Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kosher Catfish? I think not.

Grab a stiff drink, a comfortable chair, and brace yourself for a most horrid tale. The tale of the Kosher Catastrophe in Central Vermont. Where do I begin? I'm worried this post will end up a lot longer than you're all willing to read, so I'll just start. I have no intentions of blasting any hecksher or rabbi, but this situation should make you all exceedingly wary of what you eat and from where you eat it.

When I signed up for school in Vermont at Middlebury College, I signed up for kosher food. The documents didn't state what the hecksher was, the specifications of the kitchen, or whether there was a mashgiach on the premises. When I was told that there was a kosher kitchen with kosher food, and that it opened in 2008 when Brandeis teamed up with Middlebury for a new Hebrew ulpan-style program, I trusted that the folks in charge knew what they were doing. After all, Brandeis has a kosher kitchen, and they know their Judaism.

I arrived on campus on Friday, June 26, and for the first three days ate salad from the salad bar and the "airplane style" kosher meals they had available. They didn't tell us that they weren't starting kosher operations until the first day of CLASSES, not the move-in day. I was perturbed, but forgave them. From June 29 to July 20, all was well in the kosher food world at Middlebury. That is, of course, aside from the fact that everything was doused in oil to a point of inedibility, that it was the same food over and over (rice/grain + veggies + small piece of bread), and that the portions were small enough that a few of the girls ate two of the packaged meals for every meal. I forgave the kitchen their oil and their portions. I ate, and I was thankful for kosher food.

And then, on July 20, in the evening, I plodded into the cafeteria to our special container with our special kosher food, opened the latch, peered inside, and saw several different containers. On one side were small containers of cooked fish and on the other side were containers with vegetables. How weird, I thought to myself. Then, I picked up the ingredients list and the first item on the list: "CATFISH." Yes, catfish. That sneaky little unkosher fish was in my kosher meal, but conveniently placed in a separate container from the vegetables. Why? I wondered.

We complained immediately to the guy who deals with us sometimes in the cafeteria, and he said he'd call the kosher kitchen, but that they wouldn't get the message until the morning. The shomer professor spoke to the program head and we were told the next day, Tuesday, that they had rekashered the kitchen that morning after calling the rabbi who grants them their hecksher. At that point, I was eager to find out A) who this rabbi is and B) if this hecksher is legitimate. Many people proceeded to go ahead and eat the food that came out of the kitchen, but I had my doubts and I continued to express my opinion. After much pushing, we landed a meeting with the head of dining services on July 27. Boy were our eyes opened.

It turns out the hecksher is Tablet K, the rabbi is Rabbi Rafael Saffra, and the kitchen is only open for kosher food during the summer. This means that the folks running the kitchen have only 7 prior weeks from summer 2008 under their belt, are not trained in kosher cooking, and that -- perhaps worst of all -- there was no mashgiach in the MEAT kitchen. The rabbi visits the campus at the beginning of each summer (which means he's visited all of twice), and gives all of his advice and guidance on kashrut from a great distance. Basically, Tablet K took the money and ran, which appears to be their M.O. We also found out that the guy who makes all the food realized, almost instantly, that the fish wasn't kosher. Making it fishy (har har) that he even made the product. I'm guessing this is why it was packaged separately for our consuming pleasure. The campus rabbi was less than excited to help or discuss the issue, and he was of no help in the situation. I expressed a desire for the kitchen to be rekashered -- that was the only way I'd eat anything out of the kitchen. I was told that it WAS rekashered (though without supervision by ANYONE). The rabbi didn't offer to rekasher, and neither did the school.

Over the next three weeks, a lot of things happened. I was forced to explain to people just about every day why I wasn't eating the kosher food. My rabbi, who by all accounts is not ultra anything, advised me not to consume the food from the "kosher" kitchen. After this, people asked me frequently, "Is your rabbi a Chabadnik?" as if the food is kosher enough for everyone else, why not me? I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cottage cheese with pears, and other fruit. I ended up losing 7 pounds throughout the summer, and whether my measly food options played into this, we'll never know. I pushed for the program head to call Chabad in the city just north of where we were, because I knew that the rabbi there would be more than stoked to rekasher our kitchen. It turns out he was, but only if we had a full-time mashgiach, which we didn't. They didn't have the money and the efforts to find a pro-bono were met with nothing. I got a lot of sad looks and apologies as I shoveled pears into my mouth, but that was about it.

