The Lion's Tale

Hungry for a healthy diet: Local Jewish eaters, chefs embrace green nutrition trends

photo by Caroline Weinstein

photo by Caroline Weinstein

Ari Feuer and Rina Torchinsky, Outgoing Editors-in-Chief

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Washington, D.C. restaurateur Sara Polon walks into her Takoma Park restaurant Soupergirl and starts preparing her colorful soups. Polon and her staff wake up the stove and mix together their all-natural, vegan ingredients into one of the most popular soups in the D.C. area.

Polon, who graduated CESJDS in 1995, taps into growing trends for Americans: vegetarianism and veganism. According to a 2016 national Pew study, 12 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say that they are vegetarian. This number is more than double the number of people over 65 who are vegetarians.

With a large young population, D.C. is at the forefront of this movement; many websites rank the city in the top ten best areas for vegans and vegetarians. Those who eat vegan and vegetarian have many reasons for their diets.

Senior Segev Elazar-Mittelman has been a vegetarian his entire life. He said that he “just can’t stand to eat something that was previously alive and sentient.” He also said that it is healthier for the environment to be vegetarian, as heavy meat consumption increases the number of cows necessary to make food. These cows emit methane, which helps increase global warming.

Polon’s restaurant furthers the vegetarian ideals about which Elazar-Mittelman spoke. One particular point of pride for Polon is that she sources her ingredients as locally as possible. This selection of ingredients helps both the local economy and the environment. The quality of the food also helps Polon feel confident in her product.

“Everything is made by hand from scratch: no chemicals or preservatives,” Polon said. “They’re very low in salt and they feature ingredients from local farms all over the Mid-Atlantic and they make people feel good.”

When she started her restaurant, Polon kept it just vegan. But she soon realized that she could not bring her soups home because she keeps kosher at her house. To solve this problem, Polon purchased a new kitchen for her business and Soupergirl became the kosher vegan restaurant it is today.

While prominent kosher restaurants such as Char Bar and Ben Yehuda Pizza cater to a specifically Jewish audience, Polon sees many non-Jewish customers who come for the fresh ingredients and the soups. Kashrut does present an obstacle to Polon’s business, though. She cannot open the restaurant on Saturdays, usually a very busy day for dining establishments.

“It’s hard on my staff and it’s hard for production,” Polon said. “I wanted to provide it as a service to the community. I didn’t think that there were enough kosher options.”

Unlike Polon, cookbook author Paula Shoyer targets a Jewish audience with her work. Shoyer, the mother of three former JDS students and one current senior, started her career with “The Kosher Baker,” a book that channeled her love of baking. Shoyer now writes about healthy Jewish cooking, as her publisher pushed her to expand her culinary horizons.

Shoyer’s newest book is “The Healthy Jewish Kitchen,” which seeks to make traditional Jewish dishes healthier. Shoyer said that kosher cooking often uses the same ingredients that were used over a hundred years ago in traditional Jewish food. Ingredients traditionally include a lot of butter, fat, puff pastry and other ingredients that are unhealthy. In her book, Shoyer goes through the same traditional recipes and finds alternative ways to cook them.

While Shoyer’s cookbook is not vegetarian, it does follow the same philosophy as Polon, one that espouses the importance of healthy food. The Pew survey found that 54 percent of American adults pay more attention to eating healthy foods than they did 20 years ago.

“My philosophy is people are always dieting, watching their weight, and somebody would say, ‘Well you can never have challah, you can never have stuffed cabbage, you can never have rugelach,’” Shoyer said. “So what I did was I took all of those rec- ipes and found a way to make them healthier.”

Shoyer travels around the world to spread her ideas and work. She has visited Israel for research and book tours and has gone as far as South Africa to learn about different ingredients and dishes. She also of- ten travels within the United States, going to New York twice within the past month along with holding many events in the D.C. area.

“I do events from Reform shuls to Lubavitch synagogues,” Shoyer said. “I do events for federations. Some events I just talk and other events I’ll do a demonstration, so now that I have food recipes, I typically do a meal.”

The general kosher population has joined Shoyer in the trend toward a more healthy approach to food in terms of not only nutrition but also the way food establishments treat their ingredients and employees.

In 2006, the kosher meat company Aaron’s Best came under heavy government scrutiny when its owner, Sholom Rubashkin, was arrested for fraud. Rubashkin’s plant in Iowa, called Agriprocessors, employed and exploited many undocumented immigrants and cruelly treated animals. Rubashkin received a 25-year sentence that was recently commuted by President Donald Trump. Since the scandal, many kosher meat manufacturers have popped up advertising their green and humane bona fides.

While corporations like Empire Kosher still control most of the kosher meat market, small, mainly online-based companies such as Kol Foods and Glatt Organics have started to gain popularity. These groups send a large amount of meat to customers’ houses or to a single meeting spot where different consumers will take home parts of the animal.

There are also organizations within Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism that certify kosher restaurants based on the way they treat employees. These groups hope to avoid a repeat of Agriprocessors.

Polon said that Jews have an obligation to go beyond the law and to make the world a better place through their eating habits.

“As Jews, we are held to higher standards,” Polon said. “Everything you do, you’re supposed to say a prayer. Our choices in this interconnected world don’t just impact us anymore. They impact everything and the planet is suffering because of that.”

Both Shoyer and Polon said that healthy habits start young. Shoyer encouraged students to learn how to cook a few dishes before they go away from home so they do not just eat ramen every day.

“The most important things kids going off to college need to learn is a couple of survival things,” Shoyer said. “You need to know how to make breakfast foods; know how to make eggs, how to make pancakes, an omelet. If you can cook food from scratch, it’s so much better for you than any food you can buy.”

Senior Ezra Loeb’s family keeps kosher and his mother is vegan, so finding meals outside the house proves difficult much of the time. Loeb said that he plans meals on the weekend, goes grocery shopping for the ingredients, then cooks them each night.

Loeb said that he has found both vegan restaurants and kosher restaurants to be somewhat lackluster. He believes that kosher restaurants “have pretty bad food” because they cater to a small market and have minimal competition, “so they don’t need to have high-quality food.”

Loeb also said that he sees a natural connection between healthy eating and kashrut from the halacha itself.

“In terms of healthfulness, I think kashrut, the rules about separating meat and milk, result in eating less meat which I think is healthier for you,” Loeb said.

Elazar-Mittelman said that kashrut not only can lead to healthy eating but also vegetarianism.

“There are laws about meat in Judaism, which kind of makes you think maybe you shouldn’t eat meat because it is so complicated,” Ela- zar-Mittelman said. “It is also a big benefit for the kosher thing. People ask me if I eat kosher, I don’t. But I totally do because I don’t eat meat, which sort of sidesteps everything. Anything that has meat in it I just avoid, and that’s generally the non-kosher stuff.”

Polon also said that vegetarianism works well with Jewish values. It helps the environment and also avoids any chance of cruelty to animals. At Soupergirl, she works to uphold these ideals, and she finds that work fulfilling.

“I’m proud of the product that we put out,” Polon said. “I’m proud that we’ve helped a lot of people; thousands of people eat healthier, make their lives a little bit better. I know that we have helped a lot of people make healthier choices and I think that’s important that we’ve made people’s lives better.”

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