Keeping Kashrut in Austin
It's Sunday afternoon and you're cruising down the aisle of your local supermarket for a quick grocery hunt. You pick up a box of cookies, toss in a package of spaghetti, a jar of pickles, and your four most favorite kinds of breakfast cereal. Minutes later, you are at home unpacking the groceries, and you notice something interesting -- something that appears on the labels of each of the products you bought. There are all these intriguing little emblems on the labels that you are not familiar with. You understand the trademark symbol, the ® registered sign, and you know © means copyright. But what's this "U" with a circle around it, or the K with the circle around it, or the K inside a star? And what in tarnation does that word "pareve" mean? And how the heck do you pronounce it? Well, congratulations, savvy consumer. You just purchased kosher food! Welcome to the ever-expanding world of the kosher food market.
While kosher food is a relatively new phenomenon in Austin, it's been part of the American culinary landscape since before the revolution. By the mid-18th century, Congregation Shearith Israel -- the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of New York founded in 1654 -- was supervising the slaughtering of kosher meat for export to Jamaica and Curacao. A hundred years later and into the beginning of the 20th century, among the masses of new immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were Jews from Eastern Europe who brought with them their unique customs and traditions, including those food-related.
Realizing the need to provide kosher food for the newly transplanted Jews, the more entrepreneurial newcomers began making and selling foods that met the needs of America's growing Jewish community. It was during this period that some of today's most recognizable supermarket products were introduced, including Lender's Bagels, Hebrew National Franks, and (still) the king of commercially prepared kosher foods, the Manischewitz label. The industry continued to expand through the next several decades, and by 1993, ethnic kosher food sales in the United States hit the $2 billion mark. Only six years later, the figure had doubled to four billion.
But what exactly does kosher, or its noun form -- kashrut -- mean? Kashrut comes from the Hebrew word for "fit." According to Jewish law, certain foods have been deemed fit or correct to eat. These foods are considered kosher. Many people erroneously assume that "kosher" refers to food that has been blessed by a rabbi. Not so.
And while the laws that govern kashrut are indeed precise, there has never been a period of time like the present when kosher food has been more accessible and in such great demand. The surge in growth over the last few years in Austin has brought a greater number of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who shop kosher. In fact, the majority of people who buy kosher food in America are themselves not even Jewish. According to figures from Integrated Marketing Communications, a New York City-based marketing firm specializing in the kosher food sector, two-thirds of the U.S. kosher market of about five million people are not Jewish. Some groups, like Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists, eat kosher for religious reasons. Others choose kosher because they consider kosher to be healthier.
Is it healthier? If you're a meat eater, the answer is yes. The standards that apply to processing kosher meats and poultry are more stringent than those set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For example, animals that have died from natural causes or diseases or have flaws in them at the time of killing are unkosher. Not only that, the treatments used to slaughter these animals are much more humane and sensitive than the techniques employed in the general non-kosher slaughter of meats for consumer use.
This moral and ethical perspective is extended to the proscription against eating meat from animals that have been hunted down and killed (by gunshot, arrows, etc.), or from the meat of scavenger birds, or birds that prey on others (falcon, vulture, etc.).
But not all animals, even if they're slaughtered in accordance with Hebrew law, would be considered kosher. That's because biblical requirements state that in order to be kosher, land mammals must have split hooves and they must chew their cud. So, while sheep, goats, cattle, and deer are all allowable, pigs and rabbits, for example (including their organs and flesh), are not, since they lack one of the two essential stipulations.
But of mammals that are kosher, not all of their parts necessarily are. The sciatic nerve, for example, and its related arteries, are not permissible to eat. But because the process of removing them from the animal's hind quarter is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, it's not worth the trouble and cost to go through this procedure. So, at least in America, the hind quarters are considered unkosher -- which means cuts such as sirloin, T-bone, and filet mignon are not eaten.
Of the sections that are permissible, even here there are varying degrees of kashrut. When a cow, for example, is inspected for kashrut after slaughter, the rabbi will examine its internal organs for defects or diseases. It is common to find adhesions to the cow's lungs, which would indicate a puncture to the lung, making the animal unfit for consumption. However, Jewish legal authorities have declared that if these lesions are small, easily removable, and the lungs remain airtight, the meat can still be eaten. If the lungs, upon inspection, are found to be smooth and free of adhesions, the meat is declared "glatt" kosher.
As for fish, anything that swims must possess fins and scales to be kosher, which is why shell fish (lobster, shrimp, clams, and oysters) and crustaceans (crab, crawfish) are not allowed. Birds that do not prey on others, like chicken, geese, duck, and turkeys, all get the kosher poultry two thumbs up.
So with all these specific laws, one would think that keeping kosher in Austin is a pain in the butt (which, remember, we said is not kosher). Well, that might have been the case here several years ago, but not so today. Two significant developments in the recent past have radically altered the situation here, prompting new interest and creating an increased demand for all foods kosher.
