November 17, 2018

Sparrow Mart Art Installation Has a Kosher Section

High on a supermarket shelf, one side is stacked with boxes of matzo. The other side sits bare, because so many packets have already been sold. But who is buying matzo in late August? It’s not traditional High Holy Days fare.

That’s because the supermarket is called Sparrow Mart, located inside the Standard hotel in downtown Los Angeles, and every single product in the market — all 31,000 of them — are made of felt, all of which are for sale. The cheapest individual products left in the store are the sushi pieces ($10), while the most expensive individual products are the boxes of cereal ($160). A huge seafood counter is the most expensive item on sale at $50,000.

The pop-up market, which opened Aug. 1 and closes Aug. 25, is the brainchild of 32-year-old British artist Lucy Sparrow, who first came to America’s attention last summer when she brought 9,000 felt creations to New York and created a pop-up bodega called “8 ’Til Late.” When those products sold out early, her plan for Los Angeles was to make Sparrow Mart bigger and better. 

The gamble paid off. While attending the exhibition is free and is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sparrow Mart does not take reservations and people must line up at the hotel, where they are then let in to the supermarket 50 at a time. Since Sparrow Mart’s opening, there have been lines around the block.

The Journal was let in to the market ahead of a morning opening where Sparrow and her public relations rep, Clare Croome (also from England), were busy stocking shelves. Sparrow is in the store every day and often stands behind the checkout counter and sells the products to customers. Many have no idea that she’s the artist. 

“It’s part of the whole interactive art experience,” Sparrow said. She enjoys watching people come in and “ooh” and “aah” over the products that speak to them. “The point of the show is getting an emotional, nostalgic response,” she said. “Whatever’s happening in the real world out there, you can come in here and have this Zen-like range of stuff. It’s very comforting.”

Sparrow has filled her 2,800 square feet of space at the Standard with every imaginable grocery product. After laments from the New York visitors that she didn’t include any products from her own country, the Los Angeles pop-up now has an entire British section. Sparrow also wanted to focus on products unique to the Southland, including tortillas and Mexican soft drinks, an abundance of fruits and vegetables (which have been selling out at record pace), and an entire sushi section (none of which were part of the New York installation).

But the Journal came to check out the kosher section. While Sparrow isn’t Jewish, she said, “The Jewish community is such a massive part of L.A., I think it would be impossible not to have a [kosher section].”

Like all the products in the store, the attention to detail on the kosher products is astonishing. From kosher salt to gefilte fish jars, containers of borscht, Polish kosher dill pickles, egg noodles, Kedem grape juice and Manischewitz wine, and, of course, the ubiquitous matzos, the familiar symbols do evoke a sense of nostalgia.

“One of my favorites is the egg noodles,” Sparrow said, holding up a packet of them to be photographed with. “I tried to get that design spot on. We’ve also sold a lot of the Kedem grape juice.”

The Manischewitz hasn’t been selling so well, but that may be because Sparrow decided to make those just over a week ago, so they are new to the store. The Journal also explained local Jews’ love-hate relationship with the super-sweet wine. 

“I think I had matzos when I was little in England,” Sparrow said, and while she hasn’t tried the gefilte fish, she noted, “I’ve been told gefilte fish is great if your family makes it but if you have it from a jar it’s just disgusting.”

“The point of the show is getting an emotional, nostalgic response. Whatever’s happening in the real world out there, you can come in here and have this Zen-like range of stuff. It’s very comforting.” — Lucy Sparrow

In choosing which kosher products to include, Sparrow said, “I went around supermarkets choosing absolutely everything and tried to figure out what it was.”

Like all the other products in the store, Sparrow said choosing which products to include is “mainly about what is the best design. Some things don’t translate well to felt. It’s usually about the color and bold, classic designs that have been around for ages.”

Croome added that while some people have purchased the kosher products for Hanukkah gifts, one local woman came into the store and bought three of every single kosher product on the shelves. “She said she was going to put these things in the center of her Passover table next year,” Croome said, “and that she was having 30 people for the [seder].”

Sparrow hopes to sell all the products in the store before focusing on her next project — a medical installation for the Miami Art Fair. “I can’t say any more about that,” she said. “It’s top secret.”

There are still a few days left to check out Sparrow Mart. But be quick — the kosher horseradish is already all sold out.

Sparrow Mart is open Tuesdays-Sundays through Aug. 31 from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. at the Standard hotel, 550 S. Flower St.

Why kosher cooking is good for the soul

Cooking has been a passion for me, and passing on my knowledge and experience to a new kosher audience is one of my greatest joys. When my two earlier books were published — “Kosher Cuisine” and “Helen Nash’s Kosher Kitchen” — that joy was mingled with regret at having to exclude so many more appetizing dishes and ideas about cuisine, nutrition and a healthful approach to everyday meals. At the time, though, I couldn’t imagine going back to the arduous process of developing, refining, testing and retesting new recipes. But then a personal tragedy gave me a compelling desire to start working on another book.

My husband of five decades — a brilliant, visionary and passionate man with great generosity of spirit — suffered a massive stroke, and for many years he was ill and homebound. Jack loved good food, and one of the ways I tried both to give him pleasure and keep him relatively healthy was to cook for him. As everything about our life changed, cooking creatively also became a way for me to maintain a positive attitude. And in trying to keep Jack’s spirits up, I raised my own.

I discovered that even when Jack was ill, he was receptive to new tastes. So I began experimenting with novel kosher ingredients that were just coming to the market. Wasabi powder, miso, panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), balsamic and rice vinegars, and a variety of oils — truffle and sesame — hadn’t been available to kosher cooks when I wrote my first two books, so Jack and I became acquainted with them together. In coming up with new dishes, their nutritional value was, of course, a decisive factor. But so was their appeal to the palate and to the eye.

Until the very end, Jack looked forward to the meals I made for him, so I counted my experiments a success. Yet as his illness progressed, comfort foods — meatloaf, soups, frittatas, risottos, vegetable burgers, tuna burgers, turkey scaloppini and most chicken dishes — were more to his liking than some of my more modern innovations.

Whether you and your loved ones opt for the familiar or the exotic, eating well on a daily basis requires good planning, portion control and nutrition. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to select ingredients of the highest quality and, whenever possible, seasonal products. Indeed, if I have one rule for both cooking and eating, it is that what is best and freshest at the market — fish, vegetables, fruit and meat — should dictate the menu. The better your ingredients, the better your results.

But in the end, keeping kosher is more, to me, than just a sensible way to live and to eat healthfully. The ancient Jewish dietary laws help to organize my life around family, Friday nights and holidays. They remind me of the importance of community and anchor me to the other rituals of our religion. Their observance inspires me to study our texts more deeply — a search for meaning that, in turn, heightens my respect for human nature. The Torah says it all in its reverence for life. And one way we can bring that reverence into our lives and our homes is with a well-planned, home-cooked, nutritious kosher meal.

This article was adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming cookbook “Helen Nash’s New Kosher Cuisine” (Overlook Press).