Author Archives: Sue Fishkoff

Making Kosher Food Is an All-Night Affair

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Earlier this week, Sue Fishkoff wrote about watching a goat slaughtered and people who only keep kosher on holidays. She is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.

The most fascinating work of kosher food manufacturing takes place in the middle of the night. That’s when factories shut down their lines for koshering, when ovens are blasted with blowtorches and boiling water is run through miles of pipes and in and out of huge stainless steel vats.

That’s when the mashgiachs, or kosher supervisors, start work in industrial kitchens and banquet halls, cleaning bugs from pounds of lettuce, celery and other fresh produce.

And that’s when the flour for Manischewitz kosher-for-Passover matzah begins its journey from western Pennsylvania to the company’s $15 million manufacturing facility in Newark, NJ.

Matzah is important to Manischewitz. The 120-year-old company makes a wide range of kosher products, but it was founded in 1888 to produce kosher for Passover matzah on a new assembly line format, and matzah is still central to its mission. Like most ethnic kosher food manufacturers, Manischewitz’s busiest season is Passover. Fifty percent of its business involves kosher-for-Passover food. According to one survey, 24 percent of American non-Jewish consumers bought a Manischewitz product during the previous year; most of them bought matzah.

Passover matzah is the most labor-intensive kosher product in the world. As one of two sacramental foods required at the seder table, along with wine, its production is carefully controlled to ensure that water only comes into contact with the flour for less than 18 minutes. Longer than that and, according to rabbinic authorities, leavening might begin. That would mean it cannot be eaten at all during the eight-day Passover holiday.

In industrial production, the flour must be watched by a mashgiach from the time the wheat is milled until water is introduced to the flour during the mixing process. At that point the dough remains under even closer supervision to make sure it is completely baked in less than 18 minutes.

A Manischewitz Passover matzah begins its life in a wheat field in one of the mid-Atlantic states. The exact location is a trade secret. Red winter wheat is the preferred variety for unleavened bread because it is low-protein; protein in the dough produces air pockets that cause it to rise during baking.

The wheat is harvested and brought to another undisclosed location, a family-owned flour mill in rural western Pennsylvania where it is stored for up to three weeks before being ground into flour. A single wheat kernel moves through the grinding and sifting process in about 20 minutes. The milled flour is kept utterly dry in moisture-resistant bins, until it can be transferred to a tanker truck for the three-hour journey to Newark.

I spent a morning with Rabbi Yoel Lowenstein, mashgiach at the flour mill, as he met a freshly washed tank truck that pulled up at the mill shortly before dawn. He crawled inside the enormous steel tank with a flashlight to check for moisture. Running his hand along the curved sides, hepeered at the floor and felt carefully under the jagged metal rim. Then he crawled back out and climbed the stairs to the loading platform. The truck pulled up underneath the platform, and Lowenstein watched as close to 50,000 pounds of flour was pumped at high-speed into the intake valve atop the tanker. At one point he leaped down and scooped out a few plastic bags of flour, which the driver had to carry to Newark where it would be checked for moisture levels.

When the tanker was full, Lowenstein stretched plastic wrap over the 18-inch valve opening to seal it tight, replaced the heavy metal hatch, and closed it with yellow Orthodox Union plastic seals. He placed similar seals on the discharge valves, from which the flour will be pumped out. The seals can only be removed by another mashgiach after the truck arrives at the Newark plant. If even one seal is compromised during the journey, so is the flour’s integrity. Once, a truck carrying Passover flour to Newark got a flat tire, and the impact blew out one of the seals. The entire 50,000-pound load was rejected by Manischewitz.

After the flour arrives in Newark, it is stored in a large outdoor silo for no longer than a few days. Then it’s pumped into the plant for mixing and baking, a procedure that is timed to the second. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, longtime head rabbi at Manischewitz and a worldwide authority on Passover production and kosher food, guided me around the plant, pointing out the state-of-the-art matzah baking line he helped design. In the mixing room, he showed off the double kettle system imported from Israel. Flour is dumped down a chute into one kettle, then water is added through a thin yellow tube and the mixture is agitated until it forms a sticky dough that is extruded onto a conveyor belt to begin its short run to the ovens.

Batches of dough are mixed up and dropped every minute for 14 minutes. Then an alarm sounds, the kettles are rotated automatically, and the first kettle is thoroughly cleaned while the second kettle repeats the process.

Before each batch of dough hits the conveyor belt, a mashgiach monitoring the mixing grabs an egg-sized amount called challah, meaning “tithe,” and throws it in a bin for later discarding, according to Jewish law. The rest of the dough moves over and under a series of metal rollers that press it into thinner and thinner sheets, until the dough is ¼=inch thick. A final perforating roller scores it into matzah-sized squares, and adds tiny holes to ensure a thorough bake .

