Is it possible to eat too much kale? How can one be sure when eating chocolate that its cocoa beans weren’t picked by child slave laborers? What’s the best tool to peel ginger? How easy is it to raise chickens in your backyard? What are the qualifications to become a kosher slaughterer?
These were some of the questions addressed at the sixth annual Hazon Food Conference, held for the first time at U.C. Davis from Aug. 18 to 21. There were 311 participants, some who came from as far away as Japan, England and Australia.
U.C. Davis, which has long been known for both its agricultural and oenology programs, proved to be a good match for Hazon — an eco-minded Jewish organization that focuses on sustainable food, community supported agriculture and bike rides.
The university allowed participants to tour not only its dairy and its student farm, but also the gleaming Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which houses perhaps the most modern beer brewery, winemaking facility and food lab in the world.
In addition, being at U.C. Davis for four days (most participants stayed on campus) offered people the chance to bike from one workshop to another. Locals were encouraged to bring their bikes, and non-locals were given an opportunity to rent them.
Being able to team up two of its passions — bicycles and a food education conference — had to be considered by Hazon as a high point in its five-year history.
Featured speakers were Joan Nathan (cookbook author and Jewish food expert), Oran Hesterman (president and CEO of Fair Food Network), Aaron Gross (CEO of Farm Forward) and Sue Fishkoff (author of “Kosher Nation” and soon to become new editor of j.).
Food justice sessions were also a major part of the conference, covering everything from workers’ rights to bringing healthy food and gardens to poor communities, and Jewish efforts to combat hunger.
New this year was an opening night do-it-yourself extravaganza, where participants got to choose three of seven sessions, all held in the dining room. The offerings ranged from making knishes to constructing a fan out of recycled materials — and all the while, a tasting table set up by Hagafen Winery was only a few steps away.
The noise got to be so loud that one of the instructors resorted to a funny mime performance when demonstrating how to brew ginger beer.
At previous conferences, participants were offered a chance to witness a ritual slaughter of animals, and then eat the meat, but that didn’t happen this time.
This year, shochet Naftali Hanau slaughtered three free-range chickens and then went through the process of making them kosher. One of the steps is plucking the birds without scalding them (non-kosher poultry is typically scalded first to facilitate feather removal). Participants were invited by Hanau, the owner of Grow and Behold Foods, a sustainable kosher meat business, to help do the plucking.
“Seeing the animal live was the hardest part, but now it just looks like meat to me,” said Garth Silverstein of Vacaville, as he helped pluck.
After the chickens were plucked, they were gutted and inspected for lesions; then they were soaked and covered in kosher salt for a required amount of time. Hanau then dipped each chicken into three buckets of water, as is prescribed by Jewish law.
“Now is when it happens,” he intoned as he dipped the first chicken into the final bucket. “Ta-dah, it’s kosher.”
After the three-hour workshop, the birds (supplied by Dinner Bell Farm in Grass Valley) were donated to a local family since U.C. Davis has a prohibition against serving meat that was not processed in a USDA-certified slaughterhouse.
After attending previous Hazon Food Conferences on the Monterey Peninsula, Oren and Debra Massey of Berkeley found the conference at U.C. Davis created a much better sense of community.
“It was less resort and more conference, in a good way,” said Oren, alluding to the proclivity of people to bolt for the beach or wharf in Monterey.
“I have a whole new respect for U.C. Davis,” Deb added. “I want my kids to go to school here.”
“The fact that it was at Davis was a major part of the draw,” said Rebecca Rendsburg, a 2005 U.C. Davis graduate who traveled from her home in New York to attend. “To talk about food where it’s actively in production, even if it’s research, gives a whole other level of understanding.”
For many attendees, while the state-of-the-art facilities and the sessions were fascinating, the highlights were the informal conversations taking place throughout the conference.
Alex Marcus, who recently moved to Berkeley, said, “I loved meeting so many people with similar interests, and also, the people not with similar interests but who are doing really cool things.”