In this informative history, the author shows how Jewish dietary laws challenge food producers and consumers.
Food historian Horowitz (Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation, 2005, etc.), director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at Delaware’s Hagley Museum and Library, grew up in a family with varying relationships to kosher food. His Orthodox Jewish grandmother observed strictly; his maternal grandfather, a Conservative Jew, was less rigid; his mother sometimes bought cheaper cuts of nonkosher meat in local supermarkets. For Horowitz, his family’s behavior raised a question “about religion and modernity. How could a set of practices and beliefs rooted in antiquity persist, and in some ways flourish, but at the same time also struggle to survive” in contemporary times? That struggle included the complicated, sometimes-controversial process of reformulating iconic American products to meet kosher standards. Coke, for example, used alcohol from grain in the manufacturing process, making it unsuitable for consumption at Passover, when leavened bread is prohibited. Changing the recipe to get alcohol from fermented molasses solved that problem. But Jell-O posed another: gelatin was derived from nonkosher animal bones. After much debate, a Lithuanian rabbinical scholar rang in: “When a forbidden substance is reduced to dust,” he said, such as bones to gelatin, “it ceases to be prohibited by Jewish law.” Although some kosher products are popular with non-Jews—sweet Manischewitz wine has broader appeal, and prisons find kosher food suitable for its Muslim inmates—the market for meat has been diminishing, partly because of cost, partly because of opposition to the ritual slaughtering process, in which cattle are hoisted by their hind legs, their throats cut while they are conscious. The author considers this and other ethical issues—responsibility to the environment, workers’ health, and fair pay—involved in meat koshering.
A thoughtful look at the convergence of faith, ethnicity, and the business of food.