Noshin’: Eating My Heart Out

The ocean at Asilomar Conference Center

I didn’t go to Jewish camp. Or Jewish day school — or even regularly attend a shul growing up. As a somewhat-recent convert, I don’t have any of the memories involving particularly eventful Pesach seders or Purim carnivals that many of my Jewish friends do. But it makes me all the more appreciative of my time at Hazon Food Conference 2009.

Where else can I sing birkat hamazon with 400 other Jews who I know get “eating and being satisfied” in the same way I do?

Where else would I have the opportunity to make havdalah with such exuberance that the floor is visibly reverberating under my feet from the combined force of, at minimum, 200 others?

These are now my memories, and these are my people — foodie Jews who care about taste, ethics, the environment, and even just the beauty of a bowl of dried fruit. But to say we were all the same would be absurd; I met people with all different careers — sex therapist, caterer, Jewish educator, math and philosophy student, farmer, botanist, historian, and author; people of all ages, from barely born to octogenarians; nationalities from the U.S. to the U.K., to Israel, and even Argentina.

My selfish, personal reasons for appreciating the conference aside, the event is not Nothing. It is Something.

Every person at the conference is a community leader who will take actionable knowledge back with them. Some of that information will only travel a few hours south to the San Francisco Bay Area (actually, a considerable chunk of it, based on the cities displayed on name tags), but it will also disperse to Seattle, Washington; Denver, Colorado; Brooklyn, New York; and yes, with me to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and beyond with every person in attendance.


Last lunch at the Hazon Food Conference 2009

What did we learn (besides what Adamah V’shamayim sounds like coming from a sea of well-fed Jews)? I can’t speak for everyone, but here are a few of the amazing nuggets I thought were worth sharing:

  • Joan Nathan encouraged us to document recipes as a way of preserving tradition; a whole generation of Jews in France had no idea about their heritage, and now those recipes are changing or going into extinction.
  • She also shared what I find to be the sweetest b’nei mitzvah gift ever: a lesson in baking challah under your experienced guidance, then send them home with the finished loaf(ves) along with measuring cups and the recipe.
  • Larry Jacobs of the Slow Money movement informed us that of the $500 billion ($500,000,000,000) given philanthropically each year, only 0.01% goes to sustainable agriculture. We need more “biophiliacs” — people who have an innate love for all things. And let’s not forget: 75 years ago, there was only organic food.
  • Nigel Savage, Hazon’s fearless leader, challenged us to bring back the Victory Garden, as well as be more open to Jewish tradition with seriousness and wholeness.
  • Monoculture in anything is a travesty, not just in food.
  • Rabbi Noah Farkas reminded us that schmutz is, in fact, real. At least if you keep kosher. (Separate your milk and meat dishes, people!)
  • And speaking of keeping kosher, there’s a serious argument for doing so, even if you don’t do it for religious reasons: every single ingredient is followed and scrutinized from start to finish in the production process, which can (but not always) equate to shorter ingredient lists and more reliably higher-quality foods. Sue Fishkoff told us that it’s part of the reason that so many non-Jews look for the kosher symbols: like Hebrew National hot dogs, kosher food answers to a higher authority.
  • There’s a certain kind of zen in tree pruning: they grow best when there aren’t a lot of superfluous branches getting in the way, much like our lives.
  • Sustainability isn’t just a term about environmentalism or why we should all compost — it also applies to our own efforts in improving our lives. If we take on too much too fast, we’re likely to drop all of it just as quickly. Slow and steady wins the race, just like “slow money” and “slow food.”
  • Cream cheese and smoked fish taste just as delicious on English muffins as they do on bagels, even if you feel silly eating it that way.
  • I really, really like vegetables.
  • “There is magnificence in the ocean,” and we are all water. Mah rabu ma’asecha, Adonai! (The blessing for general wonderfulness, or “How great are your works, Eternal One?”)

I’m all the more energized to start planning my own Victory Garden, learn how to compost (still can’t believe I missed Farmer D’s composing session!), and get some fruit trees going (in the wintry climes of Minnesota, no less). I have every intention of going back next year. I hope to see you there, because as Emily Freed reminded us on our first night of the conference, these are your people. And she was right. We may all be totally different, but they are mine. And they’re yours, too.

(This post was originally published on The Jew and the Carrot on December 28, 2009.