Checking for Bugs

In the world of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), a good amount of attention is paid to the fine art of checking one’s produce for bugs.  The reason, contrary to the more cynically-minded among us, is not pure neurosis.  Jewish legal codes have been clear for centuries that a biryah (a creepy-crawly creature) is treif (non-kosher) and cannot be annulled by even a thousand times it’s volume in, say, romaine lettuce.  Suffice it to say, this makes bug-checking of particular concern to the fastidiously pious.  Some in the Orthodox world have (tragically, I think) gone so far as to ban certain bug-prevalent foods like fresh broccoli and raspberries simply because they are too difficult to sufficiently check.

I must confess, I’m pretty lax when it comes to bug-checking.  I wash my veggies well.  If I see a bug, I don’t eat it.  A leaf by leaf inspection is beyond my typical routine.  Which is why it’s ironic, to say the least, that a few weeks ago I found myself on lettuce-washing and bug-checking duty at our neighborhood urban farm.  I had made a point of volunteering this summer — a resolution, I am ashamed to admit, between visiting my family at Capital Camps each week and preparing for the obscenely early High Holy Days, I was astonishingly bad at fulfilling.  But I did work on the farm once and, on that day, I harvested mixed salad greens. 
Having collected some large buckets of lettuce, it was now time to wash them.  The farm’s assistant manager and I took turns double-washing greens in two tubs, sloshing them around and skimming various insects (and debris) from the surface of the water.  Of course, this is exactly the technique utilized by Jewish bubbes and cooks for generations.  It simply took living and working in Reservoir Hill for me to experience it.

A life in the city is so often marked by its distance from nature, certainly from the agrarian societies of our past.  I avoid bug-checking not because I don’t care; kashrut is deeply important to me.  I skip it because I suspect it’s been done.  Some big machine somewhere double-washed my lettuce before sealing it in a plastic bag.  Ironically, returning to the land returned me to my tradition whose purpose is, among other things, mindfulness of the natural world. 

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