Review: In Defense of Jewish Food, A Kosher Eater’s Manifesto contra Michael Pollan

schorsch book cover

The Food Movement, Culture, and Religion. A Tale of Pigs, Christians, Jews, and Politics. Schorsch, Jonathan  Palgrave/Macmillan, 2018. ISBN 978-3-319-71705-0  98 pp.text.

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA

Jewish dietary laws, in particular the prohibition on eating pig, have long fascinated professionals who ponder food taboos and restrictions. Jonathan Schorsch’s nit-picking but far-reaching analysis of The Food Movement, Culture, and Religion. A Tale of Pigs, Christians, Jews, and Politics is the latest addition to this Jewish Studies and Food Studies literature. In  a carefully organized 98 page volume consisting of eight chapters, each with a clearly written abstract and clarifying footnotes, the author, a scholar-activist in Jewish studies, shares his outrage that Michael Pollan, and fellow foodie intellectuals/activists of Jewish descent, irreverently celebrate the joys of eating pig and ignorantly refuse to acknowledge the manifold values in their Jewish culinary heritage.

The first four chapters are best described as a carefully framed rant against the kosher-bashing behaviors of leading Jewish food writers and chefs. These alleged authorities of the modern food movement pointedly ignore the cosmological and more encompassing cultural significance of Biblical and subsequent Jewish dietary laws, which establish which foods are permitted (“Kosher”) or forbidden (“treyf”). The three most important abstention rules can be summarized in order of salience for modern Jewish practice as: (1) no pig, (2) no shellfish, and (3) no mixing of meat and dairy products in the same dish or meal.

Schorsch’s main argument, introduced in Chapter 1, asserts that Michael Pollan and other modern foodies who celebrate omnivory and above all, consumption of pig, are objectionable ignoramuses, who systematically disparage religious and cultural bases of food habits in favor of reductionist, materialist, and rationalist conformity to dominant, allegedly democratic, assimilationist values. They, in Schorsch’s view, ironically, embrace indigenous foods and food systems as valuable contributions to environmental, nutritional, and social-justice values without searching for or acknowledging analogues in their own Jewish heritage and food traditions. Chapter 2 provides a brief history of pig-eating (or not-eating) in Jewish ritual, culinary, and agricultural practice, and establishes how and why pig came to encapsulate and symbolize Jewish experience of anti-Semitic oppression. Chapter 3 bashes the anti-kosher rhetoric of leading (Jewish) foodies representative of the modern food movement and bemoans their studied disinterest in Jewish identity and food history. This diatribe continues in Chapter 4, where the author dissects Pollan’s selective knowledge of religion and demonstrates his ignorance of Judaism.

The next four chapters, while they continue to focus negatively on Pollan, explore more universal themes and show where Jewish food fits into the mix. Chapter 5 considers culinary worlds as cultural cosmologies. Chapter 6 reviews prohibitions of animal species in cross-cultural perspective. Chapter 7 explores omnivory as a universal, but rarely or never practiced ideal. Finally, Chapter 8 considers individual vs. group identity and dietary decision-making through food. These later chapters (5-8) offer a careful exploration of the guiding principles of Jewish omnivory for those who know and choose to follow the rules, and connect food rules and eating behaviors to their larger Jewish symbolic universe and Jewish history. The author did not really need Pollan as a target to present these well-grounded materials, which also contain well-developed historical point and counterpoint comparisons of Christian and Jewish attitudes toward pig-eating, including the well-known example that pig-avoidance was used by the Spanish Inquisition to identify secret Jews who had ostensibly converted to Christianity but nevertheless maintained this Jewish dietary prohibition. Schorsch’s cross cultural exploration of ethical omnivory (Chapters 7-8) finds that most traditional cultures, Judaism included, demonstrate selective construction of diet. So do 21st century foodies, Jewish and non-Jewish, who analogously embrace food restrictions, albeit with selectivity based on adherence to some universal, secular as opposed to sectarian, principles or creed, most often some formal criteria of food-, labor-, and environmental- justice, which now qualify as universal, rather than particular Jewish values.

