Tag : Leah Koenig

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April 30, 2008 by

Baby Food

Any Jewish grandmother worth her salt will tell you that all you need to do to conceive a healthy baby boy is stand on your head at dawn every day while eating an egg salad sandwich. Or was it a piece of brisket eaten quickly during your evening bath?

Sound a little bit like an “old wives tale?” Well so does this idea, published by my favorite Jewish bubbe, The New York Times.

“How much a mother eats at the time of conception may influence whether she gives birth to a boy or a girl, a new report shows. The report, from researchers at Oxford and the University of Exeter in England, is said to be the first evidence that a child’s sex is associated with a mother’s diet. Although sex is genetically determined by whether sperm from the father supplies an X or Y chromosome, it appears that a mother’s body can favor the successful development of a male or female embryo.”

According to the article, women who eat a high calorie diet and good nutrition around the time of conception, are more likely to have a boy than a girl.” Unfortunately, the Oxford study was based on self-reported data from mothers who provided records of their eating habits during the early stages of pregnancy. In other words, women who were likely to feel slightly embarrassed or overwhelmed by their new “eating for two” food intake regimen – and therefore more likely to fudge the truth about what they were actually consuming.

I’m not exactly a scientist myself – perhaps a woman’s body can be more receptive territory for a boy or a girl, depending on what she eats. But when it comes to having a baby, it seems like the best method is to enjoy the 9 months of completely uninhibited eating and then love the child that comes out, whoever he or she is. Call it a gut feeling.

–Leah Koenig

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April 24, 2008 by

Start Baking

Amy Ephron at The Huffington Post has a theory: “In order to be First Lady you have to have a cookie recipe.” Ephron’s tone is (of course) tongue-in-cheek as she describes Martha Washington’s “jumbles,” Jackie Kennedy’s peanut brittle, and Nancy Reagan’s coconut macaroons – but she brings up several serious questions.

If Clinton gets elected President, what sort of “cookies” will Bill be required to make? In other words, how would a woman’s presidency change the traditional roles of first spouse? And, more importantly, how would it change the presidency itself?

What sort of expectations of traditional “feminine/motherly” conduct would be foisted on Clinton in the White House? How would she balance her necessary role as Commander-in-Chief with these expectations (or would she)? Would she be pressured – like former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was – to serve a literal “steaming pot of tea and [homemade] cookies” to diplomats? The answers to these questions remain to be seen – but if yesterday’s primary in Pennsylvania has anything to do with it, Bill better start perfecting his sugar cookie technique.

Golda Meir’s Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe here; Hillary Clinton’s Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe here.

–Leah Koenig

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April 2, 2008 by

Joseph and the Amazingly Expensive Commodity Crops

Today, I disagreed with Michael Pollan. (I know – I’m a little bit scared too.) According to an article in today’s NY Times, my favorite foodie believes that the rising price of commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans is a good thing. The Times reports:

“[Pollan] likes the idea that some kinds of food will cost more, and here’s one reason why: As the price of fossil fuels and commodities like grain climb, nutritionally questionable, high-profit ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup will, too. As a result, Cokes are likely to get smaller and cost more. Then, the argument goes, fewer people will drink them.”

In other words, if the price of a Big Mac goes up high enough, then people will switch to purchasing vegetables at the farmers’ market. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be member of Pollan’s shul – I buy his argument that paying more for “good” food like free range eggs or organic milk is worthwhile, and that cheap foods are falsely cheap (though perhaps not for long).

But I think Pollan’s assertion that: A (foods made with commodity crops) + B (higher prices on those crops) = C (consumers purchasing more fruits and veggies from small farms) doesn’t necessarily hold up for the majority of the country’s eaters.

It makes great sense for me – a religious farmers’ market shopper and CSA member who has access to local products more or less whenever I want them – to eschew the Mickey D’s and feel really good about buying local . But what about the many moms (and dads) who don’t have access to healthier alternatives? The Times reports:

“Someone on the margin who says ‘I’m struggling’ would say rising food costs are in no way a positive,” said Ephraim Leibtag of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Those folks who study Torah (or have ever seen the hit musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) know the following story: After interpreting Pharoah’s dream, Joseph convinces Pharoah to stockpile grain for seven years. When famine hits the region seven years later, Egypt is the only country with adequate food reserves.