The constant frustration from those around me at my stern choice not to consume the kosher food was alienating. We were given the option of touring the kitchen on Tisha B'Av, which we did. We found a lot of Hebrew National, a few items without heckshers, and a handy-dandy list on the bulletin board with the largest 10 or 12 heckshers that are legit by all accounts (OU, Circle K, CrC, etc.), but was Tablet K on the list? Heck no. We asked the cook if he bothers to use the list. We pointed out that neither Tablet K nor Triangle K are on the list, so chances are he shouldn't be using them. He seemed clueless. I felt bad for him. Here he is, this cook trying to make kosher meals without a clue in the world. It seemed that they shoved a bunch of books at him and sent him on his way. That's no way to run a kosher kitchen, and it's deplorable that Tablet K and Rabbi Safra would be willing to stamp their hecksher on such a kitchen. Deplorable.

So I ate my crap food and everyone gave me looks of pity. "Is that enough to eat?" and "Everyone else is eating the kosher food, you know?" And then right before the last week, I was told that there's a kosher caterer in the city north of us that caters sometimes to Chabad and that the last week of classes there will be kosher food for every evening meal. Eegads! I was elated. I was stoked. I was coming down with a cold/flu thing and I was so excited to eat real, real, real food. After watching my compatriots scarf pizza and burgers and fries and cake and cookies every day, I was ready. My day had come. REAL kosher food. I was two seconds away from forgiving the universities all their failings. And then?

  • Yom Rishon (Sunday): Kosher food! Veggies and Mac and Cheese and Blueberry Crumble!
  • Yom Sheni (Monday): Kosher food! I was sick, but ate a few potatoes with GLEE.
  • Yom Shlishi (Tuesday): Kosher food? Nada. Sorry. No dice. Why? No clue. No explanation.
  • Yom Revi'i (Wednesday): Kosher food! For the banquet. Steak, eggplant and potatoes. Yum! (Sorta.)
  • Yom Chamishi (Thursday): Nope. No kosher food. Sorry, No dice. 
  • Friday (Yom Shishi) I returned to Connecticut and G-d bless my friends for making me banquet-style meals for Shabbat. 

I paid $2,500 for room and board. I paid $2,500 for seven weeks of a room without air conditioning filled with bugs and mosquitos with a bathroom light that broke a week before classes ended (and no one bothered to repair it -- peeing in the dark was an adventure) and cottage cheese with pears for roughly three weeks. I think I deserve some money back.

I can't really put into words how angry I am about the entire situation. I try to laugh about it, but in the long run, it's not funny. The president of the university has a kosher kitchen in his home, with his own personal chef. Why didn't he play into this? Why did it take them two weeks to figure out that there was a kosher caterer a half-hour away? And why couldn't they put up MY MONEY to buy me some edible kosher food? Why did everyone feel like I was over-reacting? Was I over-reacting? At this point, I don't feel comfortable suggesting this program to anyone who is shomer anything.

I wanted to talk to the head of dining services after the incident, to tell him to give my rabbi a call, to look into getting a new hecksher, and to explain exactly WHY the kitchen wasn't truly kosher and to explain what should be happening in the kitchen. I'm no expert, but I could offer my two cents and send them the way of my rav, who is the head of the local kashrut committee. But I was told that I had to go through a series of channels in order to do this. In the end? I never got the chance to talk to him. I wanted to call the rabbi at Tablet K, but I was told (by the campus rabbi) that we shouldn't contact him directly. At every point I was turned down. I felt patronized. Like I was a pain in the side of everyone there because I wanted to hold them to a standard of kashrut that was, well, plain ole kashrut. It wasn't like I wanted them to be Israel-only products or that I wanted to be there when they were cooking. I just wanted kosher food! Criminey.

So this is the saga. I'm sure some of you will say I'm nuts. Others will say I didn't do enough to change the situation. Some of you will probably say that posting this is really bad. But, you know, it's my experience and story. And the universities will hear about it.

In the meantime, I thank the rabbis who listened to me and gave me advice and offered their assistance. I thank the friends that offered to send me food, and I thank the friends that made me food upon my return. This issue, I think, will be one of ongoing proportions, but I'm willing to handle it. B'ezrat haShem, maybe next year the school will get its matzo balls in a row and produce some REAL food with a REAL mashgiach and a REAL hecksher.