Eating in Faith

Keeping Kosher in Austin

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick
"Jewish" describes my palate as much as it identifies my faith. Perhaps it's just the dehydrating Austin heat that leaves me craving salt in its many forms, but it's also a sure sign of my affinity with many traditional Jewish foods. Were I to continually nourish my nostalgia for childhood brunches, delicacies such as olives, pickles, capers, nova lox, whitefish, and even pickled beets could take up more shelves in my fridge than the half empty jars of salsa or bottles of Shiner Bock.

However, ingredients and flavors do not alone describe traditional Jewish food. For many Jewish observers, it is the religious teachings that guide the faithful through food production and consumption, defining their culinary tastes along the way. Over the centuries, these guidelines have helped Jews integrate the world's cuisine into their culture. These laws of kashruth (kosher) provide the basis for their strong culinary heritage.

The word kosher translates as "fit or proper to be used," and hence its adoption in everyday slang as a synonym for "acceptable"or "cool." While there are varying levels and abundant details of kosher observance, practicing Jews may generally eat the following "approved" items: most fruits and vegetables, the meat of animals that have split hooves and that chew their cud, all seafood that has fins and scales, and most domesticated fowl. This excludes such fare as pork sausage, lobster, and birds of prey. Also, kosher law requires killing all animals in a ritual manner by a trained slaughterer (called a schochet). The schochet ensures the animal a quick and relatively painless death. He also carefully inspects the meat for lesions and disease. Kosher kitchens also support the total separation of meat and dairy ingredients, even committing cookware and serving pieces to an exclusive use. Foods with no origins in either meat or dairy are considered "neutral" (pareve) and may be paired with any dish containing either ingredient. While Jewish orthodoxy demands strict adherence to the above (and additional) guidelines, for many Jews today keeping kosher involves no more than the elimination of ham and cheese sandwiches from their diets.

Jews dispute the motivations behind kosher rules as often as they debate the many attributes of the good bagel. Religious scholars point to passages in the Old Testament's books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy that list the commandments for a regimented diet. Although we are told in these passages that many foods are "abominations," that is, forbidden for their "uncleanliness," we are never told exactly why they are unclean. Further dietary restrictions are given little explanations in the Bible itself. Only later commentary by Rabbinic scholars helps to translate these basic kosher commandments into a disciplining dietary regimen.

In keeping with their own religous practices, Muslims and Seventh-Day Adventists also subscribe to some rules of the kosher diet. Many people are attracted to a kosher diet's encouraged sharing of traditional recipes and meals. One indisputable reason for kosher observance is the commitment to sustaining a strong social community. "Keeping kosher" involves participation in a daily social ritual that reaches out to religious authorities, supports community businesses, and builds communications between individuals and families.

Many Austin consumers find themselves attracted to the kosher food label, as it provides assurance of supervised, controlled food production. Vegetarians and consumers of organic food especially benefit from the conscientious production required of kosher food. For instance, while canned vegetarian black beans should not contain meat bits as standard beans might, no indicator other than the kosher symbol (called a hecksher) guarantees that the beans weren't cooked in pans previously used to par-boil chickens. In other words, certain symbols on packaged goods, which are all approval codes of koshering organizations, certify a consumer standard that no other health label can.

Even the "organic" trademark, which seeks to provide consumers a sense of intimacy with the foods they eat, does not uphold the strict standards of the kosher industry, though organics' advocates do share a concern for food origins and production. Still, kosher foods are the product of centuries of Jewish tradition, building on a foundation of specific culinary standards that no recent trend can, or for financial reasons may want to, quickly emulate.

Given the packaging style of kosher food and its placement in stores, however, it is rarely the sought-after product that this report might predict. Outmoded advertising on kosher packages sadly competes with the sleek and chic fashions of today's overabundant "gourmet" products. So, while tradition suggests that the kosher label provides the greatest assurance of supervised production in packaged foods, our consuming culture, stimulated more by appearance than conscience, won't always allow us to take that position. One glance at the products in Austin's kosher grocery sections recalls images of wartime provisions, with brown and yellow colors evoking as equal a sense of nausea as Forties nostalgia. Ironically, freshness and cleanliness are not the descriptives that come most readily to mind. One finds an array of kosher salt, Rokeah or Streits' brand matzoh and chicken broth mixes, jarred borsht, sweet wines, and select soy sauces in small, drab, dusty packages sporting dated food graphics that shame even the most ardent kosher glutton.

Jewish food should not just remind us of pitcha (peppered calf's foot jelly), flanken (boiled beef), and prune compote (stewed and sweetened). Whether it is matzohball soup, fried rice, or black bean enchiladas, all food packaged and prepared according to kosher guidelines, regardless of ethnic origins, is kosher. In addition to the blintzes of Eastern Europe and the pastrami of New York, both the falafel of the Middle East and the stir-fry of China (Tel Aviv serves some of the world's best Chinese food) reflect a long-standing influence of diverse ethnic palates on Jewish food. With the influence of international and regional tastes, today's Jewish kosher food takes many forms and should fill many grocery store shelves.

Kosher certification does pop up in familiar places too; Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bars, Breyer's ice cream, Laura Scudder's peanut butter, Breakstone's cottage cheese,
Ore Ida frozen french fries and even Korbel Brüt champagne are among items carrying a kosher trademark. The fact is, if a large market were to place all of the kosher food on its shelves together, it would require numerous aisles. With grocery stores still the central source of kosher food in Austin, any effort to market the kosher products on their shelves and to research innovative products available elsewhere would increase consumer awareness about the diversity and quality of kosher food in general. As a start, the now-ubiquitous olive and pickle bar, complete with herring and pickled onions, provides, at least, a taste with which many available kosher foods can be paired. And further requests by discriminating consumers for fresh and interesting kosher products will no doubt continue to change both the image and general appeal of kosher food. Austin might one day see widespread promotions on packaged kosher goods and even support a kosher butcher in its midst.

It's no wonder, though, that with no local fresh meat supplier in Austin and the added expenses of keeping a kosher diet (the cost of kosher meat is often 20% higher than non-kosher cuts), many observant Austin Jews take to vegetarianism. While kosher rules do not state any preference for a vegetarian diet, many Jews are attracted to vegetarianism for its convenience and relatively low cost. With the separation of meat and dairy meals at the forefront of kosher thinking, and the vegetarian diet's reliance on grains and produce, the vegetarian kosher kitchen eliminates much of the overhead and labor involved in alternating meat and dairy meals. Remember, in the strictest of kosher kitchens, not even one dishtowel can dry both kinds of dishes. Most kosher restaurants will even "take sides" to get certified, preparing (usually dairy) dishes in a kitchen that leans only one way. This is not to suggest that kosher vegetarianism is motivated only by economy, but that the added labor and tools involved in overseeing and preparing kosher foods adds to the cost and thus the task of observance.

The challenges of a keeping a kosher diet are made easier with efforts on the part of local caterers, organizations, and markets (see "Shopping Kosher" sidebar). The stronger presence of kosher businesses only demonstrates Austin's ripeness for a kosher restaurant, one inclusive of non-kosher patrons yet with strict regard for kosher production. Austin's kosher dining remains mostly homebound still; no restaurant caters to an exclusively kosher crowd. Yet, several statistics show that non-Jews, interested in the pro-consumer inspection of kosher food, comprise a growing market for kosher products. If discriminating consumers of kosher food can begin to alter Austin's catering and market scene, perhaps they can persuade grocery stores to provide local access to fresh kosher meats and inspire investment in various places for kosher dining.

Ronna Welsh, a Northeast émigré to Austin, is a freelance writer, food lover, critic, and cook.

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