Pollan’s assertions that higher priced commodity crops could lead to a significant change in consumer behavior assume that we (America) have already done adequate “stockpiling” work. But we have not. Farmers’ markets and CSAs – let alone fruits and veggies – do not yet reach into many of country’s poorest cities and rural areas. And according to a CNN report, “global food reserves [are] at their lowest in a quarter century,” which means bad weather this summer could send prices soaring even higher. With this in mind, I just don’t think it’s fair or particularly effective to say to lower and middle-class people people, “Okay, now your cheap food is expensive – have you thought about buying [also expensive] local food?”

So, while Pollan might be correct that the rising price of commodity crops might encourage some people to make the switch to local, grass fed, non-commodity foods, as long as the majority of consumers’ “fork votes” are going towards cheap food, “the intellectual musings of the food elite,” as The Times states, “might be trampled in the stampede to the value menu.”

–Leah Koenig

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March 19, 2008 by

Queen Esther the Vegetarian?

In this week’s Jerusalem Post, Dr. Richard Schwartz writes: “Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Achashverosh. She was thus able to avoid violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret.”

Well, sort of. As a vegetarian and a woman, I find Dr. Schwartz’s line of logic tempting. Hooray! Queen Esther, the sassy savior of the Jewish people, loved tofu! But he has the midrash backwards. There are actually conflicting opinions about what Esther chose to eat and refuse in the palace (one commentator suggests that she was actually served pork!). But the midrash that stuck is that she ate beans and legumes. If this was the case, then Queen Esther avoided meat so as to not violate the kosher laws in her non-Jewish surroundings. Her intention would not have been to eschew all flesh, as Dr. Schwartz suggests, just the non-kosher kind.

(more…)

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March 5, 2008 by

Portman’s Spicy Interfaith Flick

Israeli born actress, Natalie Portman recently made headlines for designing a new line of vegan shoes. (When I want to find stylish, leather-free shoes to match my vegetarian values, I head to Payless – but if Portman wants to make the $200 version, more power to her.)

Before the buzz about her humane footwear had a chance to subside, Portman was back in the news with another vegetarian venture. She’s set to star in Mira Nair’s new movie, “Kosher Vegetarian,” – which, like Nair’s last movie “The Namesake,” explores an interfaith romance. This time, the couple will consist of a Gujarati guy (actor, Ifran Khan) and Jewish girl (Portman).

When I posted a notice about the forthcoming flick on The Jew & The Carrot blog, a few more right-leaning readers got bunched up about the very thought of an interfaith relationship portrayed – and therefore somehow validated – on the screen. (Since I am the product of an interfaith marriage, their consternation really gets under my skin…but that’s another post.) To me, what’s more interesting than the same old conversation about how much intermarriage is ruining Judaism is the title of Nair’s film.

Supposedly, Kosher Vegetarian is only a tentative title, and my guess is that they’ll come up with something slightly sexier by the time the previews come out. But I find it fascinating that, at least for now, Nair hangs the movie’s emotional premise on food. As The New York Times’ recent article “I Love You, but You Love Meat” attested, the food we eat (and, more importantly don’t eat) can become a critical aspect of our relationships. If one partner is adamant about a particular dietary restriction, while the other is not – eating meals together (which is arguably the heart of most relationships) can get sticky. In the end, some couples break up solely because their culinary bottom lines do not meet. Whether or not Nair intends to place significant emphasis on food in her movie remains to be seen. But her title stands as a powerful reminder about how much our food choices impact our daily lives and relationships.

Luckily for “Kosher Vegetarian’s” star-crossed couple, Indian food is particularly amenable to the kosher laws. Now they just have to get past the in-laws.

–Leah Koenig

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February 20, 2008 by

Baby Bites

There’s a lot going on out there in foodie land these days – a giant, mostly symbolic meat recall by Westland/Hallmark Meat Company (ahem, 143 million pounds), the OU declaring that food from a cloned animal is kosher (seriously? yep.), Martha Stewart acquiring (eating up?) chef Emeril Lagasse’s media properties – it can put your head in a tizzy.

But the thing that caught my attention today was a new blog on Fit Pregnancy’s website, “Mom Appetit: We Are What I Eat.” Each blog post details an aspect of author, Zoe Singer’s “journey” as an eater for two: soy or no soy? grazing or meals? what do you eat when you’re too nauseous to eat?

