Vanderbilt is ramping up its noshable options.
by David Carew
Photography by Daniel Dubois
A few years ago if a Vanderbilt student asked, “Is that kosher?” they likely were posing a question to an ethics professor rather than ordering from a menu. No longer.
Vanderbilt Dining Services has been steadily increasing the kosher foods options on campus. Their efforts include not only a catered meal at the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) service at the Vanderbilt Hillel, but a new hot dog cart outside Rand, frozen meals at the Varsity Markets, and, of course, the kosher café, Grins, in the Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life.
Preparing food so that it can be deemed kosher is a detailed and exacting process. Jewish laws dictate that meat and milk must not be prepared or eaten together, which requires separate sinks, ovens and food prep areas. Special care must be taken when handling utensils and dishes, and non-kosher foods like shellfish and pork are strictly prohibited.
Keeping all that straight is no easy task. That’s why Saul Strosberg, rabbi of the Nashville orthodox synagogue Congregation Sherith Israel (pictured above), was brought in to act as point person for all things kosher on Vanderbilt’s campus.
“My role has been to facilitate the process and to ensure a high standard of care,” said Strosberg. “Kosher foods are an important self-sustaining element in the Jewish community, an important way many college students self-identify as Jews.”
A common misconception is that kosher food is deemed as such because it has been blessed by a rabbi. That’s not the case. The rabbi’s role is to make sure that the rules are correctly applied to selecting, harvesting and packaging the foods, as well as advising on the proper preparation.
The push to “go kosher” is partly in response to – and no doubt has contributed to – the growing number of Jewish students on campus. The Jewish student population has risen from 3 percent to 15 percent in the past six years, bringing that number to more than 1,000, according to Ari Dubin, executive director of Vanderbilt Hillel.
“For those Jews who are more observant or more religious, they need kosher food,” Dubin said. “The presence of kosher food shows that the university is making a statement that we don’t only want to have a number of Jews, but we are building a sustainable Jewish community.”
Local caterer Goldie Shepard was hired recently to enhance the menu at the Hillel’s Friday evening Shabbat meal, incorporating kosher comfort foods like baked chicken, brisket and matzo ball soup.
“Anywhere from 80 to 120 people usually attend the Shabbat dinner, up from half that two years ago,” Dubin said. “And we have averaged more than 160 students this fall. Serving the foods people have grown up with provides a sense of continuity and tradition.”
But kosher food isn’t just for the observant. In 2002, Grins, which is Yiddish for “vegetables” and is pronounced “greens,” opened in the Schulman Center, serving kosher vegetarian food. The unique café is owned and managed by the same group that created the popular Nashville eateries Bongo Java, Fido and Bongo Java Roasting Co. Rusty Johnston, pictured here, is one of the cooks.
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Business Services and Acting Director of Dining Frank Gladu was in on the initial planning that ultimately brought Grins to campus. “It’s been a collaborative effort from the start,” said Gladu. “Working with leaders from Vanderbilt Hillel, we initially conceptualized a need for kosher food options that would be welcoming to the entire Vanderbilt community.”
The menu includes daily entrée specials like spinach lasagna; Indian-spiced lentils; and grilled tempeh with pineapple salsa and grilled polenta; fresh soups “made with love,” according to the menu, such as tomato and summer squash; and only 100 percent organic/fair trade coffees.
Each day there is a panini du jour – such as the “Pop-eye-ini,” a mix of tapenade, spinach, tangy tomato and melty mozzarella – and a variety of wraps – like the popular honey, peanut butter, banana and granola wrap, and the “friendly faux,” a mock chicken salad, that’s actually made with tofu. Not your typical kosher fare.
“If you just walked in and ordered food you probably wouldn’t even notice it’s vegetarian – much less kosher,” said Bob Bernstein, general partner at Grins. “We’ve always had good chefs who know how to make the food interesting for all types of customers.”
Despite the risk involved in opening a restaurant with such a specialized menu, not to mention the cost of making a commercial kitchen suitable for the handling of kosher foods, the café is going strong, experiencing one of its highest sales periods ever last month.
While some may believe individuals “stay kosher” for health reasons, that’s not necessarily so either. For Jews it is a matter of piety – the adherence to the Torah’s commandments to be mindful that God creates and supplies the food that sustains us, and that certain foods and modes of preparation are suitable for Jews and others are not.
For sophomore Gabrielle Avery-Peck, kosher food isn’t a preference, it’s a necessity.
“I’ve kept kosher my whole life, and, sometimes, that meant scrounging around for foods I could eat,” she said. “Having kosher foods on campus made it a lot easier for me to come to Vanderbilt, and [makes life] a lot easier in general.”
Junior Ilana Blumenfeld-Gantz agrees. “Having kosher food options on campus allows me to live the life I’m used to living. I’ve always kept kosher, and if I had to modify that, by not eating foods I’m used to eating, I would never be able to think of Vanderbilt as ‘home,’ which is how I think of it now.”
As dining facilities open on campus, the kosher options are likely to grow, according to Gladu.
“We have come light years, but it remains a vigilant effort,” he said. “It’s ongoing. It’s every day.”
David Carew is a freelance journalist and author based in Nashville.
To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com.
Photo caption: Rose Belt has been manager of Grins for four years. On the plate: vegetable panino, Moroccan couscous with cranberries and almonds, and balsamic cucumbers and tomatoes.