Posted by Rob Eshman
In his “Off the Pulpit” e-mail column today, Rabbi David Wolpe declares his long-time vegetarianism. Rabbi Wolpe is one of the leading rabbis in the country—an accomplished author and speaker who leads one of the major Conservative congregation in the west, Sinai Temple. In the past we’ve run stories on hos he single-handedly, using his considerable rhetorical gifts, swayed his congregation to give up their gas hogs for Priuses, or donate to help Israel, or any number of other worthy causes. But has he ever tried to ween them off animal flesh? Not that I know of. Sinai Temple is a big, meaty shul. About a third of the congregants are Persian Jews, and I suspect there’s not lot of veggies in the lot. A Persian meal may be tricked out with a thousand pilafs and adorned with bowls of fruits and nuts and haystacks of fresh herbs, but the heart of the exercise is meat: stews, kebab and, as the community has grown wealthier and more Americanized, hunks of roasts. This is a people who loves their meat. They would follow their beloved rabbi anywhere—he has proven that—but even he knows how far to lead.
That has to be challenging, because not eating animals is very much part of his heart and soul. As he writes:
I have not eaten chicken or meat for decades. I readily acknowledge that Judaism does not ask this of me. Kashrut is not vegetarianism. But kashrut is a reminder of Judaism’s concern with animal suffering.
The Talmud tells the story of a frightened calf on its way to slaughter breaking free to hide under the robes of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, one of the greatest of the Talmudic Rabbis. Rabbi Judah Hanasi pushes the calf away declaring, “Go — for this purpose you were created.” This insensitivity was punished, the Talmud relates, and the rabbi later repented. (B.M. 85a)
Tza’ar Ba’alei chayim, acknowledging and preventing the suffering of living creatures, is an important Jewish principle. Nature may be “red in tooth and claw,” but we are both part of nature and commanded to rise above it. For human beings, instinct is the beginning of the story, not its culmination. To make those in our power suffer, whether people or animals, is to darken our own souls.
Many biblical heroes are shepherds; animals too must rest on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:20) and the bible legislates many other protections for animals. We are the custodians of creation. Our first responsibility is to be kind.
To attend a Persian feast (let along an Ashkenazi steak-and-chicken fest) is to see the fruits of factory farming laid out in abundance. As much joy as the rabbi takes in celebrating with his congregants, he has to wince at the buffet. At a benefit for the Shoah Foundation last year, we sat next to each other. The food was well above average—pumpkin ravioli in sage cream sauce, rare lamb chops—but the rabbi told the server he wouldn’t be eating. He nursed a glass of red wine all night—“My kind of meal,” I said.
Many years ago I ate with him at his favorite restaurant, Real Food Daily on La Cienega. My sense is the rabbi isn’t just veggie, he leans vegan. He plunged into whatever was on offer, but I was less enthralled. With its tempeh burgers and Tofu Reubens, Real Food always struck me as faking real food. If I go vegan, give me an honest sabzi polo, not a substitute deli dish. Anyway, the rabbi was happy.
But does eating meat somehow lower us, does it, as the rabbi says, “darken our own souls?” I’m not convinced. As Barbara Kingsolver writes:
“I find myself fundamentally aligned with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Unaccountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—the beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie burgers—are lives plumb wasted….
…“We raise these creatures for a reason.” *What, to kill them? It seems that sensitivity and compassion to animals is lacking in this comment.
“To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte’s Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d’Urbervilles…
“Recently while I was cooking eggs, my kids sat at the kitchen table entertaining me with readings from a magazine profile of a famous, rather young vegan movie star….What a life’s work for that poor gal: traipsing about the farm in her strappy heels, weaving among the cow flops, bending gracefully to pick up eggs and stick them in an incubator where they would maddeningly hatch, and grow bent on laying more eggs. It’s dirty work, trying to save an endless chain of uneaten lives. Realisticially, my kids observed, she’d hire somebody.”
“My animals all had a good life, with death as its natural end. It’s not without thought and gratitude that I slaughter my own animals, it is a hard thing to do. It’s taken me time to be able to eat my own lambs that I had played with.”
Rabbi Wolpe points out that, “Many biblical heroes are shepherds,” but of course those shepherds raised animals for food and ate the animals they raised. Meat suffuses the Bible—raising it, cooking it, sacrificing it. It strikes me that the Torah at least accepts and more likely promotes killing animals as part and parcel of a holy life.
That leaves the major question of how: how do we treat animals, kill them, and eat them? That is where holiness enters the equation—that is where we have the opportunity to raise ourselves beyond our “animal nature.”
But, still, the rabbi needs to eat, and eat well. So below is a recipe for Sabzi Polo, an herby Persian pilaf fluffed with herbs and studded with the fresh fava beans that are in the farmers markets these days. The picture and slide shows shows Santa Monica Kosher Market’s sabzi, as well as its shishlik grill which fills the parking lot each Sunday and sends plumes of agonizingly fine smelling smoke (to me, not Rabbi wolpe) down Santa Monica Blvd.
