorful summer salads, to join tours of the on-site organic farm run by Adamah and to take hikes throughout the campus’s four hundred acres beneath the backdrop of the Berkshire Mountains.
“There’s not one message,” said Belasco. “It’s creating entry points for people to decide what they’re going to take into their lives and whether that means that they’re going to go back to their institutions and have a green Kiddush, or it means that they’re going to look differently at the eggs that they’re going to purchase at the supermarket.”
The Hazon Food Conference’s smorgasbord of sessions ranged from cooking demonstrations such as curd-to-crepe blintzes led by Jeffrey Yoskowitz, the co-owner with Liz Alpern of The Gefilteria, a culinary venture that re-imagines Ashkenazi cuisine; to discussions on “Our Power Post-Paris: How To Take Action For The Climate With Food Policy” with the Jewish Initiative for Animals; to “Preparing A Seasonal And Sustainable Rosh Hashanah Menu” with Liz Reuven, who authors the blog Kosher Like Me; to “In God’s Image” a kosher slaughter presentation; to conversations on Jewish community farming and the urban food justice movement.
Participants also took part in yoga in the red yurt, morning meditation sessions, mikveh in Lake Miriam, havdallah by the campfire and even visits to the goat barn and chicken coop. As someone who never had the classic Catskills Jewish summer camp experience, this was how I would imagine the best version to be; and in fact there was even a Camp Teva Kids’ Food Conference taking place in conjunction with our own conference.
“How many times have you eaten a cherry tomato in your life?” asked Amy Green, founder of Naked Hummus and co-chair of the Hazon Food Conference Planning Team as she welcomed the conference-goers. “Enjoy, savor, let it explode in your mouth.” Green urged the participants to expand their usual chewing sequence — to munch an extra twenty bites to really explore the flavor of the cherry tomato just picked by this summer’s Adamah farming fellows.
For many participants at the conference as well as modern American Jews, culinary Judaism or kitchen Judaism, a term created by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, was the entry point and often the core of their connection to Jewish culture and religion. “My family was a family that defined our Judaism through food. We did not attend synagogue even for the high holidays, but the holidays were always really important. The food was always really important,” said Davis. “We were Jewish because we ate matzo balls, and brisket and roast chicken, and kugel and latkes, but I’ll point out that we didn’t actually do it when we were supposed to because we would move the holidays to the weekends when everyone would come. So we would easily have been blasphemers, but what I found was that we were not unique in that expression of Judaism through the table.”
At the conference, there were many kinds of Judaism expressed, and Shabbat services embodied this welcoming spirit by including Traditional Egalitarian services, Orthodox services and Renewal services. The conference showcased the many ways that young Jewish entrepreneurs have rediscovered traditional concepts and created new iterations of Jewish cuisine. Shannon Sarna, founding editor of The Nosher and author of “Modern Jewish Baker: Challah, Babka, Bagels and More,” shared her signature stuffed challah concept — part challah and part calzone — during “Modern Jewish Baking: Challah Baking with a Twist.” Sarna was inspired by her mixed American-Jewish roots — Italian-Catholic on her mother’s side and Jewish on her father’s side — and participants kvelled over Sarna’s unique creations: each experimenting with different novel toppings such as harissa, pesto and kalonji seeds. Participants shared their handmade braided creations with their tablemates at Shabbat dinner.
The Hazon Outdoor Food Festival, held mid-conference, celebrated summer noshing and displayed delicious bites from the conference’s presenters: bike blender pesto, made as participants cycled to blend the ingredients; an attractive array of deli-style sodas flavored with cucumber, dill, celery seed and toasted caraway made by Yoskowitz; falafel and hummus from Naked Hummus; eggplant salad and black-eyed peas salad for Rosh Hashanah by The Jewish Food Experience’s Susan Barocas, who taught about Sephardic cuisine at the conference and served as the guest chef for the White House Passover Seders from 2014 through 2016; and shwarma and kabobs from Grow And Behold, a kosher butcher.
