Has the Food Movement Reached Kosher LA?

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Myrna Meyers, a biology professor at USC and an Orthodox Jewish mother of six, checks a handful of homegrown, organic mint for non-kosher bugs. Photo by Sarah Rogozen.

Kale and quinoa have spread far and wide, but food trends don’t move at the same pace for everyone. The kosher community faces unique challenges in adopting more sustainable and artisanal ways of eating.

Call it trendy or just good old-fashioned gardening, but Myrna Meyers is serious about organic produce.

The USC biology professor’s Westwood backyard is filled with grapevines, fruit trees, quinoa plants and lots of herbs and vegetables.

As you might imagine, Meyers eats a lot of plant-based food. But preparing it can be time-consuming.

That’s because her family keeps kosher, which means they follow Jewish dietary law, known as kashrut (the noun form for kosher).

The dictates of kashrut are wide-ranging and detailed, covering everything from how to slaughter livestock to which animals are permissible to eat.

Pigs are famously forbidden, as are sea creatures that lack both fins and scales.

But when you’re creating a dinner from the produce in your garden, one of the most relevant rules is the prohibition on eating bugs.

Meyers' garden  Photo by Sarah Rogozen
Meyers’s garden
Photo by Sarah Rogozen(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Foods pulled from the earth, especially organics, are often crawling with tiny, well-camouflaged insects – many more than you might notice with a casual glance at your kale.

Try looking closely at the hairs on strawberries – some of them move.

The rule is that if you can see a bug with your naked eye, you can’t eat it. So observant Jews like Meyers wash and check their fruits and vegetables carefully.

Meyers, who has a background in invertebrate zoology, knows what she’s looking for. But when she’s cooking a lot of vegetables, the process can take a long time.

“You have to be very detailed in your checking, and it takes a lot of patience,” she says.

“And let’s say you’re a mom who has like seven kids, that’s a lot of lettuce to check.”

Meyers notes that some of her friends have stopped eating lettuce entirely. She’s cut out fresh broccoli because it’s too hard to look through the florets.

Local picklemaker Uri Laio. Photo courtesy Michele Grant. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Changing Standards

Los Angeles’s kosher community is in a transitional moment right now.

There’s a growing interest in farmers markets, but organic produce has the most bugs. There’s demand for humanely-raised, hormone-free kosher meat, but it’s quite expensive, and you have to ship it from the East Coast. (Try here or here.)

A lot of products are like that. Uri Laio is frustrated that he can’t find good sourdough.

“Even if you go to what are considered the fancier kosher bakeries, they’re still using the lowest-quality ingredients,” Laio says.

Laio is one of many younger people trying to get observant Jews to eat fewer processed foods. He’s a fermentation evangelist with his own pickle company, called Brassica and Brine.

“When I first approached some of the buyers at the kosher stores, they were skeptical about the price point of my sauerkraut.”

“They said, you know, our customers just want cheap food. They don’t want good quality. They don’t want healthy food.”

But Laio won over the skeptics and scored shelf space at both kosher and secular markets. In 2012, LA Weekly called him one of the top ten artisan food producers in Los Angeles.

Most people in the kosher community, however, aren’t eating local sauerkraut.

Restaurateur Michele Grant says that as the processed food industry blossomed in the twentieth century, American kosher eaters, like their neighbors, increasingly moved away from whole foods.

Processed products worked well for the community, because it was easy for the agencies who monitor compliance with kashrut to oversee the standardized operations of the typical food factory.

Michele Grant at her new artisan deli and specialty food shop, TKP Provisions Photo: courtesy Michele Grant
Michele Grant at her new kosher artisan deli and specialty food shop, TKP Provisions
Photo courtesy Michele Grant(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

And unlike homegrown organic vegetables, packaged ingredients aren’t fresh from the soil, with all the creepy crawlies that entails.

Grant, who made her name in the LA food scene serving sandwiches out of the Grilled Cheese Truck, has recently opened TKP Provisions, a kosher artisan deli and specialty food shop in Redondo Beach.

She hopes to inspire the kosher community to change the way it eats – starting with organic produce.

“If all of this is a gift from G-d, is putting poison on it really the best idea?” she asks.