Compared to some of the zinger stories above, a blog about eating while pregnant seems pretty mundane. But reading through the posts got me (a 20-something who is not considering having kids yet, but recently acknowledged it is within the realm of possibility in the next half decade or so) thinking about the power of pregnancy on the expectant-mother’s consumer choices.

In many cases, it seems organic food becomes crucial. Eating a pesticide-drenched apple on your own is one thing, but choosing to eat it while pregnant brings up a whole different set of ethical questions. Food diversity also becomes a big concern. Pre-baby, chinese takeout or scrambled eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seems perfectly acceptable – not so once you’re nourishing a growing being. There is so much research out there about foods that are potentially dangerous or particularly beneficial for a fetus, that – if you read any of that stuff – it’s almost impossible NOT to think about what you put in your body while you’re feeding someone else.

Of course it’s possible to go overboard with these concerns – and much of the “official research” out there is contradictory and potentially bogus. But I think there’s a food lesson to be learned from pregnant women: perhaps we should all eat as if we were nourishing not only ourselves, but someone else whom we cared about.

–Leah Koenig

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February 7, 2008 by

Keeping Quiet

Some writers would say I’ve officially made it. No, I’m not making a million dollars a year as a freelance writer yet (and word on the street is, I probably never will). But yesterday, while reading the most recent issue of PresentTense magazine, I saw that I got slammed in a Letter to the Editor. That counts for something, right?

The article I’d written was called “The Death of Eco-Kosher,” and it highlighted why I think, despite its good intentions, eco-kosher is actually a troublesome term for health and environmentally-conscious Jews, strictly observant Jews, and those folks who fall into both categories.

My dialogue-partner/the-guy-who-ripped-me-a-new-one, had no particular beef with my argument because, from what I could read in his response, he completely missed the point. He started in about “Contrary to Koenig’s implications, most Jews would not like to see Kashrut elided with a fair-trade eco-agenda” (I didn’t say that – in fact, the word “most” didn’t appear in the article at all), and “Furthermore, many people do not take nearly as kindly as Koenig seems to think to being lectured by ostensibly tolerant liberals on what is and isn’t ethical” (I would absolutely never assume such a thing).

The point is, on the one hand, I’m completely delighted to have someone get so riled up about something I wrote. In a sense, that’s the best compliment to a writer – knowing that someone either cared enough or was provoked enough by your words to actually sit down and pen a response. On the other hand, the way in which this reader responded to me was particularly irksome.

It’s pretty clear to me that he’s got some serious baggage around “liberal Jews,” and depending on where he’s coming from and how he grew up, that’s totally understandable. But his method of making his point was so hostile and obstinate, I couldn’t help but be reminded of those jerky guys (and sometimes girls, but less so) in college who would argue just for the sake of arguing. It also forced me to remember how I would respond to those guys – with flustered silence.

I’m not about to say that stubborn debating and trying to run intellectual circles around one’s opponent (while often not saying much of anything) is an inherently male trait. But I will say that growing up female and in the midwest, I feel like I was explicitly NOT taught how to argue in that way. I was taught how to make a rational point while hearing and acknowledging the other person’s point of view. And while I think that’s the higher road to take in any debate, I find it leaves me ill-equipped to respond in a satisfactory way when situations like this arise.

After some internal debating, I’ve decided not to write in a counter-response to the reader (I suppose I’m writing one by posting this – but I somehow doubt the reader reads a magazine like Lilith!). Ultimately, I don’t think it’s worth my time to argue with someone who can’t hear me. But I’m not entirely at ease with the decision – there’s still a small part of me that wishes I was indeed better at responding in kind to this sort of attack because, in truth, taking the high road often leaves your opponent feeling like he/she won.

To read my original article in PresentTense, click here.

–Leah Koenig

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January 23, 2008 by

The New Jew Food?

I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately. In comparison to the stereotypical “I use my oven as an extra shoe closet” New Yorker, I’ve
probably always cooked a lot for this city. But since I started freelance writing two days a week last summer, and especially since the New Year when I renewed my commitment to preparing my own meals, I’ve found myself spending much more time in the kitchen.

I’ve also discovered that there’s lots of time to think when one cooks – even if NPR is playing in the background. As I’ve tinkered with various types of cookies and tried out new recipes from my favorite Chanukah present, Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook (thanks Mom!), I’ve started to wonder, “what makes food feel Jewish?”