Throughout the conference, Hazon was credited as the leader of the new Jewish food movement. And this year, the Jewish food renaissance was at once celebrated and questioned as the vehicle to reconcile modernity and tradition in the foodie movement. “There’s a funny moment in Jewish food right now. Before they disappeared, the old places [traditional Jewish delicatessens] were terrible. And then they disappeared — good riddance — and you can say the same thing about old-fashioned French restaurants, which became terrible and then they went away and then French food is in a crisis. And I do think there was a bit of a crisis of Jewish food and I don’t think that we’re completely out of it,” Davis reflected. “But I do think that there is certainly a renewed interest of young people playing with Jewish cultural icons and identity — opening delicatessens with sustainable meat for the pastrami and baking artisanal bagels and I am really excited about it.”
Yoskowitz, the New York-based proprietor of artisanal gefilte, kvass and blintzes and the co-author with Liz Alpern of “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods,” served as an Adamah farm fellow, where he first learned to make pickles. And it was this experience that inspired him to revitalize and reinvent Jewish food today as The Gefilteria. Yoskowitz wanted to celebrate yiddishkeit and was eager to create deeper connection to Jewish food.
“This is not a static tradition — that doesn’t mean that we’re making chocolate chip mint challah and that’s the answer necessarily,” Yoskowitz said. “But how do you have a deep meaningful tradition that isn’t locked in a prescriptive way of cooking or approach? Most people always say that it has to be this way, taste this way. To me, I push back on that a lot. Because are you kidding: 100 years ago, my great-grandmother she didn’t have a cookbook. She was living in a small shtetl — she only had one way of making it. […] I feel more a part of the food community doing Jewish work in it. I feel somewhat caught in between — that I’m part of the Jewish food movement and the Jewish food renaissance and that I’m in the Jewish world and in the food world and I think that it’s a healthy place to be.”
The first Hazon Food Conference was in 2006, a year when inspiration struck in the sustainable food movement and new Jewish food movement. It was also the year that Michael Pollan published “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the year that New York’s legendary 2nd Avenue Deli closed to later re-open in a new location. these examples were repeatedly cited as pivotal moments in ushering in the Jewish food renaissance.
This focus on returning back to the land created an earth-based Jewish practice. As the new Jewish food movement progresses and expands its reach, as a surge of Jewish-inspired delicatessens open around the country, as many of this year’s cookbook releases are focused on Jewish cuisine, the Hazon Food Conference provided a space for people to gather and to engage with this revitalization. “We are reaching a really interesting transition point where there is a lot of initial flash to what was happening. Whether that’s the celebrity chef world, the cookbooks now being things that you display on your coffee table as centerpieces,” said Belasco. “And we need to make that transition so that it’s no longer [just that] the side-line is organic, but those are the practices we use, the way we serve food in our institutions, in our homes, in our holidays.”
The Hazon Food Conference offered this opportunity for retreat, enabling participants to enjoy the incredible meals made with Adamah farm ingredients under one tent, to sing songs on Shabbat together and to engage in discussion on a range of topics from the role of kashrut today to farm-to-table trends to food justice policy to the best charoset recipes.
As I returned to my home in Tucson, Arizona — the first city in the United States to be a recognized as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy — and to my role as the Director of Arts & Culture at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, I reflected on the many ways to create “Jewish inspiration. Sustainable communities” — Hazon’s tagline. At our JCC, we have partnered with the local chapter of the International Rescue Committee to host Syrian and Somali refugee-led cooking classes as well as farm-to-table cooking classes with Tucson CSA and collaborate with Caridad Community Kitchen, a local food bank; we have committed to using compostable straws in our café; and maintain a community garden with plots used by JCC staff, members and the Tucson community in our desert backyard. I think of Jeffrey Yoskowitz quoting Liz Alpern: “Food is the vernacular of the day and Jewish is the language we speak.” I am energized by having learned an abundance of new vocabulary at the conference and am eager to share these precious words with my community.
Barbara Fenig is the Director of Arts & Culture at The Tucson Jewish Community Center. She is a native New Yorker and holds an MFA from Columbia University.