Courtesy Ironbound Farm
Ironbound Farm in Asbury, New JerseyCourtesy Ironbound Farm
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Old World Gastronomy in a Modern Pandemic

COVID-19 forced New York-area farmers to get in touch with their Jewish roots

Harrison Malkin
June 07, 2021
Courtesy Ironbound Farm
Ironbound Farm in Asbury, New JerseyCourtesy Ironbound Farm

In March 2020, The Gefilteria canceled its entire slate of in-person events. No more consulting work, restaurant collaborations, or cooking classes. It was near Passover, the Brooklyn gefilte fish company’s busiest time of year, but instead of pivoting to banal Zoom lectures, founders Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern did something else. They organized The Great Big Jewish Food Fest—a 10-day virtual event, which encapsulated “a highly unique mobilization of the food world while restaurants were shuttered, folks were sheltered-in-place,” as Yoskowitz said. “Urgent needs arose in both the Jewish and restaurant communities.”

While COVID-19 devastated the food and drink industry—millions of workers lost their jobs, a tragic number died from the virus, and more than 100,000 restaurants and bars closed their doors—this dark moment opened up space for critical reflection and progressive reform. In that same spirit, The Gefilteria, Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, and Ironbound Hard Cider, three producers in the tri-state area, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to integrate Jewish values into their business model, while building a greater sense of solidarity.

The Great Big Jewish Food Fest “probably wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic, and it’s one of the most impactful projects I’ve been a part of,” Yoskowitz said. He leveraged his relationships in food to bring a diverse group of Jews together, from the National Museum of American Jewish History to the Jewish Food Society. This event codified, in a sense, the Jewish food renaissance. “There was just so much uncertainty at that time, and our food content offered real comfort, was super useful, and helped raise important funds,” he said. The pandemic forced Yoskowitz to integrate the breadth of his Jewish values into The Gefilteria: “For me, a Jewish value is recognizing the comfort of tradition. It meant a lot to people [what we were doing]. In some ways, we built a community. And there’s no bigger Jewish value for me than community, whether that’s a community of producers, or food lovers.” But, as he noted over the phone, “it’s hard for me to think about it as a Jewish value, instead of just: These are good values. This is what needed to happen. And that was my role.”

A decade ago, Yoskowitz was working with Alpern at events in Washington, D.C., led by chefs Joan Nathan, José Andrés, and Alice Waters. Back in New York City, where they were both living, they began hanging and cooking. “The cooking became more serious and we wanted to do a creative initiative,” Yoskowitz said. They started with a reimagining of gefilte fish, which they felt had been degraded in the United States, made blander and, not incidentally, more wasteful in the preparation. In the Old World, gefilte fish was a beautiful mix of fresh fish, deep spices, and leftover matzo meal, which then went through a curing or pickling process. Yoskowitz was embarrassed to see grimy jars of gefilte fish in the supermarket. The packaging was weird and the fish tasted like chemicals. The same cannot be said of his gefilte fish. “My Gefilteria work was connecting the past with the future,” he said.

In the mid-2000s, the area around Brown University was notable for its farmers markets and food and environmental activism. After Yoskowitz graduated in 2007, he moved to Adamah Farm in the Berkshires—a unique place that melds the values of sustainability, organic food, and Judaism. Yoskowitz fondly remembers his time as a pickle apprentice: “The turning point was learning how to ferment. I got hooked. Pickles were the gateway. I loved learning about organic agriculture, sustainability, and permaculture, but it connected me to my cultural heritage. Thinking about the seasons and how it connected with my own family’s life in Europe before the war, my grandparents are survivors, and thinking about what it’s like to preserve your food.”

Besides the seasonal production of gefilte fish, they’ve focused on virtual, culinary education. They just finished teaching a three-part course called Inside the Pickle Barrel, where students learned about Jewish, New York food history while learning how to cook things like bagels and lox, knishes, and pickles. “It’s our signature combination of history, context, culture, as well as cooking,” Yoskowitz said. “That’s what I want for my community. I want a community where people are making their own pickles and bagels, and they’re getting a lot of enjoyment out of it.”

In 1993, Jonathan White and his wife, Nina White, founded the Egg Farm Dairy, in Westchester County, New York. A small commercial project, it turned out to be so successful that “venture capitalists kicked us out of business,” as Jonathan put it. In the late ’90s, they supplied the Clinton White House with cheese, butter, and crème fraîche; in between all this, Jonathan was mentored by the world-renowned chef Jean-Louis Palladin. “This is all his fault,” Jonathan said, because Palladin once upon a time advised him to raise cows that eat only grass.