Yes, there are the old standbys – Chicken soup with matzah balls, fresh challah, pastrami on rye. And then there are the mysterious, and often severely unappetizing foods that you find in the “kosher food” section at the supermarket – gefilte fish, pickles, Manischewitz, and Tam Tam crackers. Honestly, I can only imagine what folks who aren’t familiar with Jewish eating must think when they see a supermarket shelf of glass jars filled with gelatinous objects suspended in a bunch of different colored murky liquids.

But when I fast forward to THIS century, and I start to think of all my amazing Jewish (and Jewishly committed) friends – friends who are worldly eaters, friends who are vegetarians, pescatarians and ethical meat eaters, gluten-free, local-food advocates, friends who are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi – the supermarket borscht just doesn’t seem to capture the breadth of their eating habits. So, does that mean that my Jewish friends just don’t eat “Jewish food,” or does it mean that the typical understanding of “Jewish food” hasn’t caught up to the Jewish people who eat it?

Two weekends ago, I made a Shabbat dinner for friends. I made vegetarian three-bean chili in my slow cooker, whole wheat challah, and a jicama and tangerine fruit salad, and an apple pie with a crumble-top crust for dessert. We ate it with store-bought hummus, pickles jarred by my friends (local Jewish farmers) and
artisanally-crafted cheese. Except for the challah and pickles, my bubbe probably wouldn’t recognize any of the foods I made as “traditional Jewish foods.” But to me, the meal couldn’t feel more Jewish – it was homey, and warm and brought friends and family around a table to celebrate Shabbat.

I think that the definition of Jewish food is changing – or needs to change – to include the way we eat today. Perhaps the iconic foods will stick around and my children will someday serve potato kugel to their families, but I truly hope that the spring vegetable matzah lasagna, or the roasted root vegetables I make in the winter make for Passover make it into the canon as well.

Rabbi, Chef, and food historian Gil Marks described what he thinks makes food Jewish on a recent PBS special on American Jewry. He focused mostly on tradition and the time-tested recipes our mothers and grandmothers made throughout history. I’m a big fan of Rabbi Marks, but I also think that defining Jewish food in this century is up to all of us. So – I’m wondering – what makes food feel Jewish to YOU?

–Leah Koenig

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January 10, 2008 by

Meeting of Minds

Last night I had the good fortune of attending a completely packed lecture at the 92nd Street Y called, “Hedonistic, Healthy, and Green: Can We Have
it All?” Featuring Michael Pollan (of The Omnivores Dilemma fame), Dan Barber (Head Chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns), and moderated by Joan Dye Gussow (This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader), it was the kind of event that sustainable foodies like me drool over. These are our movie stars, the people we choose when asked, “which famous person would you most want to take to dinner?”

The event itself was pretty straightforward: glowing introductions, 10-15 minutes from both speakers (Pollan on his new book In Defense of Food and
Barber on the fate of Boris, an over-the-hill – ahem – pig, that after much consideration by Barber’s team at Stone Barns, was turned into 500
pounds of the most delicious sausages he’d ever tasted and shared (20% of Boris’ sausages were donated to a local food bank), followed by questions
from Gussow and then from the audience.

The real meat of the evening was not in the format of the event, but in the meeting of these amazing minds. For Pollan, Barber, and Gussow, this
is life: travelling, speaking (often about the same thing), and answering questions. But for the audience, watching the exchange between these
sustainable food “rebbes” felt like watching your grandmother make her favorite recipe. It looked so simple and obvious, and you left feeling
full and nourished and inspired to try it yourself.

Many ideas were presented over the course of the evening, and I highly recommend purchasing In Defense of Food and making the trip to Blue Hill
at Stone Barns (even if you keep kosher and can’t eat in the restaurant, walking around the grounds – an old Rockefeller property – and seeing the
working farm would be worth it.) But to give you a taste, I’d like to focus on three, somewhat disconnected (but of course also connected)
points I heard either for the first time last night, or heard again in a new way.

B’tei Avon!

1. Food Tastes Better with a Story – Barber said that one of the reasons Boris’ sausage was so delicious, is that diners knew his back story. Not
only could they match their food with a source, but they could follow along the heartbreaking decision-making process Barber went through in
deciding ultimately to slaughter Boris.

