Thursday, December 31, 2009

Leaving the Corners of our Fields

Mishnah Peah, which a friend of mine and I have been studying weekly, begins with a passage that is familiar to many Jews, but which, like many Jewish texts, is deeper and more complex than might seem apparent on the surface. "These are the things without measure: the peah, the bikkurim, and the re'ayon." The re'ayon is the obligation to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem at each of the three major Jewish festivals; the bikkurim refers to the biblical obligation to bring the first fruits of one's harvest to the Temple on Shavuot; and the peah (after which this section of the mishnah is named) refers to the obligation to leave the corners of one's fields for the poor.

I always thought when I read this text that "these are the things without measure," it meant, "these are things that you have to do endlessly," as in, "you can never do enough of these; you can never say, 'been there, done that.'" That would make sense to those of us who aren't farmers anymore-- who have to understand these texts metaphorically if we're going to truly live them, truly attempt to live out these mitzvot even though we don't live on farms. We'd need to say to ourselves, "you can never do enough for the poor. There's no upper limit to what we have to do to help our fellow human beings."

But the second mishnah which immediately follows this text turns what I thought I understood on its head. "Your peah should be no less than 1/60th, even though they say there is no measure."

If you were actually a farmer; if your food came not from A & P or Kroger or Shop Rite but from the sweat of your brow and the soil of your backyard, you'd need to know not what's the maximum I can do, but rather, what's the minimum I have to do to fulfill my obligation while still maintaining my ability to feed my family, and possibly sell the rest at market.

It's the ultimate "world as it is, world as it should be" paradox. In the world as it should be, we'd all be generous. We'd all give alot to be willing to help each other. If we were actually farmers, we'd each leave large corners of our fields for the poor. And if we weren't actually farmers, we'd write big checks to charities and give massive amounts of food to the poor and spend a large amount of our time battling the root causes of hunger in the first place. Perhaps you know some people who do act this way- who constantly see it in their self-interest to help others.

But in the world as it is, most people don't automatically act this way. We tend to give little, see little value or priority in helping others, tend not to see our self-interest as mixed in with the interests of others. We tend to need to know what the minimum is we must do, what the minimum is that we must give, the minimum price we must pay that society might continue and that we might be allowed to go on our merry way. I don't believe that we're fundamentally selfish-- just that neither are we naturally selfless, either. And the rabbis of the mishnah, now 1800 years ago, knew this, too.

If we are farmers, we want to know, "what is the minimum I need to leave in my field so that I can do my share (but not automatically do more than that)?" If we are not farmers, the question might be essentially the same, as a starting place, in the world as it is: "what is the minimum I must carve out of what I have to share with those who have less (even if I'm not inclined to do more)?"

While we're working for the world as it should be, the rabbis were wise IMHO to get into the nitty gritty of the world as it is. Maybe they figured that if they gave us the minimums, we'd work towards giving more?

I wonder how we might leave the corners of our "fields" today?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Socked in with snow, dreaming of Tu B'Shevat

It's the biggest winter storm in recent memory on the East Coast... we're good and socked in with snow, which leaves me plenty of time to think about all the things I've left undone, like pay any attention to how much I love to write, and how little chance I take to do so...

This spot has been filled with so much promise, but like seeds in winter, the work of writing a blog needs love and dedication, and I've been exceedingly remiss. But with an exciting summer plan ahead of me, sooner than I think, I thought I'd give another go at reflecting on food and spirituality, and the connections between them. So here goes, with no promises...

My friend Ellen agitated me immensely and helpfully by challenging me to read "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer. Strange-- as I heard about the book, listened to interviews with Foer, and began asking friends and colleagues about it, the reaction I had was the same as the reaction I got from most of my friends-- "I am afraid to read this book."

"What are you afraid of?" I asked myself and others. It seems we were all afraid of the same thing-- afraid of confronting what we intuitively know-- that something is profoundly wrong with our food industry.

I had read Michael Pollan's work religiously-- Omnivore's Dilemma, Botany of Desire, In Defense of Food. I had thought a great deal, preached a great deal, about the complexities and conspiracies of our food intake.

But nothing shocked my system like Foer's book. While Pollan takes a moderate view-- "Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants," Foer's basic case is, once you really KNOW what's going on, how can you eat industrial fish, poultry, pork, or beef? Where Pollan encourages us to do the best we can, encouraging industry to change by way of our pocketbooks, Foer wants us to drop off the grid of meat eating altogether, because the whole system is so vile and cruel and unhealthy.

I have to say that as I went through all of the examples of farmers who are trying, to some extent, to do the right thing, as I followed Foer's systematic rejection of best practices and best efforts, I couldn't help but think that, had Foer written a book called "Eating Plants," he'd likely be equally unsatisfied with most every organic farming effort in this country.