The dough hits the 700-degree oven between 11-14 minutes after the flour and water are first mixed. The legal limit is 18 minutes, but the company gives itself some wiggle room. If the system breaks down and the dough does not reach the oven in time, it must all be thrown out and the entire line taken apart and re-kashered.

When the hot, baked matzah emerges from the oven, it moves through a roller-coaster conveyor belt to cool, is cellophane wrapped into packages and boxed by hand, two packages per box. The boxes are stacked and moved out for delivery.

Manischewitz usually begins making Passover matzah right in early August, and produces Passover matzah through February. During the height of the Passover production season, one or two truckloads of flour arrive at the Manischewitz plant every day, about four hundred thousand pounds a week. The amount of matzah produced is mind-boggling, close to 76 million sheets per year. Fifteen or so full-time mashgiachs are employed to watch over every aspect of this enormous undertaking.

While making Passover matzah is a particularly delicate operation, similar stories take place behind the scenes of every kosher food manufacturer. Of all the things I witnessed during my 18 months researching this book, nothing matched this work for its energy, intensity, and sheer enormity of scale.

Sue Fishkoff’s new book, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, is now available. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning‘s Author Blog series.

Posted on November 5, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Getting Close to Your Food Is Harder when Meat Is Involved

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

On Monday, Sue Fishkoff wrote about people who only keep kosher on holidays. She is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.

The first time I had my hands inside a still-warm turkey, I wondered just how far I was willing to take this business of getting up close and personal with my food.

I was at an organic turkey farm an hour and a half north of San Francisco with two dozen other volunteers on a wet, cold winter morning in December 2008, preparing what would become the main entrée for the Hazon Food Conference’s Shabbat dinner later that week. We stomped around in the drizzle and fog, as organizer Roger Studley explained what we were about to do.

“We’re doing this old-school and hands-on,” he stated. “We’re doing it as a community, making meat for the conference we are about to attend. This is a project bringing us closer to the source of the food we are eating, making real the fact that we are taking the lives of animals in order to sustain ourselves.”

The annual Hazon conference is the preeminent national gathering of activists in the new Jewish food movement, a growing family of mainly younger Jews who want to make food choices that are in line with Jewish values as well as their moral and political beliefs concerning workers’ rights, good health, humane treatment of animals, environmental protection, and food access for the poor. This laundry list of concerns makes it difficult to feed a conference of 600 hungry people, something the organizers discovered earlier that summer when they debated whether to include meat at all for a gathering that typically includes so many hardcore vegetarians.

The choice was made — Shabbat isn’t Shabbat without the option of a roast bird — so there we were, watching shochet Andy Kastner grab the first turkey and slit its neck with a quick back-and-forth motion of his carefully sharpened knife.

Kastner was still in rabbinical school — he’s now the Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis. I’d met up with him a few months earlier at a kosher goat slaughter in a Connecticut field, and he’d shared his thoughts as he skinned and eviscerated his first mammal. It was, he admitted, not an easy experience.

By December he had more practice, and the turkey shechting went smoothly. The rest of the group split into two, with half of us assigned to hang up the just-slaughtered birds and pull out their feathers, while a smaller, braver group did the evisceration, pulling out the internal organs and plunging the turkeys into a plastic bin filled with water. To kasher and prepare the the birds, we had to soak them for half an hour, then cover them in salt for another hour, rinse them three times, and seal and pack them up for transport to the convention center.

The ground inside the storage shed where we worked quickly filled with flying feathers. As I concentrated on my task, I noticed that each bird I plucked felt farther removed from the living animal it had so recently been. Was that something my own consciousness was doing, to protect my emotions? Or was it the same phenomenon I observed when I worked on an assembly line in a kibbutz factory, where after a while automation leads to objectification?

I also thought about my grandmother, who bought her chickens from a kosher butcher in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, glad they were already plucked and gutted. How she would have shook her head and laughed at us, a bunch of city folk with romantic notions about the beauty of killing and cleaning our own meat. Who needs it, she would have chuckled.

But that Friday in the dining hall, when I looked at the roast turkey leg on my plate, I felt a giddy sense of pride. I found myself eating more slowly, savoring each bite as I remembered the hours of hard work involved in getting that bird to this table. I thought about the Jewish tradition of honoring the Shabbat by serving the best food one can afford, including meat, even if one avoids it the rest of the week. And I was struck once again by how Judaism takes note of the eternal cycle of life and death, commanding us to bless the food that sustains us before we put it into our mouths.

And it all made sense.

Sue Fishkoff’s new book, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts for the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning‘s Author Blog series.

