My first year as a mom and an animal advocate—and a recipe for Black Bean Sloppy Joes

Guest writer Christine Gutleben with her husband, Carl Becker, and son, Colten Becker.

Guest writer Christine Gutleben with her husband, Carl Becker, and son, Colten Becker.

Editor’s note: Today’s guest writer is Christine Gutleben, senior director of Faith Outreach for The Humane Society of the United States. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

WHEN my son was born—from that moment—the reckoning began between the mother I thought I’d be and the mother I was becoming.

So much about parenting is doing what works. Before I had my son, I envisioned only beautiful, handmade wooden toys; cute little cloth diapers; no entertainment from TV, tablets or phones; and daily family meals as rich opportunities for meaningful choices and interaction. I still love that dream for its hopeful naiveté, but our life is very different. If that loud plastic toy keeps him entertained, so be it. If the iPad distracts him while on the plane or in public places, thank goodness. And the cloth diapers, well, we never took them out of the packaging.

Food issues are more important

But, for me, the food issue is different. I am not so relaxed about differences between my hopeful vision and our reality. I am keenly aware of how our food choices impact the lives of billions of animals, the vast majority of whom live lives of complete misery in factory farms. These industrialized agriculture facilities cram egg-laying hens into cages so tiny they can’t spread their wings and stuff breeding pigs into tiny cages where they can’t even sit down properly or turn around for virtually their entire lives.

Free-range hens, photo by John Goodridge via Flickr Creative Commons

Free-range hens, photo by John Goodridge via Flickr Creative Commons

While my son is too young to understand the horrible system of factory farming, he is not too young to love and appreciate animals. By the time he is old enough to understand where his food comes from, I hope we will have cultivated an ethic of kindness and mercy that will guide him as he makes his own choices someday. Fortunately, today there are many alternatives to the most extreme factory-farmed animal products. We can switch, for example, to cage-free eggs or free-range pork instead of buying conventional animal products. And while prices for these products may be higher due to these more humane practices, we can compensate by eating fewer of them.

Increased cost is minimal

It’s also important to know that, in these cases, the increase in production cost is minimal. Industry studies have demonstrated that allowing over 280 million hens to be cage-free can be accomplished for just 1 cent more per egg. A complete nationwide phase-out of gestation crates for pregnant pigs would increase prices by just $0.065 per pound, according to an article by L. Seibert and F.B. Norwood in the 2011 issue of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. As long as consumers create demand, the market will respond. Of course, food is also central to our own health. Healthy food choices contribute to a healthy child. Let’s be honest, we can all stand to eat more vegetables and less meat. In the U.S. we slaughter 9 billion animals per year. That’s an increase of 2 billion just since 1990. As Americans, we eat more than 200 pounds of meat per person annually; that is more meat per capita than virtually any other nation.

Meals are a time to connect

Factory-farmed pigs have no room to move in their cages. Photo by Farm Sanctuary.

Factory-farmed pigs have no room to move in their cages. Photo by Farm Sanctuary.

Meal time, along with careful food selection and preparation, provides us with an opportunity to connect as a family and to teach our son about health and our responsibilities towards other creatures. It’s an opportunity for thankfulness, togetherness and relief from a busy day. It’s one way to push back against a culture that values productivity over family time. It’s a primary way to cultivate health and wellness. It’s a fun and relatively easy way to practice intentionality and to live-out the ideals we believe in. It affords the best way to help stop the destruction of rural America and it’s one of the most effective ways to reduce animal suffering.

By avoiding factory-farmed animal products and choosing plant-based foods in my role as mom, I am choosing what’s right and good for both my family and for creation.

You can often replace meat-based favorites with a vegetarian version. This recipe for Black Bean Sloppy Joes is an affordable, quick and healthy alternative to the usual beef dish.

Eiren Zoyren, a favorite family recipe from Poland (by way of Australia)

Andrea Cooper

Andrea Cooper

Andrea Cooper, the author of today’s column, lives in Melbourne, Australia. We met more than 15 years ago on a listserv for public relations professionals. I can’t remember how long ago it was, but my children were still at home and her son, now in his 20s, was not yet a teenager. We discovered that we had much in common, including traditional Jewish practice, and have been in touch via email and Facebook since. We frequently chat about the similarities and differences in Jewish customs between the U.S. and Australia, not the least of which is their weird way of spelling many of the Yiddish terms that have made their way into English. Andrea currently runs a consulting firm called ComAbility, to help companies and organizations create communications that are accessible to people with disabilities. I’ve kept Andrea’s original British spellings for this week’s column, which reminds us how important it is to get recipes for beloved dishes from our elders. Here’s Andrea …

Most of us remember a special dish our mothers or grandmothers cooked. The flavour lingers in our memories, bringing back family gatherings and meals. When I was growing up, one of the treats Mum might make for Shabbat was an entrée dish called Eiren Zoyren. She often made it for visitors, who would say they’d never had anything like it before.

The author and her grandmother, Pearl Redelman, with whom the recipe originated

The author and her grandmother, Pearl Redelman, with whom the recipe originated.

Eiren Zoyren is served cold. It is essentially eggs poached in a sauce. Over the years, Mum cooked it less often and then not at all. People were cutting back on the number of eggs they ate, fearing that too many might add to their cholesterol levels. The taste has stayed with me all my life. Whenever I would see a new Jewish cookbook, I’d unsuccessfully flip through trying to find the recipe.