6 cups water
4 cups uncooked long-grain white rice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
3 cups fresh fava beans
1 T. ground turmeric
1/2 c. shelled pistachio nuts
salt and fresh grown pepper to taste
In a large saucepan bring water to a boil and 1 t. salt to boil. Pour rice into boiling water. Boil until rice rises to the surface of the water. Drain rice and return it to the saucepan. Stir in the oil and water. Mix in the dill, parsley, cilantro, fava beans, salt and pepper.
Cook the rice over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Reduce heat to the lowest setting. Cover and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
Turn out onto platter and decorate with tumeric and shelled pistachio nuts.
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March 2, 2010 | 11:00 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Touchy touchy. Last week in Foodaism I dared suggest that Saveur magazine may have been overhyping things by declaring Los Angeles “The Ultimate Food City.” To read the bawling, angry, acting-out reactions to my post you’d think I called for every Yelper to be sent to bed without his Kogi. So this week I’ll do what any good child psychologist would have suggested I do first: use positive language.
To reiterate my basic point: LA has wonderful food. It has bountiful ethnic restaurants and markets, some very good high end places, and an impressive web of farmer’s markets. Saveur got all that right. But LA is not yet the ultimate food city; it is not even a great food city. That was the thrust of my criticism. I didn’t mean to insult those who just discovered Koreatown, where I’ve been working and eating for the past 16 years, back when there were more bad Fillipino places there than good Korean ones (Who else remembers the Jitney Café?). And who knew that Palms has such a loyal fan base. You’d almost think it was, I don’t know, Venice.
Yes, I love that I can—as I did not long ago—stop on the way to work at the Argentine café Grand Casino for a yerba mate and a cornetto, continue onto Koreatown where at lunch a Korean chef will show a Latino busboy how to make my Japanese sushi roll, then pop into the Tar Pit on the way home for a meeting and drink a glorious concoction of bay leaf infused vodka, oloroso sherry and flamed orange rind, grab a cupcake for the kids at Famous Cupcake, then have dinner at Ado, where the chef/owner is in the kitchen and the maitre d’ owner would hold his hand on a light bulb if you told him it was too bright. That is a good food day, in a very good food city. (Not average though—usually I make my own mate, grab an avocado sandwich from Sunny and Charles at Trimana, and make dinner for the family at home).
But here, on the positive side, are the Nine Ways to Make LA a Great Food City. Read to the end, then add Number 10:
1. Open a Massive, Throbbing, Heart-Stopping, Hunger-Stirring Big-Ass Perpetual Farmers Market.
Think Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market, but indoors in a landmark centrally-located building, open 7 days a week. Think Les Halles of the 19th century, updated to the 21st. This would be the jewel in LA’s food crown—a showcase for the finest locally-grown ingredients, a ready market to encourage new growers and artisan food makers, a place for chefs and diners to mingle, a spur for new food and food education. Yes we have Grand Central and the Farmers Market on 3rd and Fairfax, and maybe these could morph into that, but they aren’t there yet.
2. Triple the number of Food AND PROVISION trucks
Those food trucks descending like fine smelling SWAT wagons into Venice and Holywood and Mid-Wilshire prove that in a city that makes it hard to get to food, there is an abundant market for food that gets to you. Build on that success. Bring back the bakery and vegetable and seltzer trucks that used to cruise LA—one of my happiest childhood memories is of the Helms Bakery truck that regularly honked its horn in front of my Encino house, bringing the Mad Men-era housewives and us kids out for bread and a glazed donut. The Japanese man who sold vegetables out of the back of his truck soon followed. Besides making sure good food permeates the city’s long stretches of mediocrity, a new food truck flotilla would create impromptu neighborhood meeting places.
3. Free up zoning and licensing to mix food businesses and residential areas, and F the NIMBYs.
When I dared dis Palms in my last post, what I meant was that between Pico and Venice boulevards to the south and north and between Lincoln and National (to be kind) on the west and east, there is NOTHING TO EAT. Nowhere to stop. If you want to walk from your house for a cup of good coffee, you will walk for a mile. True, at the scale of fully tanked-up car LA’s food is spread out before you like Babbette’s Feast, but driving from course to course does not a great food city make. The key is to integrate high quality corner stores, cafes, restaurants and bars into neighborhoods. Make good food a part of the block, not a distant destination. Of course when proprietors try to do that, neighbors load on so many conditional users the bottom line won’t pan out.
4. Loosen after hours regulations and encourage more late dining out
A lot of great dining happens after 10, in Madrid, in Bangkok, in Buenos Airies. This town closes up too early. What about keeping the lights on the Venice Boardwalk on warm nights, and turning it into a strolling promenade like the Zattere in the real Venice? Let people linger, eat late, enjoy.
5. Improve public transportation
To be a great food city you need to have diners who can get around to eat it, explore it, stay late enjoying it. Many commenters pointed out the fact that LA’s miserable public transportation system makes that difficult, but that, they say, is the problem with LA, not LA’s food. To which I say, quoting Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, “I don’t care.” Doesn’t matter whose fault it is, it is an irrefutable damper on LA’s ability to be a great food city.
