Is an ethical Kosher wedding possible?
Six months ago I asked my 96-year-old grandma how much the dinner at my wedding would cost. I told her to think of a ludicrous price-per-person and then double it. ‘£5?’ ventured Grandma Sophie tentatively, ‘maybe £10?’. Try £60-£160. And that doesn’t include tablecloths.
Preparing for my own wedding last December, my fiancée Rachel and I fleetingly entertained the thought of a small, intimate function. 80 or so people. Close friends and family. Then we spoke to our parents and the size – and cost – quadrupled.
If you want to be married under the auspices of the United Synagogue (which was our choice) then you’re obliged to use a caterer certified by the London Beth Din. A Their list of approved caterers is short and, without exception, they are all expensive. All need to pay supervision fees and a fee for using the kitchens of the venue (the equivalent of a corkage fee if you take bottle of wine to a restaurant, which loses them the sale of their own wine).
For a three-course Kosher meal, the absolute minimum you can expect to spend is £50 per head – so for a function of 200 people that entails an incredible £10,000 outlay.
We asked several Kosher caterers how many people had asked questions about organic produce. The answer: none. Not a single wedding client had ever asked that question before. The truth is that my parents who are in their sixties do not generally buy organic food and nor do many of their friends. However, their children do. I think it is a generational issue. If the demand for organic Kosher produce isn’t there, the supply will never be developed. This article is not a tirade about caterers: customers are not demanding ethical produce.
Rachel and I investigated whether we could hire our own shomer for the day and use a vegetarian caterer that did not have Beth Din certification. Doing so would have saved thousands of pounds but it was not acceptable to the United Synagogue. In fairness most caterers we interviewed said that while they did not usually supply seasonal or organic produce, they would investigate and prepare menus that took those conditions on board. The message was that caterers are not used to such demands but they can be met if that is what the customer wants and requests.
Seasonality is another simple issue which is clearly not on the radar of most caterers or consumers – or not when they are picking up the tab at least. Hence when we asked one potential caterer about deserts, one caterer suggested chocolate cake with strawberries. ‘Strawberries? For a December wedding?!’, scowled my fiancee, looking at him like he’d gleefully clubbed a baby seal.
The brilliant caterer we picked, James Zimmer, is the only one that did his homework. He researched our backgrounds, asked about our demands and had a calendar of seasonal produce with him when we first met. He asked us to tell him which fish were acceptable from a sustainability point of view (ie MSC stocks). He listened. We probably made his life hell, but he and his brilliant unflappable assistant Sarah Howard say they have loved the new challenge. I think they had to say this but there may be a good deal of growling every time my mother-in-law sent an email salvo.
He sourced organically-reared chicken in sufficient quantities. In the UK there is currently only one supplier who had to be given months’ notice so that 100 chickens could be specially reared for our simcha. There are suppliers in Europe but we did not want to incur the expense and food miles of bringing chickens over to England. We were warned that people are so used to the taste of ordinary chicken that sometimes they find organic chicken too tough and meaty (and apparently Zimmer’s chef was worried this would reflect on them).
The vegetables on offer in December were limited but our caterer created a brilliant menu – albeit one that had echos of post-war Britain when no exotic air-freighted produce was not available. He couldn’t resist putting a grand fruit plate together – old habits die hard. Admittedly, we made life hard for ourselves by asking for a meat meal. By using chicken, we selected meat that would have as little waste as possible.
Crucially, in 2010, we founded Gefiltefest: The London Jewish Food Festival (www.gefiltefest.org). It is a fund-raising event, a day devoted to learning about food and Judaism. A food Limmud with food tasters in every session. The festival rests on an ethical bedrock of Fairtrade, organic, local and seasonal produce. For us, it was important to have a wedding meal that reflects these ideals.
There is an irresolvable problem with labeling and terminology that is worth noting. Schechita is not recognised as an organic method of slaughter. In England a producer cannot label any meat organic if it has been killed according to Jewish law. The use of the word organic is strictly controlled (as is the use of the word Kosher). The Soil Association is one of the bodies responsible for licensing the word.
One Kosher producer was recently threatened with legal action for labeling his ‘Lewco’ produce as ‘Lewco-ganics’ even though the conditions of his farm meet the highest standard. He was informed that he has to add a label on his produce – which he has done – explaining that his product was not officially deemed organic. The Gefiltefest team are discussing this crucial issue with the Soil Association. Additionally, a farm which is certified as organic may not be prepared to sell animals to a business that undertakes shechita. If they do, they may lose their own license – a risk that no commercial farmer would want to take.
Disposal of waste is another issue. None of the caterers we spoke to had an idea of redistributing leftover food (other than passing it on to staff). In Israel, the organisation LeketIsrael – largely run by volunteers – picks up leftovers from functions and delivers it where it is needed, obviously at an accepted health and safety standard. To be fair, in Israel the system is somewhat easier – the bulk of Leket’s produce comes directly from farms rather than processed food which is harder to judge.
Still, here the charity GIFT and now Leket’s UK branch Table to Table are doing much the same. GIFT volunteers, numbering in their hundreds, rescue surplus food each week from shops, bakeries, restaurants, kiddushim and supermarkets, delivering them to those in need. GIFT are ‘feeding’ over 1700 people each week from this rescued food, mainly Jewish families that have fallen on hard times or have serious illnesses and are unable to work. GIFT also distribute to Jewish organisations such as Jewish Women’s Refuge, Norwood residential homes and Jewish Blind & Disabled; also to homeless shelters and the asylum seekers drop in centre, run by NNLS. Supermarket distributers, who would ordinarily dispose of them, give GIFT over a tonne of fresh, in date vegetables each fortnight.
Caterers however, according to GIFT, prepare precisely the right amount of food for guests and are reluctant to part with leftovers from a dinner, because they could lose their license and reputation if someone contracted an illness from their food (even on other premises). In the event that families and caterers are willing to donate their leftovers, GIFT runs a service that enables food to be distributed to those in need on the same evening of the function.
At my own wedding nothing went to waste. My wife and I had no time to eat, since we were scooting round the room. I don’t think the bride and groom ever have a chance to sit still and enjoy the food that’s painstakingly been picked. At midnight we were starving. We asked for a takeaway made up of all the leftovers. James Zimmer obliged and we started married life, eating chicken wings on the floor of our hotel room. And it was organic chicken.