Don’t procrastinate—get those recipes!

About a decade ago, when mum was getting near the end with her terminal cancer, it was one of two recipes (the other was her chicken soup) that I requested she show me how to make. We both procrastinated and finally she wasn’t well enough to make it with me. So we talked about how it was made, but not the exact quantities.

After she passed away, I presumed I’d find the recipe online. No luck! Over the years I’ve searched. The nearest is a German recipe that has some similarities, but is clearly different. My mother’s  family comes from Lublin in Poland, so the original source of this recipe is likely to be amongst the Jewish community of that region. (My grandmother  Pearl Redelman’s maiden name was Kelner. I’ve traced her Kelner line back to 1756 in Lublin. In the 1780’s census, a third of Lublin’s population at about 1,400 were Jews.)

Andrea with her mother, Bell Cooper, grandmother and sister Abigail in the 1960s.

Andrea with her mother, Bell Cooper, grandmother and sister Abigail in the 1960s.

My sister and I both were determined not to lose what we began to realise was a unique family specialty. None of my cousins had the recipe written down.

Aunty Dora to the rescue

A few years ago my sister visited my mum’s older sister in Adelaide. In her late 80s, she hadn’t made Eiren Zoyren for many years. Together my aunt and my sister made a batch and wrote down the recipe.

Yesterday, I found my sister’s handwritten copy of this recipe.

Today, I have made it, though with a few adjustments to meet my own taste memories.

In two days’ time, I will proudly serve my Shabbat guests this unique entrée.

Now I am writing this recipe down to share, so it may never again be lost. I present it in memory of my mother, Bell Cooper, and her mother Perl Redelman (nee Kelner), with special thanks to my Aunty Dora Chester and my sister Abigail.

The Foods of Jerusalem

Scenes from Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market

Scenes from Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market

Before we left on our trip to Israel in October, I got my hands on a gorgeous cookbook, called, appropriately enough, Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (published by Ten Speed Press).

The authors have an intriguing story. They were born in Jerusalem in the same year. Yotam, the son of Italian Jewish immigrants, lived on the west side of the city and Sami on the Muslim east side. More than 30 years later, both chefs in London, they met, became friends and then business partners in the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants.

“The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue,” says Yotam in the introduction. He goes on to describe the rich tapestry of Jerusalem food, which incorporates the cuisines of many countries of Europe and the Middle East.

As Yotam and Sami discovered in their discussions about food, it’s futile to talk about which culture invented a particular delicacy and which one brought a dish to Jerusalem with them. In many ways, the Jerusalem food scene gives credence to those medieval maps that showed the world with Jerusalem at its center.

Complex recipes

The photos in Jerusalem: A Cookbook  are absolutely gorgeous and will make you want to break out your pots and chopping knives. The problem comes when you start to read the recipes. Not only are they complex, but many include obscure ingredients that could be difficult to procure.

In order to make shakshuka, this week’s recipe, I needed to order harissa (hot pepper paste) online because I couldn’t find it in my local market, even though it has a large section for Middle Eastern goods. Several other recipes look interesting, but so far I’ve been unable to find pomegranate molasses anywhere, even in Israel (I’ll probably make some myself, eventually, by boiling down pomegranate juice). And preserved lemons? Dried barberries? To their credit, the authors give instructions on how to make some of the spice mixtures and condiments.

Shakshuka originated in Tunisia but is very popular in Jerusalem. Sometimes you’ll see several varieties on a menu. I confess the photo with this week’s recipe is from the cookbook. My version wasn’t as pretty, but it was very tasty – and spicy! If you don’t like heat, use less harissa or leave it out altogether. I also used just the whole eggs, without the additional egg yolks.

Street food can’t be beat

Cooking up a mixed grill in Jerusalem.

Cooking up a mixed grill in Jerusalem.

My favorite Jerusalem food is actually street food, especially falafel and shawarma. Falafel, for the uninitiated, are deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas and spices. When I was first introduced to falafel more than 40 years ago, the balls were stuffed into a pita with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and tahini (sesame) sauce. These days the balls are topped with a variety of salads, pickles and spreads and then with a handful of French fries, making it a complete meal.

A shawarma is similar, but instead of the falafel balls, the pita’s main filling is shreds of lamb or turkey sliced from a huge hunk of meat turning on a vertical rotisserie. With a falafal or shawarma, you can enjoy a satisfying lunch for less than $6.

Instead of a pita, and for a few shekels more, you can get the sandwich in a “laffa”  – a larger, flatter, more rubbery bread that’s folded around the filling. If you’re really brave, you can go for a “mixed grill,” a combo of shredded chicken and meat with grilled onions and mushrooms. It’s extremely yummy but it can be really messy.

There’s a real skill to eating a pita or laffa that’s fairly bursting with its fillings. I think the main trick is to lean out, so wayward bits and drops will land on the table or ground and not on you. By our second week in Jerusalem, we were able to finish one without having to change our shirts because of the sauce or grease we dripped all over ourselves.

Jerusalem: A Cookbook has a recipe for lamb shawarma, but with 16 different herbs and spices, it’s not for the faint of heart. There’s also a recipe for falafal, but by far the easiest way to make it at home is to buy a box of falafel mix!