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The Art of the New Jewish Food Movement

Daniel Belasco is a New York based independent curator and art historian. He will be at the Gershman Y this Sunday (11AM) talking about, “Art, Jews, and Food”

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This past Sunday I had the pleasure of leading a walking tour of the art and design of Jewish food in the ever-changing Lower East Side of New York. My tour, the Nosh Lab, was part of the annual Council of American Jewish Museums conference. We visited the oldest and newest landmarks of Jewish food in the neighborhood–Russ and Daughters and Mile End Deli, respectively–and learned how the young owners of these lauded eateries use slow food processes to explore Jewish memory, relationships, ethics, and taste. This coming Sunday, by coincidence, I will be giving a more expansive talk at the Gershman Y on art and Jewish food.

Here are some of my initial thoughts on the subject, which will be illustrated with copious slides at the event:

One of the ways that contemporary food issues and artistic practices dovetail is with craft and the artisanal. In both food and art there are profound interest in recovering lost traditions and gaining closer relationships to materials, communities, and histories. Personal stories and ethical questions can be conveyed through artisanal practices. A photographer printing with silver, and a chef foraging for wild mushrooms, while seemingly different, in fact share the motivation to escape the limits and conventions of factory and commercial production and return to the personal taste of the home-grown and home-brewed. However, artists and foodies possess a definitively 21st century taste for both novelty and authenticity, which often produces a degree of irony and wit, such as hand-crafted bacon-flavored ice cream, and wood marquetry scenes of tattooists and skaters.

These trends are expressed in a variety of ways with Jewish food. There are passionate debates over kashrut and the ethical treatment of animals, from protesting violators to developing humanely treated kosher chickens. There are new delis creating locally sourced hand-crafted traditional foods like smoked meat. There are picklers and fermenters interested in the connections between preserving foods and Jewish history. There are foragers interested in the connection between Biblical wandering and wild foods. There are Jewish farms and farmers in North America finding new value in following Jewish law in farming practices in sowing and reaping. There are Israeli chefs pushing the limits of fresh preparation and the importance of do-it-yourself. There are Jewish CSAs (community supported agriculture) that connect synagogues and JCCs to local farms. Blogs, conferences, and academic research has begun to give shape to what has been recently been dubbed the New Jewish Food Movement. (See a good article by our April speaker Sue Fishkoff on the subject.) There is a strong desire to activate elements of past Jewish foods and traditions that address contemporary dilemmas. The grandmother looks large, not as an object of sentimental attachment, but as an active source of inspiration, recipes, and values guiding young artists and foodies on how to remain active and vital today.