©Robert Bild­ner

I’m the author, with my hus­band, Rob Bild­ner, of the Berk­shires Farm Table Cook­book, and I know you’re going to ask me, what’s Jew­ish about a cook­book with a name like that? It’s an under­stand­able ques­tion, and bear with me for a moment for a slight­ly long answer.

In grade school, Rafi, the youngest of our four chil­dren, start­ed gar­den­ing in our back­yard in Beck­et, MA, in the Berk­shire Hills;it’s a mag­i­cal area in New Eng­land, infused with nat­ur­al beau­ty and cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions galore, where we’ve been part-time res­i­dents for thir­ty-five years. Rafi began by sell­ing his pro­duce at a road­side stand dur­ing his mid­dle school years, and moved on to attend­ing The Moun­tain School in rur­al Ver­mont dur­ing his junior year, which teach­es high school stu­dents how to farm.

For the fol­low­ing two sum­mers, he trans­formed his child­hood gar­den into Octo­ber Moun­tain Farm, an inten­sive­ly cul­ti­vat­ed sus­tain­able half acre of let­tuce, toma­toes, and more exot­ic veg­eta­bles; this time he sold them most­ly at local farm­ers’ markets.

We vis­it­ed Rafi at these mar­kets, mar­veling at his Red Russ­ian Kale and rhubarb, but keen­ly aware of the long hours and gru­el­ing work it took to get those prod­ucts to his cus­tomers. We were also aware of how lit­tle mon­ey he made, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing he didn’t have to rent or buy land. While we cel­e­brat­ed Shab­bat, he invari­ably worked almost through the night to wash, process and bag his pro­duce to get ready to sell at the Sat­ur­day farm­ers market.

At these mar­kets, we met local farm­ers and were moved by their sto­ries of how they came to farm; we admired their com­mit­ment to the soil, the envi­ron­ment and to pro­duc­ing clean, healthy food that tastes great. As one farmer, Amelia Con­klin of Sky View Farm in Sheffield, MA, told us, Any­body that has eat­en a car­rot that’s fresh and local and grown organ­i­cal­ly or sus­tain­ably, ver­sus a car­rot that’s trav­eled 1200 miles or more, knows the taste is just so, so different.”

We thought a cook­book based on what is grown in the Berk­shires — an area that encom­pass­es west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts and parts of New York, Ver­mont, and Con­necti­cut — would offer a way to sup­port local farmers.

While both Rob and I trained as lawyers, most of our pro­fes­sion­al career has been in the food busi­ness. Rob is the third gen­er­a­tion in his fam­i­ly to do so — he found­ed and ran two food com­pa­nies that dis­trib­uted fresh pro­duce and spe­cial­ty foods, and helped farm­ers bring their prod­ucts to mar­ket. After he sold the busi­ness he stud­ied pho­tog­ra­phy. I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor, with chef’s train­ing and a master’s degree in nutri­tion, and I had expe­ri­ence run­ning anoth­er one of our com­pa­nies. So I grabbed my lap­top and Rob packed up his dig­i­tal recorder and cam­era, and we traipsed down rel­a­tive­ly untrav­eled dirt roads over five years to inter­view farmers.

The main goal behind cre­at­ing our cook­book, of course, is to help read­ers cre­ate great food — check out the recipe for beet and goat cheese latkes at the end of this piece — but its oth­er objec­tive is to offer com­pelling rea­sons why you should buy and eat local­ly, and to intro­duce you to the folks behind these fresh ingre­di­ents. The book fea­tures 125 recipes inspired by these farm­ers, as well as some adapt­ed from local farm to table chefs, along with forty-two pro­files of the mem­o­rable peo­ple we met on our journey.

I grabbed my lap­top and Rob packed up his dig­i­tal recorder and cam­era, and we traipsed down rel­a­tive­ly untrav­eled dirt roads over five years to inter­view farmers.

©Robert Bild­ner

But now for the Jew­ish part: Rob and I are con­vinced that buy­ing local is a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Jew­ish act. We argue that the farm­ers we pro­filed oper­ate their small fam­i­ly farms in ways that par­al­lel Jew­ish pre­cepts con­cern­ing agri­cul­ture and food — whether these indi­vid­u­als are Jew­ish or not (two that we inter­viewed are). We think it’s worth chang­ing our food buy­ing habits to help us incor­po­rate into our lives Jew­ish val­ues such as bal tash­chit, which pro­hibits waste or destroy­ing resources; tzaar baalei chay­im, not let­ting ani­mals suf­fer; and oshek, not oppress­ing work­ers. Before I go fur­ther, I strong­ly sug­gest a book essen­tial to my learn­ing, The Sacred Table, Cre­at­ing a Jew­ish Food Eth­ic, edit­ed by Mary L. Zamore.

