Book Reviews

By | Nov 29, 2011


One Nation Under Glatt

Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority

By Sue Fishkoff
Schocken Books, 2010, $27.95, pp. 384

My parents keep a kosher home. Whenever we visit, my nice Jewish husband, who has degrees from two Ivy League institutions but was raised in a non-kosher home, makes a mistake. He uses a meat spoon for ice cream or a dairy plate for chopped liver. We’ve been married 11 years. Still, I understand. If you weren’t raised kosher, it’s hard to get it right. With kashrut, God is in the details. And when it comes to details, Sue Fishkoff, national correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, has written a truly godly book.

In Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, Fishkoff sets out to explore how “kosher food and the kosher food system started out as Jewish, and like other immigrant food traditions, have become American.”

Fishkoff assumes we know what she means by “American.” I’m guessing she means kosher food is American because its production has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, and kosher food is now available at baseball stadiums, in fancy hotels and on cruises.

Kosher is also “American” because it isn’t just for Jews. Fishkoff tells us “just 14 percent of consumers who regularly buy kosher food do so because they follow the laws of kashrut.” Because of kosher guidelines that include the separation of milk and meat, killing animals in a specific way and excluding pork or shellfish, the kosher food market easily serves vegans and those with dairy allergies. Kosher meat is halal according to some Muslims. Seventh Day Adventists buy it, too, because they eat only biblically permitted animals.

Then there are people who buy kosher products because they believe they’re cleaner than non-kosher processed foods. (Although, after reading Fishkoff’s book, those shoppers may realize that having a rabbi push a button somewhere in a food-processing plant doesn’t make a box of crackers any cleaner than its non-kosher cousins.) But it’s the Jewish corner, the consumer who requires kosher food, that interests the author.

As my husband knows from his mixed- up bowls, observing the laws of kashrut isn’t just about buying kosher Oreos. It’s about the knives and the plastic wrap. It’s about how you wash your dishes and where you cut your meat. To stick to all the regulations, you must, on some level, create a sense of difference and intention around what you eat. For food to be brought into a kosher home, it must be harvested, killed or produced in specific ways. For most kosher food makers and buyers, those requirements don’t include sustainability.

For example, there’s an Orthodox farmer in Los Angeles who’s developing bug-free lettuce. Bugs, which are prohibited to be eaten under Jewish law, have become an increasing problem in the Orthodox world as advanced technology makes smaller and smaller bugs visible. The L.A. farmer is constantly looking for new and better pesticides and obviously isn’t concerned with the “omnivore’s dilemma.” Compare his endeavor to the farms established by earnest young Jews where planting follows Talmudic regulations. These Jews, for whom locally grown food is of supreme importance, would just as soon eat pork belly as they would bug-free lettuce shipped from California to Vermont.

Fishkoff presents this difference in kashrut to be reductive. I’ll call it the difference between religious observance and an ethical position, but she doesn’t explore it, not really. The bulk of her narrative is made up of fact after fact concerning the ways and means of keeping kosher brought to life by the characters who make sure the laws are kept.

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