But the long and short of it is that, since reading Foer's book, I am deeply agitated. I've eaten tuna salad, but no other animal protein. I'm actually revolted by the thought of eating meat right now. And, like Foer's dabbling with vegetarianism over the years, I am struggling with the question, "what's next?" Now that I KNOW, will I simply let time pass, agitation ease, and then go back to the way I was before? I don't want to. Now that I will never be able to say that I am ignorant of the travesty that is the industrial meat industry in this country, I can't go back to blissful ignorance. I can't go back; I just don't yet know what's in front of me.

And I'm hungry to know.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Don't Fence Me In

It's been fun to plan out, plant, and tend a brand new garden, and all the more so since we decided to put it in the front yard. Indeed, as predicted by the "Food, Not Lawns" philosophy, I have met more of our neighbors in the past three months of working on this garden than I did in the six years since we moved in.

At first, I got alot of what felt like "uh, oh, there goes the neighborhood" looks. But since then, there have been an increasing number of friendly dog walkers, bike riders, and joggers who stop to chat, to shmooze about what we're growing, about the price of food in general due to the rise in corn prices and gas prices, and, as well, about other local issues.

A generation and more ago, goes the thinking, our grandparents had front porches where they'd sit outside in the summer; kids would play on the street in front of the house with the neighbors kids, and people would get to know each other. I can't confirm the veracity of that myth, but I am sure there is a great deal of truth to it.

What's for sure is that now anymore, the front lawn has become like the old English Manor lawn, tended, fertilized, watered, and certainly not walked- or played on. No, instead we build big back porches, screened in, or add nice metal gazebos cheaply purchased from the local hardware conglomerate. We sit in the rear of the house, only chatting with the people we've specifically invited. We play and socialize in the back yard, we fence in our yards to boot, and then wonder how it is that we don't know our neighbors.

It's time we get out from behind our literal and figurative fences and reconnect with the people around us.

As far as I'm concerned, if you want to build a fence to keep the deer from snacking on your tomatoes, that's fine. But why fence yourself off from humanity when you can learn so much from your neighbors about the latest gossip, or get tips about how to make the best compost, or just share in the common struggles of living in 2008? What is it that my kids sing incessantly from High School Musical? We're all in this together...

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Pizza returns!

One year later, and with the encouragement of my local colleague Reverend Beth Quick, "The Pizza" is making a come-back!

So much to say, where do we begin?

I burned the first potato of the season. Yes, yes I did.

You see, inspired by a writer/permaculturist named Heather Flores who has the crazy idea of "Food Not Lawns," we planted a front yard garden this year. Sunflowers, carrots, a blueberry bush, basil, spearmint, rosemary, tomatoes, two kinds of lettuce, zucchini and potatoes are blossoming magnificently in our front yard in a 10 by 12 foot plot surrounded by metal fencing. It's gone so well, I almost fear to write about it.

Most of these things I've grown before, to some success. We threw the blueberry in for fun to see what happened, and then I planted the potatoes, sure somehow that since I have no Irish blood in me (as far as I know), I'd have no luck growing potatoes. And yet, there they are, going gangbusters!

The instructions that came with the potatoes said that as soon as they begin to flower, you can gently lift the plants and pick the small, new potatoes that are growing. I was so excited to see a flower and read this guidance that I ran right out and picked one. I ran back in, washed it, and put it in the microwave, hoping to pop the little guy right in my mouth, not two minutes removed from the ground.

Bad news. Two minutes in the microwave for a potato one-half-inch in diameter is apparently at least 90 seconds too long. I was impatiently puttering around the kitchen as the potato was being nuked, when Lys asked suddenly, "do you smell something burning?"

Yes, yes I did. One positively petrified potato.

If at first you don't succeed...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Rhubarb by Any Other Name...

My father loved rhubarb. We had a patch of rhubarb growing in our backyard growing up, and while I can't really remember ever actually trying any, I have always been convinced that I hated it, detested it, couldn't imagine ever trying it. Apparantly the plant is like a viscious weed-- you can never get rid of it once you plant it. I have no idea how he prepared it-- I'm fairly certain that he was the only one in our house to eat it. Elyssa has equally negative associations with the red red stuff.

And then, insert dramatic music here, the rhubarb arrived in our farm share. What to do? What to do indeed? We have resolved to use everything we get in our farm share each week. So far, it's been alot of greens and spices-- good, safe stuff so far.

But rhubarb? I didn't even know what I might do with rhubarb, even assuming I was so inclined. So I did a scientific study. And here's what I discovered. Seven out of ten people living in the Northeast offer nothing but blank stares when asked, "What should I do with the rhubarb I got in my farm share." And the other three say, "make rhubarb pie." When asked for a recipe, however, it transpires that even those three have never actually eaten rhubarb pie. It just seemed like the thing to say, apparently.

