Shir Avinadav: Knead to Know — Spirituality and Cooking
Do you ever think about where the loaf of bread you just bought comes from? Who grew the wheat and grinded it into flour? Where was it baked and by whom? If you’re like most people, then the answer is likely “No.”
In today’s world (the first world that is), food is pervasively readily available for consumption. We don’t necessarily think much about where our food comes from, because we don’t have to. Society has become fixated on and structured around the practicality and ease of mass consumption. We have fast food and cupcake vending machines, frozen meals and restaurant take out.
But when asked to recall what some of our most meaningful experiences around a table are with friends or family, we’ll likely answer with “eating a meal.” At least that’s what the students who attended the first of three cooking workshops hosted by the University of Michigan Hillel’s Rabbi Lisa Stella this past Sunday would tell you.
Before I go any further, I’d first like to say that I’m by no means a religious or very spiritual person and my intention here isn’t to proselytize. I was approached with the opportunity to share my love of cooking while also exploring its connection to my cultural roots through Rabbi Lisa’s cooking seminar. The seminar itself is intended to help students interested in hosting others for Shabbat meals feel comfortable cooking by giving them the tools and recipes to create both a meal and welcome others into their homes, while also exploring Jewish studies related to cooking and hospitality (for those interested in coming to the next session, you can sign up here). Shabbat is the weekly day of rest, which different Jewish families celebrate differently.
I gladly took on this opportunity to examine food through a different lens. After all, I am a food writer and examining different cultural practices surrounding food is part of the job. And through the inextricable link between food and culture, I have gained a new perspective on not only the way I cook and consume food, but also the way I share it with others.
In the first session, students gathered together to learn a challah recipe (a Jewish egg bread) and discussed the symbolic meaning of bread as sustenance. While we kneaded, mixed and waited for our bread to bake we learned to make a few easy dips for the bread (recipes below). We roasted a head of garlic, smashed chickpeas and combined them with tahini and green onions for a salad and blended white beans with garlic and oil for a creamy hummus-like dip (all in under 20 minutes!).
After our rolls turned golden brown in the oven and the kitchen was filled with the sweet, rich smell of baked bread we sat around the dining room table, enjoyed the product of our culinary labor and discussed some Jewish texts.
I was surprised by what I learned. I hadn’t known what to expect, considering the last time I was exposed to any sort of Jewish learning was back when I still had braces (at the age of 13, prior to my Bat Mitzvah). We began by discussing the significance of the blessing over challah (or the “Hamotzi”) — something my mother had instructed me in saying at every Shabbat dinner when I was younger. I’d never considered what the rhythmic words actually meant. It was just something I had to do before eating on Friday nights, a measure put in place before I could indulge in our meal.
I learned that bread in Judaism is a spiritual food. It represents our ability to create something from nothing to sustain ourselves — something we don’t often recognize when we purchase bread at a bakery without seeing the work that went into making it. How we get our food now, for the most part, is so removed from the ways in which it’s grown and made, especially if we don’t cook it ourselves. This underappreciation of food in our society makes us forget the precarious balance of our position within this world. Whether you’re religious or not (like myself) there’s great value in recognizing that our food comes from somewhere and had to be made by someone.
Although cooking is one way that helps remind us of this labor, the simple practice of mindfulness when we eat — sharing a meal with others, setting apart a time and space in our days for a meal or simply taking a moment to acknowledge and appreciate the food we’re eating — helps keep us grounded. When we’re able to examine the seemingly trivial aspects of our day-to-day lives, we’re then able to consider phenomena of greater importance.
Challah (recipe from notderbypie.com)
Makes 2 small loaves or 1 large loaf.
½ cup warm water
1 packet (2 ¼ tsp) yeast
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3-4 cups flour
⅓ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup water
1 tbsp honey (or water)
Proof yeast in ½ cup water. Mix flour, salt and sugar together. In a separate bowl mix together wet ingredients: eggs, oil and water.
Add wet ingredients to the yeast and stir. Add 2 cups of flour to the yeast mixture, mix well, then add the remaining flour.
Knead well for about 5-7 minutes. Cover and let rise 45 minutes. Braid or knot challah and let rise an additional 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375º F. Brush with egg wash and bake for 20-22 minutes until the top is golden brown.
Rav Lisa’s White Bean Dip
1 can of Cannellini beans
1-2 cloves garlic
¼ cup olive oil (plus more for drizzling on top)
2 Tbsp water
Salt to taste
½ teaspoon dried thyme (or any other herbs you have on hand, optional)
Pulse together the garlic and oil, and about half of the can of beans to blend well. Add the remaining beans and herbs and blend on low for 15 seconds. Add water if needed for desired consistency.
Serve with drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of coarse salt.