The first was the opening of Austin's only full-service, in-store kosher bakery at the Randalls market on Balcones and FM 2222. According to Kathy Lussier, director of public relations for Randalls stores, when the market was remodeled a few years back, Randalls decided to incorporate a fully supervised kosher bakery on the premises. Randalls recognized that with Austin's growing Jewish community, there was no place where kosher consumers could purchase a range of freshly prepared baked goods, from cookies, muffins, bagels, and challah bread (the traditional braided loaf eaten on Sabbath and holidays) to specialty cakes and baked party trays. Regular bakeries may use shortenings such as lard or animal fat from non-kosher cows in the baking process, which renders the goods unkosher. And even if permissible oils were used, the tables, pans, and utensils with which the items were baked may themselves have come in contact with non-kosher ingredients, again rendering the final baked product not kosher. So, to ensure the integrity of the baked goods that would satisfy an ever-growing kosher clientele, Randalls installed a completely kosher facility, complete with two separate baking units that conform to kosher standards.
One of the defining characteristics of kashrut is the requirement of separating meat from dairy. This separation not only pertains to the food items themselves, but to the utensils used in the production of meat or dairy products and to utensils used for the consumption of meat or dairy products, too. Combining meat and dairy-based foods together at a meal would not be kosher. So, eating a cheeseburger would be a no-no, as would a steak with a buttered baked potato. For purposes of kashrut, poultry is also considered meat, which would rule out eating chicken paprikash. Fish, however, along with staples like eggs, fruits, veggies, and grains, is considered neutral or "pareve" items and therefore can be eaten with either meat or milk products (although according to some views, fish cannot be eaten with meat together on the same plate).
In the baking process, two ovens are used at Randalls -- one exclusively for the production of baked goods that might contain dairy stuff (cakes, pastries) and one for churning out non-dairy-based items like breads and rolls. Therefore, according to kashrut laws, the dairy-based baked goods could not be eaten with anything meat-based, but since the store's breads are considered "pareve," they can be eaten with either meat or dairy foods.
So now I know where I can get a loaf of kosher rye bread, but what if I wanted to throw a hunk of kosher corned beef between those slices? A five-minute trip up to the Far West HEB will lead you to Austin's only full-service, in-store kosher meat market, where you will find not only a wide selection of deli meats but an entire range of freshly cut and prepared beef, poultry, lamb, and veal. At the helm of this bustling corner of the store is Tracy Cross, a man who can say without equivocation, "I love my job." The energy and exuberance he conveys when talking about this operation reflects the strong commitment that he and his staff share for providing a veritable kosher cornucopia of products to HEB shoppers.
Like Randalls, when HEB realized that there existed an unmet need in the city's growing Jewish population, the supermarket began planning to create a kosher store within a store. Teaming up with Rabbi Y. Levertov, the head of the Kosher Supervising Organization of Austin, who by this time was already supervising the Randalls bakery and locally owned Austinuts, the two created something that neither Austin, nor any city in the rest of Texas, had ever witnessed before: not only a fresh "glatt" kosher meat market, but a sit-down kosher deli that also sells kosher packaged and frozen goods, and kosher wines (wines and grape products must also be kosher). Even the more densely populated Jewish communities of Dallas and Houston had nothing like that at the time.
And since the day it opened three years ago, the store has witnessed impressive growth. Sales have climbed 60% since business first began in 1997. And the reasons for it are many. Aside from the exposure it instantly and obviously received in the Austin Jewish community, the store quickly became known to Jews across the state. It's not uncommon to see Jewish customers loading up their buggies with kosher goods and returning to their homes in San Antonio, Waco, and Corpus Christi.
But the store's appeal also crosses over to those who are not Jewish. Indeed, 80% of its lunchtime customers are not Jewish. And with the large midday crowds from nearby offices that visit its deli counter regularly, it was only a matter of time before word got out about the quality of its deli meats and sandwiches. It was no surprise, then, that the Austin American-Statesman recently bestowed HEB's kosher store with the honor of making the best chicken salad sandwich in town.
And if it's the quality of the meats that keep Jewish and non-Jewish customers coming back, much of that is due to the hard work of Shmuel Kochman, the store's ace meat cutter and, along with Frank Brock, one of the store's two maschgichim. Mash what? (That's pronounced mash-gee-heem.) "Maschgiach" is the Hebrew word for supervisor. These two men, appointed by Rabbi Levertov, are trained to ensure that all aspects of food preparation at the store adhere to kosher regulations. But Kochman, in addition to his supervisory duties, is also responsible for the presentation of the meat in the display case. His deft skill at trimming shows off the real quality of the meats that are sold, which explains, in part, why store sales have consistently been going up.
But fresh meats and deli food are only part of the store's success. Its kosher grocery section is the most extensive in the city. Tracy Cross prides himself at being able to offer kosher items that other stores might not carry -- like a wide variety of "pareve" or neutral foods, and upscale gourmet products, too. Indeed, according to Kate Brown, HEB's manager of public affairs for the Central Texas region, the kosher store has the flexibility to try out new products, much like HEB's Central Market does.
And while speaking about Central Market, although the number-one tourist spot in Austin does not offer a supervised kosher store, it does stock a good amount of kosher food products, especially during the Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, which begins on September 29 this year. However, just like the Far West store, it, too, has experienced growth in kosher food sales. Nona Evans, spokesperson for the store, attributes some of this increase to the fact that as kosher food manufacturers respond to an increasingly sophisticated customer base, they are revamping their packaging to create a more visually appealing look, which grabs not only the shopper specifically looking for kosher food, but the regular food shopper as well.
With the Jewish New Year upon us, lasting for 10 days until the Fast of Yom Kippur, kosher food labels will become more prominently displayed in some stores across the city. As you pass other shoppers milling about these displays, consider making their day by greeting them with the Hebrew phrase, "Shana Tova" -- Happy New Year!