I went and saw all manner of rhubarb recipies, most prominently for varieties of rhubarb pie. Then I came across a recipe for rhubarb walnut muffins. It looked fabulous (other than thr rhubarb, of course), and easy, so we tried it. When they came out of the oven, I cut one in half and brought the 2 halves in to Elyssa for us to each try.

We have this funny thing we do whenever I make something I've never made before. I obnoxiously stare at her, making her try the first bite, just to make sure nothing terrible happens to her. She's always a really good sport, and I must say that what I cook usually turns out all right.

But not tonight. I brought the plate in, and she didn't flinch. Both of us looked at our muffin half like it might taste like castor oil. She lifted the muffin to her mouth, and then stopped, waiting to be sure that I was actually going to try the thing. In a gesture that qualifies us to mediate the Middle East conflict, we wordlessly agreed to pop the muffin in our mouths at the same time.

And suprise, suprise, we really like them!

Somewhere my father is laughing his head off.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Nothing like fresh greens...

Warm salmon on fresh greens with honey mustard dressing and slivered almonds. If there is a world to come, this might be a taste of it. And when the greens are really fresh-- like, picked this morning less than an hour away-- there's something truly extraordinary about them.

Our farm share deliveries started today, and the best part was how excited the boys are. Our eldest was so excited to help divide up the three types of salad, the collard greens, the garlic greens, and the fresh mint which made the whole synagogue smell good. And 41 families from the congregation and outside had a taste of local and organic tonight.

Now it's time for what Israelis call tea eem nana, tea with mint. I can't wait!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

How does your garden grow?

We've gotten past Shavu'ot, and the weather is beautiful.

From a historical perspective, this Jewish festival celebrates the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. But it's also an agricultural festival, marking the season of the first fruits of the harvest.

The major Jewish holidays, Passover, Shavu'ot, and Sukkot, all have agricultural roots to them, but I feel that we rarely stop to think of those roots, perhaps because we're so removed from the importance of that cycle. We generally focus instead on the historical associations with the holidays. Don't get me wrong-- those associations are critically important, too. But I do feel that getting back to the agricultural meaning of the days might just help us reconnect with the earth in ways it seems we've also forgotten.

We are eagerly trying to be organic gardeners, so, like Farmer Rich, we've been counting the days since Passover, watching as our garlic, tomatoes, carrots, and green pepper have gone from seeds to tiny plants in our kitchen window, and then into the ground in our backyard. They've endured benign neglect from the Mosbacher Family, late frosts from Mother Nature, and an early attack from our resident ground hog. At the risk of jinxing the whole enterprise, things seem to be going well, so far:

Left to right: tomatoes, green pepper (mystery plants in back), carrots

In the bed: Heirloom Garlic

The garlic, planted last October, appears that it might actually make it!

We even have a couple of mystery plants in the bed behind the pepper plant; Elyssa speculates that these are pumpkin plants sprouting up from some pumpkin seeds that must have made it into our bionic compost. Oh, we're so organic, I can't stand it!!

Fair Trade for Nine-Year Olds

My bright nine year old and I headed to our favorite donut-shop-that-must-not-be- named this morning. As we were exiting with our purchases, my son was nearly trampled to death by other impatient coffee-starved patrons as he stopped to read every decal on the exit door. You know, the ones that tell you the store hours and which credit cards are accepted.

As I yanked him (gently) to the relative saftey of the parking lot, he looked up at me with those bright eyes and asked, "Aba, what does 'We sell only Fair Trade Coffee' mean?"

This led to a great discussion about who makes/grows the food and drink we consume, and how much they do (or don't) get paid. The best part of the discussion was when he said, "Aba, that reminds me of The Story of the Pizza!" (Yeah, us!!)

He generously offered that if he owned the shop, he'd charge 4 dollars for a cup of coffee and give 2 dollars to the farmer. Praising him for his kindness, I reminded him that, from his remaining 2 dollars, he'd need to buy coffee cups, pay the electrical bill, pay someone to serve the coffee in the shop, and pay the rent on the shop itself. Leaving little or no money left over for the generous owner to buy Bionicles or Pizza for his family.

The talk then turned to a consideration of capitalism, roughly entitled, "Why Can't the Owner of the Donut Shop Charge 8 Dollars for a Cup of Coffee so that She Can Give 2 Dollars to the Farmer and Still Make a Profit?"

I'd say I handled the lecture on "Intro to Market Forces for Nine-Year-Olds" quite well, especially when you consider that the caffeine hadn't yet reached my nervous system!