So much of the food we eat in America comes frozen or processed or from far away. We don’t know who grew it, and – in many cases – human beings were replaced by machines in its processing. On the flip side, knowing where our food comes from, and the people and animals involved in bringing it to us, makes it all the more delicious and satisfying to eat. Barber said, “When you have a story to tell about food, people taste things they wouldn’t otherwise taste.”

2. Iowa and Food Politics – On the blog Serious Eats
Ed Levine asked the question, “which presidential candidates have actually articulated a food policy?” With all of the press around the Farm Bill this year, and so much interest around food and eating, you’d think that food would be a contending topic in the debates.

The full answer to Levine’s question is very complex, but Pollan gave one part of it, which I found really fascinating. He said that the Iowa
Caucus is actually a problem for farm policy. Politicians, he said, must bow down before the commodity crop subsidies and ethanol lobbies that rule
the state. It could be very dangerous for them to propose progressive food policy, and risk losing support in the first state everyone looks to
in the primaries.

3. Making Time to Cook – Many people claim that they don’t cook for themselves because they simply don’t have the time. Indeed, one of the
panelists quoted the statistic that the average American spends a mere hour and a half preparing their food every day.

That said, the same American spends 4 hours watching television and countless hours answering emails and surfing the internet. Where do those
hours come from, the panelists asked, and wouldn’t they be better spent preparing delicious meals to enjoy with our families and friends?

–Leah Koenig

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December 26, 2007 by

Season's Greetings–And Eatings

We’ve made it to the final stretch of the “holiday season” (read: the inclusive euphemism for Christmas and New Year’s Eve). Despite my friend’s insistence that, “no one says Merry Christmas in America” (he’s from England where supposedly everyone says Merry Christmas as if they have a tic, and now lives in New York City), the holidays – and particularly Christmas – can literally be felt, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

This phenomenon holds particularly true with food. No matter that Chanukah celebrations peaked half a month ago – holiday food is ubiquitous. From late November through New Year’s Eve, red-and-green wrapped chocolates seem to pop up out of nowhere. Alcohol, cookies, pie, and heavily salted snacks also take on “how-did-that-get-into-my-hand?” properties. And whether we spend Christmas dinner with friends, or celebrate the “Jewish way” with Chinese food and a movie, holiday foods have a tendency to find their way, often in excess, into our mouths.

During this time of year, I often find myself dancing between indulging in these foods, and worrying about gaining weight. On the one hand, I adore surprise chocolate – in fact I think it might be the best kind of chocolate. On the other, I’m bound up in the worry that I might not fit into my pants after December. I enthusiastically read (and then generally fail to implement) the guides to “avoid holiday weight gain” or “get thin in the New Year” that pop up around the internet. Guilt ensues. I make a few pathetic stabs to stop myself but feel rather helpless until the last Ghiradelli square is gone.

The whole thing can be rather stressful and leaves me craving January when all this “holiday season” business is finally over.

Still, I know there is untapped wisdom to be found around holiday eating – wisdom that goes beyond “avoid the eggnog.” At the Hazon Food Conference this past month, Nati Passow of The Jewish Farm School gave a keynote during which he said:

“I’ve heard the expression, “eat to live, don’t live to eat.” The idea being, don’t just go from one meal to the next always thinking about food. But I believe that as a society, we could use a little more living to eat. We need to give more attention to our food, not less. We need to celebrate real food, not consume it in liquid or energy bar form. We need to take hour long lunches, have meals with friends, bake our own bread, brew our own beer, grow our own corn.”

I think Nati is on to something. Perhaps one answer to the holiday feeding routine lies in a shift of focus towards living to eat, instead of struggling to curb our cravings and feeling guilty when we don’t succeed. This idea might sound counterintuitive at first – doesn’t living to eat lead to eating way too much?

But living to eat as Nati describes it does not mean eating huge amounts of absolutely everything. It means releasing our deep-seated fears and taboos around food. It means focusing our lives and celebrations around healthy, nourishing meals. It means getting involved with our food by growing it or learning to make it from scratch. It means eating more “real food,” – food that fills and sustains us without needing to gorge on it.

The holiday chocolate is not going to go away, nor should it. But my blessing for the rest of this holiday season (and throughout the year), is that instead of fighting with our food, we all discover what it truly means to live to eat.

–Leah Koenig

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