Jonathan and Nina founded Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in 2002 on leased farmland, but in 2010, moved to a 186-acre property in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. When the pandemic began, they organized their store for socially distanced shopping and streamlined online ordering and curbside pickups. They even pulled out of local farmers markets until producers organized themselves more safely; Bobolink still hosts socially distanced farm tours and concerts. And because the pandemic put an end to in-person tasting sessions, they set out to make a gateway cheese in large numbers that novice cheesegoers would be interested in buying and perhaps intuitively know the taste of. It’s an ale-washed variety, known as Forêt, made with “Saison Dupont ale, the best beer in the world,” Jonathan, an ex-engineer, said. “You can wash the [raw cow’s milk] cheese as they age and it changes its microbiology.”

Jonathan and Nina saw Bobolink’s business model change during the pandemic, and in some ways, for the better. They once had contracts with high-end restaurants, such as Daniel in New York City, but those contracts ended prior to the pandemic. This meant they were prepared for a post-pandemic restaurant industry. “When the supermarkets ran out of food—you know, milk, meat, flour—the locals out here that were never our customer base, suddenly they discovered us. And they’re still shopping with us,” Jonathan said. “That was a big up for us. Our business is designed to have very short supply lines. Sun and rain. So it’s no coincidence that we were positively affected by this.”

Bobolink’s organic, regenerative approach feels self-evident; there would be no other way for them to do it. As one of the few makers of 100% grass-fed cheese in the U.S., they won a silver medal at the 2018 Farm Cheese Awards in Lyon, France. “My relationship to Judaism has totally changed as a farmer,” Jonathan explained. “I live it every day now with the land, the changing seasons. Tikkun olam is the Jewish philosophical concept that inspires me the most. Heal the earth. That really connected with me. Healing the soil, raising animals humanely, producing healthy food, paying workers a living wage.”

Tikkun olam, man,” Nina White, Bobolink’s head baker, chimed in. Nina’s a dancer, choreographer, and active member of the local Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter, which works to build solidarity between Muslims and Jews. “What we’re doing was appreciated a little more. The pandemic opened eyes that have never looked at us,” Nina said. “So practicing tikkun olam created a product that finally when people had the time to be more thoughtful, they saw us. We were already ready. It’s not that we changed anything, but the world’s magnifying glass looked toward us.”

“It’s super interesting how connected the Jewish community is with farming in Hunterdon County,” said Charles Rosen, founder of Ironbound Hard Cider, which is located about five miles from Bobolink. “Eighty percent of the farmers we work with are Jewish.”

There’s a long history of Jewish farmers in this county. Jews, after fleeing the European pogroms of the 19th century, immigrated to Hunterdon with the funding of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, architect of the Vienna-Constantinople Railroad. Hunterdon County is where the U.S. egg industry came of age. “They [Jewish immigrants] arrived, became successful egg farmers, then their kids became doctors and lawyers. It all ended in two generations,” said Jonathan White.

In 2011, Rosen, a former political consultant, movie producer, and adman, founded New Ark farms with an organic, regenerative model in mind, similar in mission to Bobolink, but bigger in scale. He wanted to invest in the Newark economy and employ formerly incarcerated people with a living wage. “That change wasn’t happening in the political space. So I wanted to work on rekindling the Newark economy,” Rosen said. “My whole business is founded on tikkun olam—the repair of the broken world. Heal yourself, so you can work with the community.” This was especially true for Rosen, as the pandemic seized his life and the country.

An early industry in Newark was hard cider. And in 2015, when hard cider was the fastest-growing sector of the alcohol industry, Rosen established Ironbound. “I’m working with Egyptian refugees, locals, veterans, disabled people, and we have Sunday night dinners,” Rosen remarked. “We have Black gang members, MAGA-hat white dudes. We’re trying to build a closed economic loop. A broad community.”

“It was beshert for Charles,” Jonathan White joked. White had connected Rosen to Cameron Stark, former head of winemaking at Unionville Vineyards, a top East Coast winery, also located in Hunterdon County. Now, Stark’s the cider master at Ironbound. Naturally, Bobolink and Ironbound are direct economic partners. Bobolink crafts a popular cheese using Ironbound’s original hard cider, and that cheese, among others, is sold at Ironbound’s farmers market. They’re friends, and amid COVID-19, collaborated and checked in on one another.

Ironbound has seen an increased interest in its farmers market—it didn’t even have a full market at their cider house before COVID-19—where Rosen organized socially distanced shopping and outdoor events. The pandemic prompted him to help launch a line of immigrant-owned foods, which he plans to sell at the market and incorporate in the tasting menu.

The Gefilteria, Bobolink, and Ironbound are creating an alternative food system, suffused with Jewish culture and values. “It’s using the pandemic as an opportunity to recalibrate,” Rosen said. “I also needed some healing and support. My success as a business should be connected to yours as well. It’s born out of this relationship. I see this balance of the individual and communal in my business. My mom’s New York chutzpah mixed with my Canadian socialism.”

Harrison Malkin is a writer and cook on the East Coast.