Food Insecurity

Grant wants to see observant Jews think more about the provenance of their food – about how their steak was raised and who grew their salad greens.

When the community delves into the stories behind their food, she says, the questions they ask usually have more to do with kosher status than with sourcing.

“Who is making their food and how is it being made and is there any chance at all that something that isn’t kosher could accidentally get slipped into the food – that’s always a worry with folks.”

Kashrut is deeply important to its practitioners, who observe it for a variety of reasons.

Some appreciate its cultural history, or enjoy honoring family traditions.

Orthodox Judaism teaches that the Torah’s laws about food come directly from G-d. To transgress them is to break from the religion in a profound way that cuts to believers’ core personal and communal identities.

So people take a lot of care to make sure they don’t stray even unintentionally. Some consumers, Grant thinks, are afraid to try new foods, even if they’re certified kosher.

“Kosher worries are legitimate. You’re talking about someone’s diet. It’s a very personal and private thing,” Grant says.

“You have to sort of approach people and find a way to give them a space to go outside of their comfort zone but not so far that it’s scary.”

The menu board at TKP Provisions  Photo courtesy Michele Grant
The menu board at TKP Provisions
Photo courtesy Michele Grant(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At TKP Provisions, that means emphasizing the store’s strict kosher supervision and carefully labeling each product to ensure shoppers understand where it falls within the rubric of Jewish dietary law. (Some foods, like bacon-wrapped cheeseburgers, are universally understood as non-kosher, while various segments of the Jewish community disagree about other ingredients and their preparation.)

Grant reports that in her shop’s reassuring environment, her Orthodox customers are trying daring foods, like a sulfurous salt from India that tastes like a hard-boiled egg.

New Restaurants

A similar dynamic is taking place at Los Angeles’ kosher restaurants, says Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal and author of its Foodaism column.

For decades, the kosher corridor on Pico Boulevard has been filled with fast-casual falafel joints and old-time fancier places. Ethnic cuisines like Persian and Tunisian have especially flourished.

A quesadilla from Mexikosher Photo courtesy Katsuji Tanabe
A quesadilla from Mexikosher
Photo courtesy Katsuji Tanabe(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But in recent years, as other chefs – including many Jewish ones – embraced farmers market produce and established hip, creative kitchens like Sqirl and Bestia, no kosher equivalent followed.

That’s partly because the Orthodox Jewish palate tends to be a conservative one, Eshman says.

“People want steaks. People want chicken, grilled fish.”

But religious Jews read food blogs too. And a recent influx of young adults who adopted the strictures of kashrut later in life, and miss what they used to eat, has created a groundswell of interest in innovative cooking.

Today, Eshman argues, there is a new dynamism and DIY ethos in the kosher community.

Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage is curing its own pastrami. Mexikosher offers LA’s – and perhaps the country’s – first authentic kosher Mexican menu.

Eshman is particularly excited about two recent additions to the kosher corridor – Trattoria Natalie and Ditmas Kitchen & Cocktail, both helmed by chefs with strong food credentials and a sensitivity to their kosher audience. They’re introducing trendy preparations and modern dining rooms to Pico Boulevard.

Home Kitchens

Many kosher homes are changing too. Religious Jews are experimenting with vegan and paleo diets, drinking raw milk, and sometimes even slaughtering their own chickens.

Often these enthusiasts see mindful eating as the heart of a kosher diet, the truest expression of the Torah’s dietary laws.

But Myrna Meyers says that in her circles, where Jewish moms swap recipes on Facebook for sugar-free cookies and gluten-free cholent, eating local and organic isn’t about being trendy or sustainable or even religious.

It’s a way to keep your family healthy.

“We always were tied to the land,” Meyers says.

Myrna Meyers in front of her organic corn  Photo: Sarah Rogozen
Myrna Meyers in front of the organic corn she grows in her backyard
Photo by Sarah Rogozen(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“I mean, I’m not a farmer, but my mother always had a garden, and we always learned where things came from. I don’t know if that’s related to my Judaism or just to who I am anyhow.”

When you think about Jewish food, it’s usually matzah ball soup or potato kugel. But Jews have always eaten vegetables too.

And these days, they’re more likely to be organic.