Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kosher Conscience

Today's Tablet Magazine featured this interview with Sue Fishkoff, author of the new release, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Foods Answer to a Higher Authority. Raised in a kosher home, the piece confirmed much of what I already knew, but I'm always interested in the greater sociological implications of the expanding kosher market around the country, especially since I am often asked to explain what makes food kosher. Case in point: I recently found myself pointing out that my food science textbook misstates what constitutes a kosher animal. (The book says that an animal must chew its cud and cannot have split hooves. Actually, a kosher animal both chews its cud and has split hooves.) So I thought it was worth sharing this piece that presents a short primer on kosher food in America.

One of the interesting points the interview hit upon is the creation of kosher versions of non-kosher foods: kosher bacon, kosher cheeseburgers, etc. Fishkoff points out that kashrut (ie. the laws of what is kosher) was not intended to deprive Jews of certain foods, though it does teach restraint and discipline. She mentions that some rabbis believe Jews should not eat these faux-treif foods precisely for that reason. As she explained this I thought of my own experience living gluten-free. When I changed my diet (for health reasons, not just for kicks) I did feel a weight of limitation that I had not experienced for a long time. But I soon adapted to the confines of what was permissible and found I still had plenty of options. I also found that I didn't like faux-gluten foods - fake bagels and breads and cakes made with rice and tapioca and bean flours and potato starch (think Passover...) - all these items parading around as the real thing. I'd rather stick with gluten-free food that actually tastes good and I realized that I'm okay with fewer food options. I remember meeting another Jewish gluten-free friend for dinner years ago who said she didn't find it as big of a struggle as she expected. Having grown up kosher she'd always had foods that were off limits; gluten was simply an added dimension. Funny how on the one hand we lament the omnivore's dilemma (ie. with so many options, what should we eat?), and on the other the limited-vore dilemma (ie. with so many restrictions, what should we eat?). I like the attitude of a neighbor who recently invited me to dinner and, when she learned of my dietary restrictions, expressed excitement rather than horror at the challenge of preparing such a meal.

It's an interesting point to consider this time of year. The New York Times has been bracing its eaters for alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving meal for weeks. With pieces on vegan Thanksgiving, gluten-free Thanksgiving and of course, the requisite Minimalist Thanksgiving, everyone seems to be concerned about making sure to get the holiday meal just right, given dietary concerns, food sensitivities or simply time constraints. But missing are the articles about how to make a Thanksgiving meal on a budget (increasingly relevant) or even on the choice of bird. You don't have to be a vegan to harbor ethical concerns about the holiday's centerpiece, yet most people seem far more concerned with finding a stuffing recipe that is not wheat-based. (For an in-depth look at the Thanksgiving turkey question, see Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.)

This brings me back to the kashrut question. Kosher food is not blessed by a rabbi or consecrated in any way. In its purest form it is simply deemed fit by trusted supervision of every step from farm (to factory) to table, bringing a level of consciousness and awareness to the otherwise mundane act of eating. And if that were the reason Americans were embracing kosher food, we would truly have reason to celebrate this Thanksgiving.

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