If you’re Jewish, Christmas tends to be a very quiet time. Without a Christmas tree, stockings over the fireplace, and presents to open, you tend to feel more apart from American culture than any other time of the year. On top of that, nearly everything you might do that day for entertainment, like shop, or go to a museum, or go out for brunch, is impossible, because nearly everything  is shut tight. If you live in a big city, there are usually two options: go to a movie and out to eat at a Chinese restaurant, since Chinese restaurants, for some reason, stay open. If you live in a small city or town, and you’re not near a ski area, you just stay home.

I had a special opportunity this year to have a different kind of Christmas by attending a food conference. Yes, a conference, beginning on Christmas Eve and continuing until Dec. 27. It was, not surprisingly, a Jewish conference, a Jewish foodie conference, to be precise, run by Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization. I was invited to participate on a panel with other writers and bloggers assessing how the media’s treatment of food issues is changing. I wasn’t sure I wanted to attend, since I’ve been traveling a fair amount, but when I learned it was being held at a resort overlooking the Pacific in Monterey, CA, well, that sealed the deal.

So, anyway, I arrived last Thursday, and sure enough, it was as beautiful as advertised. Nor was I alone—there were more than 600 attendees. Asilomar is both a conference center and state park. It was built mostly in the early 1900s, and so has lots of interesting dark wood meeting places, as well as guest rooms with fireplaces and without televisions and telephones. It’s set amid sand dunes, and is a short walk down to the Pacific, with its huge roaring waves and rocky coast.

One of the first things I did after registering was read the conference schedule, and was surprised to find a two-page spread entitled, “Food At the 2009 Food Conference”. I was surprised because it was amazingly candid reading, capturing in microcosm the underlying issues of the food safety debate that’s been going on in Congress over the last few months, and will most likely conclude sometime in the next few weeks with new legislation that increasing numbers of people associated with local and sustainable food feel will be draconian. I decided the best way to present it here is simply to excerpt from it, since it is so well constructed; it makes for a longer-than-usual blog posting, but bear with me. It starts as follows:

“We would like the food we serve to reflect the highest values to which we aspire. So we would like to provide food that is delicious, consciously prepared, local, organic, healthy, ethical and kosher. We want to demonstrate—ideally—that these values can all be attained. If or when they can’t be, we want to explain why.

“Those of you who were at the first or second Hazon Food Conferences, in 2006 and 2007 (at an East Coast retreat center), got to experience the extraordinary food we were able to serve…In 2007 on Friday night we ate kosher meat from goats that were raised (at the retreat center) and that we schechted (slaughtered) that morning. It was an appropriately intense experience for those who were there, and entirely consonant with our desire to provide transparency and education in the food that we eat.

“Moving the Food Conference to Asilomar has been a blessing in many ways. We have traded the East Coast winter for the beautiful Pacific Ocean…Happily, we have been able to meet most of our standards, including the following:” It then lists and describes them—kosher, seasonal, organic, not processed. Now we get to the “but” phrase.

“But this year brought some specific challenges that we feel it is important to share. Asilomar is located within a California State Park, and the conference center is managed for the state by a private contractor. Between last year’s Food Conference and this year’s, the management contract changed hands, and in September a company called ARAMARK took over the management of Asilomar. In 2008 ARAMARK had sales of $13.5 billion and profits in excess of $1 billion. That a lot of food. And a company that size naturally has systems and procedures about how it sources the food that it serves.”

The piece then quotes from the Aramark web site about how, “We strive to offer clients and customers fresh whole foods that are raised, grown, harvested, and produced locally and in a sustainable manner whenever possible…” (I couldn’t find this actual segment online.)

The program guide continues: “That’s a pretty good policy. But in practice, we have had a series of problems in the period leading up to the Food Conference. The main ones are in relation to two other key values for us:

Conscious. We intended to source and serve local pasture-raised chickens from Green Oaks CreekFarm in Pescadero, about 80 miles north of Asilomar. Some of us had already visited the chickens that we would have served this Friday night, and were thus able to attest at first hand that they were well-tended chickens. They were to be schechted by…a young kosher slaughterer, under the supervision of (a rabbi) and plucked and kashered by conference participants…as we did last year. This year, ARAMARK’s regulations prevented us from doing that. Understanding that meat is an important part of many participants’ traditional Shabbat celebration, we decided instead to serve Empire kosher organic chickens on Friday night. Empire’s chickens are raised on small family farms and are fed vegetarian and organic diets. But they are killed in Mifflintown, PA, and obviously we know less about that than would have been the case at Green Oaks. The fish that we are serving is wild salmon from a sustainable fishery.

