Many cultures are defined by the foods that are eaten and their preparation
as well as their connection to life cycle events. But for Judaism, which
ranges from the ultimate of Orthodox practices and beliefs to the most secular
of identification with that religion, the rules regarding the proper handling
and consumption of food have a most profound influence.
The shohet or ritual slaughterer, who slaughters an animal
as painlessly as possible and then inspects its internal organs for any sign
of disease or imperfection may be light-years away from the nova lox /bagel
noshers who nibble as they browse through the Saturday morning ads before
they hit the department stores, but they are all part of the food-chain,
as it were, of what makes a Jew a Jew. The rules of kashrut (the
body of law dealing with keeping kosher) can be envisioned as the strong
roots of a mighty tree, which spread out and sink to a great depth, giving
nourishment and support to that tree, enabling it to both survive the storms
that would destroy it and enjoy the brief periods of sunlight that allow
it to flourish and put forth fruit.
Philosophical musings aside, I am no maven (expert) when it comes
to the rules of kashrut. I can only give you a basic overview of the
fundamentals. There are many websites and books that deal with the subject
much more thoroughly and in depth, both from the religious aspect through
the practical application of everyday implementation.
The basic tenet of keeping kosher is the prohibition against mixing meat
products (fleishik) with dairy (milchik). That means no
beef stroganoff, no cheeseburgers, no cream gravies, no bleu cheese dressing
with a meat meal. Yes, not only must an individual dish be either meat or
dairy, but the whole meal must be the same. You cannot serve a cheesecake
dessert with a steak dinner, nor can you put milk in your coffee. Luckily,
nowadays there is a gamut of artificial and approved products that can substitute
for dairy. In fact, some of them are so good that you can’t tell the
difference between faux and real.
There are some foods that are pareve or neutral, which can be served
with either type of meal. They include fruits, vegetables, vegetable
oil and vinegar, spices, pasta, eggs and fish (but no shellfish). Some
caveats do exist when it comes to eggs and fish, but for our purposes here
they are pareve.
Certain foods and any of their products are completely forbidden. They
are pork, rabbit and camel, rodents, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Birds
other than ducks, geese, turkeys and chicken are forbidden, as are fish that
do not have fins and scales, i.e., shellfish such as shrimp, lobster, oysters,
clams and crabs. Kosher meat and birds must be disease free and not
killed by another animal or die of causes other than ritual slaughter. All
blood must be drained from the animal and only certain parts of cattle are
allowed to be eaten.
Dishes, silverware, pots and pans, cooking utensils, etc. must also be
kosher. That means a separate set of everything for dairy and for meat. The
proper use of dishwashers, sinks, countertops and dishtowels can also be
important for those who observe at that level of kashrut.
Many prepared foods come with a “heksher,” a “U” or a “K,” a mark
of kashrut certification which means that the ingredients, the process and
the processing facilities have been inspected to insure that kosher standards
are observed. Again, depending upon one’s level of observance, a particular
heksher may or may not be acceptable.
Whew! Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to the
cooking part, which is the fun part of Jewish food. No, actually the
eating part is the best, but the cooking challenges, the triumphs
and the recipes which become treasured mementoes are what are remembered
and passed down from generation to generation. Bubbe Lottie…here we