The prin­ci­ple of bal tash­chit is based fore­most in Deuteron­o­my, and is con­stant­ly invoked by Jew­ish envi­ron­men­tal­ists to illus­trate the idea that we must treat our plan­et with care: When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to cap­ture it, you must not destroy its trees, wield­ing the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.” So even in war, we must treat the envi­ron­ment with respect. Sim­i­lar­ly, in Gen­e­sis, Adam and Eve were anoint­ed shom­rei adamah, guardians of the earth.” The farm­ers we inter­viewed use sus­tain­able prac­tices; for exam­ple, they light­ly till the soil, help­ing to keep car­bon out of the atmosphere.

Bat­she­va Appel in The Sacred Table offers addi­tion­al sup­port for the idea that being a loca­vore is a Jew­ish val­ue. Accord­ing to Rab­bi Yosei in the Jerusalem Tal­mud, It is for­bid­den to live in a town that has no gar­den or green­ery.” Essen­tial­ly Appel insists that we must not live in a place with­out a source of fresh pro­duce. When we buy local, we’re help­ing small fam­i­ly farms suc­ceed, and we con­tin­ue to pre­serve these green spaces and stop harm­ful devel­op­ments. But the ram­i­fi­ca­tions go beyond an indi­vid­ual local­i­ty: the avail­abil­i­ty of local­ly grown food reduces depen­dence on food that’s been shlepped cross coun­try — our norm — adding to envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion and vio­lat­ing bal tash­chit.

The prin­ci­ple of tza’ar baalei chay­im amounts to not let­ting ani­mals suf­fer. God gives humans domin­ion over ani­mals in Gen­e­sis, but it’s tem­pered by many oth­er Torah pas­sages that demand we pre­vent their suf­fer­ing. Tza’ar baalei chay­im is said to derive from Exo­dus: When you see the ass of your ene­my lying under its bur­den and would refrain from rais­ing it, you must nev­er­the­less help raise it.” One pork farmer we inter­viewed, Schuyler Gail, echoed oth­er meat farm­ers con­cerned about the wel­fare of their ani­mals, say­ing, We’re tak­ing lives for our con­sump­tion and that’s not some­thing to be tak­en light­ly.” She notes in her blog that peo­ple always ask whether it dis­turbs her and her hus­band to slaugh­ter. It’s sad every time,” she writes. She goes on to explain, These are liv­ing things, some of whom are extreme­ly cute and/​or ani­mals we have known since the moment they were born, and we choose to kill them. When killing ani­mals we care about becomes non­cha­lant and fails to stir our emo­tions, then we will know we need to stop rais­ing ani­mals for meat. We respect our ani­mals in life and we are thank­ful for them in death.”

Bat­she­va Appel in The Sacred Table offers addi­tion­al sup­port for the idea that being a loca­vore is a Jew­ish value.

©Robert Bild­ner

The prin­ci­ple of oshek urges us not to oppress work­ers. Leviti­cus com­mands us, You shall not defraud your fel­low. You shall not com­mit rob­bery. The wages of a labor­er shall not remain with you until morning.”As Sean Stan­ton, a farmer in Great Bar­ring­ton, MA, reminds us, work­ers in con­ven­tion­al large scale slaugh­ter­hous­es toil for low wages in unac­cept­able con­di­tions, just one exam­ple of work­er oppres­sion in com­mer­cial agri­cul­ture. Sean says his ani­mals eat cost­ly cer­ti­fied or tran­si­tion­al organ­ic feed. Slaugh­ter­ing them is expen­sive too; $400 for a pig at the small New Eng­land slaugh­ter­house he uses, com­pared to the $20 to $30 it costs large agri­cul­tur­al proces­sors. But he says what con­sumers don’t know about are the hid­den costs. Large pro­duc­ers slaugh­ter 10,000 pigs a day, rather than the twen­ty or few­er at Sean’s facil­i­ty, tak­ing advan­tage of economies of scale. Those low­er prices, though, also result from what he argues is the inhu­mane way the giant slaugh­ter­hous­es struc­ture the work­day for those who do the killing. He goes on to say, We talk about ani­mal rights all the time. When you go to these places and see the kinds of jobs work­ers are doing for 8 to 10 hours a day, it’s as much a human rights issue as an ani­mal wel­fare issue.”