Local. ARAMARK requires that food suppliers meet particular documented safety standards—standards that smaller farms often don’t have the infrastructure to provide. As a result, although we are delighted to be able to serve foods from at least ten local organic farms, we were not able to accept produce from some of the farms that had offered to donate produce. The following donations that were offered to us were not acceptable according to ARAMARK’s food safety standards…” The program then lists nine suppliers that were prepared to donate 500 pounds of apples, 500 pounds of cabbage, 25 dozen eggs, 230 pounds of squash, and 325 pounds of trout, among other items.

“Last year our volunteers picked up donated food and delivered it directly to Asilomar. That way they were a living connection in the journey from farm to table. This year…that food will have to go via distributors…

“You could argue that these are small issues, and in some ways they are. And if these policies were not in place, and someone at our food conference got salmonella—for instance—ARAMARK as the operator would potentially expose themselves to liability by not having appropriate procedures in place…

“But Blue Greenberg, one of the leading orthodox Jewish feminists, once said, ‘where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.’ What she meant is that Jewish tradition is rooted in halacha, Jewish law, and people often think of it as unchangeable; but if and when the rabbis wanted to change the law, they very often found a way to do so.

“We think that’s a good analogy for the food sourcing procedures at Asilomar—and, by implication, in thousands of other ARAMARK facilities around the country…”

Ah, but it was not to be. As it turned out, ARAMARK did not bend. How was the food? Let’s just say that a good Jewish mother or grandmother would not have been happy about the unevenness of the meals. For example, ARAMARK ran out of main courses at the first dinner (an uninspired mix of tofu and green beans)—latecomers (I among them) wound up with an even less inspired plate of barley and canned mushrooms. Similarly, a breakfast of lox and bagels was missing the bagels—many attendees were clearly unhappy with the rice crackers that substituted…and the lox ran out after about 20 per cent of the guests had been served—the rest had to settle for smoked trout.

The chicken at the Friday evening Sabbath dinner was okay, but certainly not nearly as good as the local pastured chickens would have been. Interestingly, many of the chicken thighs and legs were undercooked, which is a great way to spread salmonella. And let’s just say the chocolate pudding dessert would have embarrassed moms of all religions—it was grainy and had attendees making some serious sour faces. Granted, making pudding without milk or cream is a challenge (no dairy products are allowed to be served with meat at kosher meals), but one can ask in response whether pudding was the best choice.

There were a few excellent meals. One lunch salad of wild salmon and greens was very well done, as was a breakfast of French toast stuffed with apples and blueberries.

But by and large, attendees were disappointed that a foodie conference’s food would be so ordinary and institutional. The last day’s lunch plate of a scoop of mashed potatoes next to a scoop of rice with lentils seemed to put an exclamation mark on the frustrations of trying to serve local produce when half your vendors are disqualified under arbitrary safety regs. As a rabbinical student put it to me: “It all had a very corporate feel to it.”

To Hazon’s credit, not only was it upfront in its program guide about the food mess, but it scheduled a special panel discussion that included organizers of the food component of the program to explain further what happened, and to answer questions. To ARAMARK’s credit, its manager at Asilomar showed up and took questions.

I inquired what the problems were with the disqualified donors, and it turns out the biggest issues were that they didn’t have HACCP plans and traceback procedures. These are among the big requirements of the new food safety laws pending in Congress (HR 2749, SB 510).

What happened at Asilomar is exactly what critics of the pending legislation have argued is going to happen nationally. Small food producers will have a very difficult time complying with the new law’s requirements. While those who were barred by ARAMARK have other options, once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration essentially takes over ARAMARK’s role, there will be no other options. You either comply, or go out of business.

What hasn’t been anticipated so widely yet is what happens after smaller producers are run out of business. I fear that what will happen is that our food options will diminish, and we’ll be forced into ever more of the institutional quality food that the ARAMARKs of the world would prefer we eat.