Home » David Trakhtman, Recent Posts, Religion and Jewish Thought

Once Upon a Time in Europe

August 21, 2012 – 1:55 pm3 Comments
Image from a concert for lute, which celebrated the anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s demonstration of his telescope in Rome in 1609, including works by Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo)

Image from a concert for lute, which celebrated the anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s demonstration of his telescope in Rome in 1609, including works by Vincenzo Galilei

By David Trakhtman
Once upon a time in Europe, there lived very creative and interesting people. Artists created paintings they wanted to create, musicians composed music they wanted to compose, writers wrote novels and poems they wanted to write and, yes, chefs cooked food they wanted to cook. It was an extraordinary time, which laid foundation to the concept of art, demonstrated the beauty and sophistication of the human mind, and brought forth most profound products of man’s ingenuity and creativity. Historically, this time is known as an Era of Renaissance.

At the dawn of this time a man lived by the name of Vincenzo Galilei – we know more of his son Galileo, a famous astronomer, who was among the first to demonstrate the heliocentric model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun. (The Church’s annoyance and resentment with him is well known.) Vincenzo, quite a rebel in his own right, was a craftsman of musical instruments.

You see, as ridiculous as it sounds, those days musical instruments were tuned according to mathematical formulae determined by the Catholic Church (whose power and authority was pretty much absolute). In practical terms this meant that music produced by those instruments often sounded quite mediocre, if not horrid. It was as if the instruments were tuned by deaf people. Vincenzo Galilei, a revolutionary, took a daring step against the Catholic Church by refusing to accept the well established and faithfully followed method of tuning musical instruments. His sole intention was to build instruments that would produce the most pleasant sound.

It is a sad truth that today there are musicians out there who do not listen to their own music, writers who do not read their own writings, and cooks who do not taste their own food.

Moreover, we have doctors that do not pay attention to their patients (patient comes from the word patience, you know what I mean?), ignoring the fact that “a man knows the agony of his soul” (Adam Yodeah Tza’ar Nafsho). We have teachers, who are so preoccupied with pouring out their subject, that they are hardly aware of what is going on in the student’s mind or how receptive he or she really is.

I could not help but notice a quotation on the rabbi’s stand in one synagogue – it read as follows: Lishmoah; Lilmod Velilamed, meaning: “To listen; To learn and to teach” in that order. How short yet profound! First listen, observe and absorb, then learn and understand and only then, teach and influence. An essential prerequisite for any rabbi or an educator, don’t you think? Perhaps, the reason that today the professional world is full of what I call average “ninetofivenicks” is because we either lack the skills to inspire the young to follow their passion or maybe because we base the whole concept of career on monetary reward only.

It is no different when it comes to cooking. Today, fast food is associated with junk food rather than food that is made with care and love. Its value comes mainly from its convenience and affordability. The whole multimillion industry of fast food is a huge people-feeding machine, and the meat burger is its epitome. There are different claims about where the burger actually originated (please see Wikipedia for yourself). Among many theories there is one that perfectly demonstrates the transformation of a good old burger into a product of a mass-produced feeding scheme.

One ingenious cook wanted to use his savvy to introduce a relatively nutritious meat diet (which could normally be only afforded by the rich nobility) that would consist of leftover steak trimmings to the poor. He did it wholeheartedly and with passion, and it was so good that people came back for more. As the word spread, he could barely cope with the demand, so good that people (with either the intention to help or to benefit from the potentially enormous profit) offered to pitch in and participate in what would soon become a multimillion international enterprise.

Some people offered to build machines that would grind vast quantities of meat and shape them into patties; they called themselves engineers. They also invented refrigerators to prolong their shelf life. Some said that refrigerators would only extend a life of a burger for couple of days and freezers for couple of months, so they offered to introduce various weird substances (that are foreign to the human body) into the meat, in order to immortalize it (so to speak), or at least prolong it’s natural lifecycle and slow spoilage. These guys called themselves food technologists. Some people offered to convince more people of how good the burger was. They called themselves marketing experts and advertisers. Some offered to count all the money that would be generated as a result of this successful venture – you know, accountants. Some even offered to defend the burger in courts of law in case somebody dared to accuse the good old burger of causing obesity or high cholesterol. They called themselves, of course, lawyers.

As the time went by and each person got to his job with diligence and devotion, the original mastermind, the humble cook, barely had any worries because all his work was done for him. He busied himself spending the wealth that he was accumulating, and no longer had time to see his customers smile as they devoured his creation. His cooking was done for him. He no longer had to convince newcomers to try his delicious, satisfying and affordable piece of meat substance as his selling was done for him. Naturally, his intention shifted from concentrating on producing a good ground piece of meat, into amassing more and more wealth. He would probably use some of his wealth for various noble causes, giving charity and all, but the burger was not the same.

The fact is that the industrial revolution has changed the way we measure human achievement. Why would it not? In the old times, if you were a baker you could only produce enough bread to feed your neighborhood, and even if you tried to produce more, you would not sell it, as nobody would walk to your bakery for miles just to get a loaf of bread, and even if they walked or traveled by horse how could they afford to purchase a monthly or half-yearly supply of bread, and, even if they could afford it, how would they keep it for so long? The baker, the butcher and even the shoemaker had the whole day and even more to make the best of their labor. As one could only produce relatively small quantities, value was more about quality, and the extra time could be spent in extended prayer or on another page of Gemorah. Of course, these days with all the machinery and resources that we have, the quality of our labor and produce is by far superior, but the attitude and the values are not the same.

Unlike the Era of Renaissance, today productivity means quantity (not so much quality); success means more money with less effort; and true entrepreneurship means neither knowing the names of the people that work for you nor the people that feed you by buying your product.

Rabbi David Trakhtman is a chef and owner of Passionate Catering. He emigrated to Australia from the former Soviet Union. He writes articles about food, history, and Jewish values.

Print Friendly