6. Encourage City and Suburban Agriculture
The more stuff we grow, the stronger our ties to good fresh ingredients and the chefs who turn them into good food. Turn lawns into artichoke plots, empty lots into tomato fields, sideyards into chicken coops—a pygmy milk goat or two on every block! Make it easy and legal to sell the excess at neighborhood farm stands.
7. Invest in Yummier Schools
I believe that children are our future. No, really. The more money and time we put into programs like Alice Waters Edible Schoolyards, the more the next generation won’t settle for calling LA the ultimate food city, yet.
8. Zone for More Outdoor Cafés, Especially on the Coast
As I said, we have the best weather and the fewest outdoor cafes; some of the nicest beaches and the worst coastal dining. Let’s convince the county and the powers that be that there is revenue in smart restaurant growth along the beaches.
9. Make the Supermarkets Part of the Solution
Jim Murez, who runs the Friday Venice Farmers Market, rightly points out that LA food revolves around the car and the supermarket. When you consider the quality of the supermarkets, you understand a lot about how far we have to go to improve people’s understanding of how good food can be. But that’s where we are, and that’s where we need to start. So here’s the plan: encourage the supermarkets to carry more local food and produce; to hold more nutrition, cooking and gardening demos, to use some of their hardscaping for demo gardens, to work with local chefs to promote better eating and cooking.
That’s my list of 9. What’s your #10?
March 1, 2010 | 12:30 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Has Norman Lear found God? I don’t mean, has the television pioneer become religious, I mean: maybe the guy has really uncovered Who and What God is.
I read his blog on Huffington Post and kept hearing a little voice saying, “Yeah, yeah,” and then realized that little voice was my own, and it was talking out loud. Lear’s God is the God of a Great Peach, of a Good Cigar, the God that provides pleasure and beauty where mere sustenance would suffice:
Still, ever since my early twenties when I smoked my first good cigar, I have felt that if there was no other reason to believe in God, Havana leaf would suffice. I’ve had similar epiphanies while biting into a ripe peach, a just-ready piece of Crenshaw melon or a great ear of corn.
I’ve sensed God’s presence while sitting in the back of a dark theater where a comedy was playing, watching an audience of a thousand strangers coming forward as one, rising in their seats and then falling back, as people do when they are laughing from the belly. I’ve fallen in love with a total stranger, several aisles and many rows away, just at the sound of his or her distinct laugh. And I’ve experienced God’s presence—Him, Her, It, nobody’s been there and come back to describe God to me—in the faces of my wife, my children, and my grandchildren, and every time throughout my working life when I’ve gone to bed with a second act problem and awakened in the morning with the solution.
That God is the God of this blog. It suffices for 95 percent of what life throws your way. As Lear said, let others deem it shallow, unscholarly, non-theological:
I love writing this because I think that this subject—the “What’s it all about, Alfie” question—is the best conversation going. Just plain folks, unfortunately, can’t get into it, because the rabbis, the priests, the ministers, mullahs and the reverends—the professionals—have a corner on the subject. The authority of their stained-glass rhetoric can be, and is often intended to be, intimidating to those of us who either lack a depth of knowledge in scripture or know scripture but choose to come to God in their own way and in their own language. And so, the sectarian rivalry and sanctimonious bickering about moral superiority and spiritual infallibility that occurs among the professionals often assumes a greater importance than the religious experience itself.
I know, they can be intimidating, the professionals. To speak of God in a peach, in a smile— those are the ideas of a luftmensch, a wispy-minded man, they will say. Tow hich I say, yes, I am a luftmensch, but a serious luftmensch, a luftmensch who has given his luftmensch-ness a lot of thought, who has devoted an entire blog to this luftmensch of an idea, a blog with recipes.
And to find in the course of my web surfing a like-minded soul—a like minded soul in the brain and body of such a brilliant, profound and accomplished man—not bad.
In this arena I am a groper (an Unaffiliated Groper, since I have not joined a congregation) incrementally feeling my way toward greater understanding. And I am on Nature’s timeline where a century may be less than a blink. On that scale, as a mere 87-year- old, my search is in the early fetal stage so forgive me my lack of certainty as I seek meaning in life.
As my compact with our Maker develops, I believe it unique to me. I believe all our compacts with that entity are totally unique. No two alike. Take three hundred or three thousand people, sitting knee to knee in the same pews, praying together week after week, year after year, from the same sacred text, and I submit that no two congregants are having the same inner experience. But we are all nurtured by the same things in nature and our capacities for awe and wonder.
I like the metaphor of the thousand-mile river. It passes through time zones and climate changes occur along its path. Responding to the changing climate, the trees, shrubbery and vegetation along the riverbank changes also. But it is the same water responsible for nourishing every bit of growth. There are spiritual waters, call it the River of Reverence, that nourishes all of us who grope for understanding on a journey that will last all our lives and beyond.
There should be a Church for people like us.
There’s not just a church, Norman, there’s a whole religion: Foodaism. Welcome. And have a bite.