BLOG: Forbidden Foods: My Struggle with Kosher
When people ask me what it was like keeping kosher throughout my childhood, never having experienced sizzling bacon, melty cheeseburgers, or mouthwatering lobster, I smile and simply say, "I don't know, I never noticed." This of course is only partially true, but more on that in a minute. To be honest, growing up in a kosher household was easy, at least for the first eleven years or so of my life. That was just the way things were. We had two sets of plates, bowls, and silverware; meat never touched the dairy items and dairy never touched the meat items. We ordered all of our meat in bulk from a kosher deli in Minneapolis and had it shipped via Greyhound to our hometown, Iowa City, where we then froze it in a special freezer in the garage marked with a sticker that read, "I love kosher." When we went out to eat, we didn't necessarily have to go to a kosher restaurant, but we always stuck to the basic rules: no meat and dairy together, no pig, no shellfish, and no bottom-feeders (for more information on the laws of kashrut [kosher], click http://www.jewfaq.org/kashrut.htm
The common response I often get from whomever I'm talking to at the time is, "That must have been so hard! I don't think I could keep track of all the rules." Keep in mind though, that's just how I grew up. It also helps to have a mother who is an amazing cook. I was honestly spoiled growing up. My mom created the most amazing dishes like lamb with eggplant pâté or salmon with butter and macadamia nuts-all kosher, made from scratch, and none of which came from an actual recipe. I definitely lived the good life, despite not being able to enjoy honey-baked ham or venison like my friends. Granted, I tried things like bacon at brunches when my parents weren't looking, and each year when my family traveled to Kiawah, SC for vacation, by father allowed me to have one shellfish meal during the week (we were on the coast...we had to at least try it). But in general, we always followed the laws of kashrut because we were Jewish, and that was our family tradition.
And then I went to junior high.
Suddenly I had more freedom to choose what I wanted to eat and didn't have my parents there to tell me no. I equate it a little to going off to college for the first time. In the beginning, I cautiously flirted with the idea of breaking the rules that had been so clearly etched in stone for me for twelve long years. Then, slowly but surely, I allowed myself to be exposed to the wonders of everything treif (unkosher). But as I became more comfortable with the idea of breaking the rules of kosher to try new foods, I lost pretty much all self-control.
I was in sensory heaven. To everyone out there reading this, the answer is yes, pepperoni pizza really does taste like angel wings, and cheeseburgers are to my taste buds as caffeine is to dietetic interns. I went out of my way to taste any and all treif possible, and I literally wanted bacon on everything. I think my heart was probably very angry with me because of all the excess sodium and saturated fat I was ingesting but at that point in my life I could not have cared less (now as a nutrition student looking back, I cringe at the idea of what my iprofile would have looked like).
I'm not proud of what I did, I still feel a little guilty about drifting from the rules, but being able to eat anything I wanted was wonderfully liberating and I didn't want to give it up. I, of course, couldn't give my parents any inkling that I was straying from kashrut when I was away from home, but as long as my friends didn't accidentally tell them about the sausage pizzas we would order together, I was in the clear.
This way of life continued all the way through high school. I would keep kosher at home, but secretly cheat on my kosher beef with spicy Italian sausage links and pulled pork sandwiches. I think the freezer knew though; that "I love kosher" sticker had a way of staring me down when I pulled into the garage carrying an empty McDonald's bag that had recently been wiped clean of its double cheeseburger contents. My younger brother soon joined me on my path to treif consumption though, which was nice since our friends didn't really understand how delicious these foods were to us. These foods had, of course, been a part of our friends' diets, most likely since the introduction of solid foods at about six months of age (just finished my pediatric rotation...can you tell?).
Throughout junior high and high school, I rarely felt guilty about breaking the kosher traditions because I always thought, "Well, one day after I've experienced non-kosher foods, I'll probably go back to keeping kosher." When I went to college however, my opinion remained the same. Cleveland, Ohio, the home of Case Western Reserve University, my Alma mater, may have some of the worst weather in the country, but actually some of the best food surprisingly enough. Coming to St. Louis and constantly being exposed to the creative innovations of restaurants around the city, I find it hard to grasp the thought of restricting my culinary exposures. To this day, I keep kosher at home with my family; however, unbeknownst (still) to my father, I enjoy eating an unrestricted, treif-filled diet once I leave. My attitude has shifted quite a bit over the years though. I don't necessarily go out of my way to eat anything non-kosher like I once did. Rather, as I have become more passionate about food and nutrition, I have developed an intense interest in diving into new and unique culinary experiences. Food intrigues me; it is a truly unique art form that engages all of the senses at once and can even transport you to a different place or time. Nothing brings me more joy than hearing one of my friends utter the phrase, "Let's try a new restaurant tonight." In addition, being a dietetic intern at a program and in a city that has a major focus on culinary and food innovation makes me want to expand my palate, not limit it. Over the years I have realized that maybe keeping kosher just isn't for me anymore.
It's hard to continue to keep my dietary views from my dad. He doesn't ask, but I think he knows that my brother and I have strayed from tradition. He himself has actually gotten quite a bit more lax about the rules over the years. When the kosher meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa was raided in 2008, exposing illegal immigrants being paid unfair wages, we all sort of lost our faith in kosher meat. So, my dad doesn't buy it anymore. What's the point of purchasing "ethical" food if it's not actually ethical, especially if the process of obtaining that meat is so arduous? During biblical times, one of the primary reasons the rules of kashrut were first created was to keep the Jewish people healthy and safe from contaminated food. In this day and age however, food safety is not as much of a concern, and many people therefore consider the traditions to be outdated or pointless. My dad, however, continues to follow most of the laws of kashrut because, despite admitting that some of them make no logical sense, they are his reminder every single day that he is a proud Jew who believes in G-d. I have a slightly different take on it: I believe that there are other ways that I can show my faith in G-d that don't involve giving up the food and experiences that bring me joy. As my brother always puts it, "Why would G-d have put crab cakes on this earth if he didn't want me to eat them?" Although he always says this jokingly, we are definitely on the same page. I am proud that I grew up keeping kosher because knowing the laws allows me to understand Jewish patients better and explain what kosher really means to other future dietitians. But it's more than that; to a certain extent I do agree with my father. Following the laws of kashrut is one thing that sets Jews apart from the rest of the world, and I am very proud of my Judaism. At this point in my life though, I am just not ready to make the conversion back to that lifestyle. To this day, I still struggle with the question of how I will keep my future kitchen and eventually (a loooong time from now), how I will raise my own children. For now though, and until my future self makes those important decisions, I will continue to enjoy my unrestricted gastronomic experiences. L'chaim.