As a knowledgeable reader in this realm (I have taught Mary Douglas’ “Abominations of Leviticus” and her critics’ responses in Anthropological Approaches to Religion courses, and include in-depth analysis of Kosher-food classifications and certifications in my Gastronomy course on “Local to Global Food Values: Policy, Practice, and Performance,” and also write about American Reform Jewish kosher and non-kosher food rules and practices) I found Schorsch’s questions and answers in the first four chapters rigorous, but irritating. I resented his scolding Pollan as a public intellectual and opinion maker who needs to be enlightened, and his overall tone, which was didactic rant. In my experience, modern Jewish omnivores of self-identified liberal or progressive persuasion often choose not to adhere strictly to religiously-based food avoidances or to seek Jewish sources for their “just-food” practices. This, I concur with the author, does not explain why leading food-movement advocates of Jewish descent obsessively raise, cook, consume, and extoll pig as the most delectable of all foodstuffs. But given their cultural choices and culinary companions, I don’t expect them to act differently or stop eating pig, even if they study and acknowledge the anti-Semitic food history that shows forcing Jews to eat pig made pig-eating a quintessential performative act of political subjugation. Nor do I expect them to give equal time to the Jewish sustainable food movement, which aims to raise the food-justice standards of kosher food. For sure, “relevant insights of concerned food activists such as Michael Pollan and those of cultural traditions are not at odds with one another. They are powerful potential partners” for saving the planet and improving nutritional welfare (p.97). But I doubt that the author’s vitriol will overcome Pollan’s unwillingness to respect, if not revere, his ancestral culture.

Moreover, by centering his essays as a critique of Pollan and to a lesser extent other high-profile foodies, the author misses the larger picture of what passes as “Jewish” food, particularly in America. For example, Schorsch could have expanded on the great diversity of opinions, attitudes, and practices represented in The Sacred Table (Zamore 2011), a collection of essays by American Reform Jewish thinkers, some of whom mix meat with dairy or  indulge happily in shellfish, but may still refuse to eat pig. He cites the book but does not fully explore issues of Jewish culinary identity. American Jewish culture has also produced dozens of community cookbooks, some of which include special sections with TREYF recipes that the editors considered to be Jewish food in that they are produced by Jews and intended to be imitated and eaten with fellow Jews, but incorporate non-kosher ingredients or mixtures.

Personally, I find the reasoning of celebrity chef Michael Solomonov (Zahav. A World of Israeli Cooking (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2015) more insightful in distinguishing between culinary and personal identities. Trained in classic French technique and in Italian restaurants, this celebrated Philadelphia restauranteur finds it challenging to eliminate butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in dishes containing meat, and sad to exclude high quality shellfish and pork from his repertoire. He does so, he testifies, not for religious but for culinary reasons, in order to “honor the spirit of a few fundamental rules of kosher cooking” and because he markets his art and craft as Israeli. In his thinking, “Kosher rules help define the boundaries of Israeli cuisine. The second you add pork or shellfish to a dish, it can become Greek or Turkish. When you add yogurt to lamb it can become Lebanese or Syrian. Without the influence of kosher rules, the notion of Israeli cuisine itself begins to fray.” (p.22). Here, the chef is conceptualizing integrity in terms of cuisine, not cosmology or religion, and he adds that in his personal practice, he is not kosher, and in the cookbook, he makes suggestions for non-kosher variations on his recipes should readers so desire to experiment.

The celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi presents a different tack and another contrasting approach. He grew up in a Jewish Jerusalem household that flagrantly violated the kosher rules by eating pork and shellfish. He briefly discusses the kosher vs. non-kosher divide in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, where what food and with whom you will or will not eat are based on degree of kosher practice, which clearly marks religious-political identity (p.231). Such an approach likely influenced and validates Pollan’s preference for viewing Jewish food mainly as a cultural or political identity issue, which Schorsch criticizes as a limitation and failing. Ottolenghi and his co-author Sami Tamimi in Jerusalem. A Cookbook (Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 2012), like Pollan, celebrate the cosmopolitan mixing of multiple traditions, in their case, Jewish and non-Jewish, inherent in Israel’s ethnic, religious, and culinary-identity divisions.

The take-away is that foodies like Pollan are certainly correct in defining their own cultural and culinary identity as belonging to a more inclusive, larger cosmopolitan culture. With that comes an apparent special titillation aroused by eating pig, shellfish and combined meat with dairy combinations that are forbidden in Jewish dietary regimes. They certainly have not engaged in research or demonstrated “due diligence” in making pronouncements about Jewish food. This is their prerogative. But as a corollary, they probably should confess ignorance, and not preach about the limitations of kosher eating, beginning with pig.

Food and nutrition anthropologists, food studies, gastronomy, and culinary historians should all find this book of interest. For Food Anthropology or Food Studies courses addressing food cultures and cosmologies, it offers a well-referenced exploration of Jewish and anti-Jewish food culture. It could also provide a week’s reading on “food and religion” in courses on anthropology of religion; particularly Chapter 5, “Cosmological Cultures as Forms of Resistance” will resonate with other non-food emphases. The book might serve equally well as a text and extended case study on food culture for religious, Judaic, or ethnic studies.

Reference cited

Zamore, Mary L., ed. (2011) The Sacred Table. Creating a Jewish Food Ethic. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology

One response to “Review: In Defense of Jewish Food, A Kosher Eater’s Manifesto contra Michael Pollan

  1. I’m glad to hear about the book, and I appreciate the critical review.

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