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Keeping Kosher

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 come!

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