The largest supplier of kosher meat in America, Agriprocessors Inc., has been the subject of ongoing public investigation and criticism for two years now.
An undercover investigation in the Forward newspaper first revealed inhumane treatment of cows at the company, located in Postville, Iowa.
A further investigation brought charges of exploitative labor practices.
Then, on the morning of May 12, 2008, in what officials called, "the largest single-site operation of its kind in American history," 900 agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement executed a raid of Agriprocessors.
They rounded up hundreds of illegal immigrants, who comprised some 75 percent of the company's workforce.
A subsequent story by New York Times reporter Julia Preston found that 20 of the employees were underage, some as young as 13.
The article reported on several sickening incidences, including one, documented by an company report, in which a worker holding a knife was kicked by a rabbi, cut himself, was sent for stitches, then ordered back on the line.
Agriprocessors has refuted, fought or attempted to make right on these charges. The company brought in animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin to advise on raising the company's animal treatment standards.
Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin denied he has engaged in unethical labor practices and blamed the failure of U.S. immigration policy.
"Everything is a lie," Rubashkin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The company has taken out full-page ads in the Jewish press, including this paper, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges.
Last week, it hosted a group of 25 Orthodox rabbis from the United States and Canada on a one-day visit to the plant.
"It's a different picture than what's been portrayed," Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of Chabad of Yorba Linda told me. "We roamed the plant for hours, talked to anybody we wanted to. The working conditions, the safety benefits, I found them above par. It's not the reality the unions are telling."
The trip may have served to calm concerns among some kosher consumers, but judging by my mail, the damage is far more widespread.
Bambi trailer (1942)
"What will The JEWS Think of Next?!?!?" read a letter I received this week. Inside, the author had considerately attached a folded copy of Preston's New York Times article.
Of course, the image of bearded, black-hatted rabbis abusing farm animals and poor Guatemalan workers is red meat to the scattered anti-Semites out there, but this isn't a problem of anti-Semitism.
Kashrut is a legal system rooted in morality, and the problems at Agriprocessors occurred because we chose to look away from the messy business of killing animals for food.
Now, like the rest of America, we are looking. There is great unease with our food supply and our factory farm system, a system created by market forces that places profit and efficiency above sustainability, kindness and flavor. The Jews, to our discredit, have simply followed the market's lead
But just as Americans in general are taking control of their food supply
That's why another common e-mail I get these days is also about meat
My search led me to Musicon Farms, a mail-order source for venison.
That's right, deer. Kosher Bambi.
Norman Schlaff runs Musicon Farms, the only kosher venison farm in the United States.
Situated on 100 acres in Goshen, in upstate New York, the farm slaughters about 25 deer every six weeks. Customers include high-end restaurants in New York, such as Le Marais and Levana; mail-order customers nationwide, and Tierra Sur, the exceptional Oxnard restaurant headed by chef Todd Aarons.
If you Google Musicon, you'll find some nasty comments from the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They sent undercover investigators there who took footage of the slaughter, and I gasped watching Bambi's throat cut
Schlaff, in a phone interview with me, maintained that his animals are treated with care
Schlaff, a New York native, made his money in sound engineering
And he understands slaughtering
"It takes a day to get it out of your system," he said.
And so, putting my money where my mouth is, I ordered.
The package arrived overnight from UPS. Inside, beneath several high-tech layers of insulation and packing ice, were 10 pounds of individually wrapped and freshly butchered venison steaks, chops and stew meat.
The next day, I turned the cute deer I'd seen on Musicon's Web site into cholent.
It was delicious, and morally challenging, and discomfiting
Summer Venison Cholent
This makes a lighter, more broth-y cholent that is perfect for warm summer days. If you don't have any dead deer handy, you can substitute beef, or for a vegetarian version add 1 cup pearl barley.
2 medium onions, peeled and cut in quarters
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
1 cup dried white beans, rinsed very well
8 sundried tomatoes
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in 1 inch chunks
1 stalk celery and leaves, cut in1 inch slices
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
1/4 cup olive oil
6 eggs, washed very well
1 1/2 pounds venison stew meat
1/4 cup brandy or cognac (optional)
1 t. sweet paprika
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
Choose a large dutch oven or casserole pan with a tight fitting lid, the kind you can use on the stove and in the oven.
Heat the olive oil until hot, add the stew meat and bones and quickly brown on all sides.
Remove the meat and bones. Add the onion, garlic and paprika and brown for 5 minutes. Deglaze the pot with brandy or cognac (or, if you prefer, skip this step).
Add all the other ingredients, including the meat and bones, placing the eggs on top carefully.
Add water 3/4 of the way to the top. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Cover the pot with the lid and place in the oven for 6 hours or overnight.
To serve, carefully remove the lid, give each person a whole egg, some meat and vegetables and plenty of broth. And say a little blessing for the deer.
-- Rob Eshman