I’ll stop here. After all, this is a cook­book! It’s real­ly two books in one, an acces­si­ble cook­book that you’d want to take with you to the farm­ers’ mar­ket, and a jour­nal­is­tic trea­tise with sto­ries and pho­tos Rob took of small fam­i­ly farms.

I promised you a recipe, so let’s make it a Jew­ish one, Savory Beet Latkes, inspired by Hawk Dance Farm, Hills­dale, NY, and Raw­son Brook Farm, Mon­terey, MA. And, of course, you can find many more through our web­site, berk​shire​sand​be​yond​.com. B’tai avon!

Savory Beet Latkes

Serves 6, makes about 18 pancakes

These beet pan­cakes are also great for using up a vari­ety of oth­er root veg­eta­bles. Using a food proces­sor will make quick work of the shred­ding aspect of the prepa­ra­tion. With a nice browned crust, the latkes are deli­cious served with apple­sauce, for which we have a sim­ple recipe, or sour cream and chives, and offer a good alter­na­tive to hash browns at break­fast or brunch.

¼ cup chopped scal­lions, white and green parts (about 2 large)

1 table­spoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tea­spoon kosher salt, or more to taste

2 cups peeled and shred­ded red beets, peeled and shred­ded (about 11 ounces, 2 to 3 medi­um beets)

1 cup peeled and shred­ded car­rots (about 6 ounces, 2 to 3 medi­um carrots)

1 cup peeled and shred­ded cel­ery root (about 8 ounces, ½ small cel­ery root)

1 cup peeled and shred­ded Ida­ho or rus­set pota­to (about 12 ounces, 1 large potato)

¼ cup rye or whole wheat flour, or more as need­ed to hold the raw latkes together

1 cup crum­bled Raw­son Brook Farm chevre, or oth­er soft goat cheese (about 5 ounces)

1 large egg, light­ly beaten

2 table­spoons neu­tral oil, such as canola, plus more as need­ed, for frying

¼ cup sour cream, per per­son, for serv­ing (option­al)

Sour cream and chopped chives, or apple­sauce for gar­nish (option­al)

©Clay Williams Photography

1. Pre­pare a plate with lay­ers of paper tow­els to drain the pancakes.

2. Place the scal­lions, thyme, salt, beets, car­rots, cel­ery root, and pota­toes in a large bowl and mix well. Use a paper tow­el to gen­tly squeeze out any excess mois­ture. Scat­ter the flour on top of the shred­ded veg­eta­bles and mix until well incorporated.

3. Com­bine the cheese and egg in a small bowl. Fold into the veg­etable mix­ture until well-coated.

4. Heat the oil in a heavy-bot­tomed skil­let over medi­um heat until shim­mer­ing. Work­ing in batch­es, so as not to crowd the pan­cakes, use a ¼‑cup mea­sure to scoop the veg­etable mix­ture into the skil­let. Flat­ten the mix­ture gen­tly, using the back of the mea­sur­ing cup or a spat­u­la, mak­ing sure the pan­cakes do not touch each oth­er. Fry for 4 to 5 min­utes on one side, until browned and crisp, and then flip to fry the oth­er side for the same amount of time, or until browned and crisp. Trans­fer the latkes to the l ined plate to drain. Repeat until the entire veg­etable mix­ture has been used. If more oil is need­ed for fry­ing sub­se­quent batch­es, add as necessary.

5. Serve the beet latkes warm with sour cream and chives or with apple­sauce as a garnish.

This essay is adapt­ed from a talk the author gave at the JCC of Manhattan.

Elisa Spun­gen Bild­ner is a for­mer lawyer, CEO of a food com­pa­ny news­pa­per, editor/​reporter (Star Ledger, Newark, NJ) and jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor (Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty and New York Uni­ver­si­ty). Spun­gen Bild­ner is also a pro­fes­sion­al­ly trained chef (School of Nat­ur­al Cook­ery, Boul­der, CO) and yoga instruc­tor. She grad­u­at­ed from Yale Col­lege, Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Law School, and also has an MS in Nutrition.