Posted on November 3, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Allure of Kosher Food for the Jewish Holidays

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

Sue Fishkoff is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority. She will be blogging all week of the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

When I’m invited to a Shabbat or holiday meal in a Jewish home, I always bring kosher wine. Not just that, I try to make it Israeli.

It’s not because I keep kosher. And it’s not because the people I’m visiting necessarily keep kosher either.

If wine by any other name smells as sweet, why bother?

I know I’m not alone—plenty of Jews who ordinarily ignore the laws of kashrut buy kosher wine for Shabbat, stock their pantries with kosher-for-Passover food every spring, and pay extra for kosher catering at their simchas.

Hypocritical? Yes, if you believe that procuring and ingesting kosher food has merit only within the context of a fully observant lifestyle. But that construct holds sway today mainly at the far ends of the observance spectrum, among the most hard-line haredim, for whom any deviation from the path plunges the offender into heresy, and the few remaining Classical Reform Jews who are hostile to Jewish rituals in general, including kashrut.

Increasing numbers of American Jews, however, do not consider the kosher diet a divine commandment but an expression of Jewish identity, a mark of membership in the tribe. As such, it is a moving target. Putting kosher food on the table does not signal one’s denominational affiliation or level of observance so much as the strength of one’s connection to Jewish history, Jewish community, and even the land of Israel.

It’s a different, very modern and specifically Western way of looking at Jewish dietary practice.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to the Mintel International Group, a market research firm that releases periodic reports on the kosher industry, more than 40 percent of the food sold in American supermarkets is kosher-certified. The group’s January 2009 report claimed that $195 billion of the previous year’s $400 billion in food sales came from kosher products, an astounding figure given that Jews make up less than three percent of the population—and most don’t even keep kosher.

Sure, most of that kosher-certified food represents mainstream products like Heinz ketchup and Tropicana orange juice that consumers buy without regard to its kosher status. More telling is the same report’s figure of $12.5 billion in sales within the dedicated kosher market, meaning products purchased because of the kosher label.

Who’s buying this food? Many are non-Jews who believe that kosher food, especially kosher meat and poultry, is safer, healthier, and of higher quality than its non-kosher counterpart. Others are non-Jews whose moral or religious beliefs are satisfied by kosher certification—Muslims who buy kosher meat when halal is unavailable, and vegetarians who look for a “D” symbol indicating a meatless product, fall into this category. They might be lactose-intolerant, assured by a pareve label that a product contains no dairy; there are a host of reasons.

But many of the people who buy kosher food on purpose are Jewish, simply nonobservant. Some of them buy kosher products for the same reason as non-Jews: they believe it’s safer or of higher quality. But many more do it for reasons of community, tradition and Jewish identity.

This is particularly true on the Jewish holidays, which have become times for nonobservant Jews to connect with their history by putting Jewish food on the table. Many Jews who don’t keep kosher the rest of the year buy kosher wine and matzo for Passover, sometimes out of respect for parents or grandparents, sometimes because it makes them feel more Jewish, and sometimes because of an inchoate feeling that it would be wrong to do otherwise.

When I was researching Kosher Nation, I spoke to many nonobservant or partially observant Jews who bring out the kosher food on sacred occasions.

One woman told me she keeps a kosher-style home, meaning she does not bring in pork or shellfish, but she will buy packaged food products without kosher symbols. But when her children were little, she made the family home kosher for Passover every spring. They’d put all the bread, pasta, cereals, and other non-Passover foods in a pantry, which she would lock for the duration of the holiday. The kids would draw skulls and crossbones on the door to indicate it was off-limits for the next eight days. She also bought kosher-for-Passover food items, even though those same foods without kosher symbols were good enough the rest of the year.

“Partly it was how I was raised,” she told me. “Partly it’s a way to identify as Jewish. And partly it’s to honor my forefathers and foremothers.”

So why do I seek out kosher, Israeli wine for Shabbat and Jewish holidays? Probably because I miss Israel, where I lived for many years. Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about the (illusory) power of the artifact to collapse the distance between producer and consumer. When I hold a bottle of Yarden or Gamla wine, I feel a physical connection to the soil, the grapes, and the workers who produced it. And when I pour it into my cup and make the kiddush, I feel connected to the generations of Jews who have broken bread together over the years, and who are doing so today no matter where they live.

Illusory? Not to the soul. Names do matter, no matter how sweet the drink.

A version of this article originally appeared at www.jta.org. Sue Fishkoff will be blogging all week for the JBC/MJL http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Jewish_World_Today/Jews_and_Non-Jews/Jewish-Muslim_Relations.shtml

Posted on November 1, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy