By Herb Gardener –
According to the Mintel market research company, Americans spent $12.8 billion on kosher food in 2008, up 64% since 2003. The majority of shoppers surveyed claimed perceptions of kosher-certified food as offering safety, health and quality as justification for their purchase, not religious observance.
Kosher food was sold at the Super Bowl last year, emblematic of how mainstream kosher has become.
But what is kosher? First articulated in the Bible and further elaborated in Rabbinic texts (Talmud), the dietary laws defy brief explanation. Certain foods are permitted (fish with fins and scales); others prohibited (reptiles and insects). Milk and meat cannot mix, requiring separate dairy and meat plates and utensils. There are even rules for appropriate intervals between eating meat and dairy meals.
Animals are ritually slaughtered and drained of capillary blood in a process called kashering. If the supervising Rabbi determines that a food has satisfied kosher requirements packaging may carry a national or regional kosher certification label.
The Book of Leviticus contains a statement of dietary laws for Jews (referred to as kashrut), which became the basis for what foods and preparations are considered kosher. One commentator has said that the text teaches us to sanctify what goes into, and out of, our mouths. Keeping kosher, then, is about holiness, not healthiness.
Though most people are unaware of the details they believe close scrutiny and strict standards applied by Rabbinic authorities in kosher food production reward buyer confidence. As a New York Times article put it (http://nyti.ms/aJL9cH): “The extra eyes and slower speeds probably allow the government inspectors to do a better job,” Dr. Joe Regenstein (Cornell University food science professor) said. “The fact that a kosher company is meeting a lot of rules and subjected to random inspections is something of real value.” Americans are also prepared to pay more for products overseen by credible third-parties.
Is kosher food healthier? Is kosher slaughter more humane? As the debates continue at least one attribute seems settled – purity. People with food allergies, strict vegetarian (but not vegan) diets, or other restrictions can rely on kosher labeling to tell them what is not present in prepared foods.
Kosher wines, once dismissed as cloying and one-dimensional, are benefiting from diversification. Israel is emerging as a new player with vineyards in the Golan Heights, for example, producing excellent reds and whites. Consumers enjoy more choices than ever for quaffing or pairing with kosher meals.
As one who has cooked in my cousin Rabbi Paula’s kosher kitchen I can attest to the attention and mindfulness necessary to avoid contaminating pan, plates and sinks reserved for meat or daily items. “Keeping kosher” fosters spiritual engagement in preparation, respect for the origin and treatment of ingredients and reflection on a rich tradition that elevates a daily activity to meaningful ritual. Consumers have discovered kosher as a noun, but there is much to recommend it as a verb, too.
A Hanukkah table tradition is fried potato pancakes, or latkes. The oil in the pan is a reminder of the scant oil that for eight days miraculously fueled the Maccabees’ lamps in the Temple. Latkes recipes are easy to find; for my contribution this month I offer a chunky homemade applesauce recipe to “shmear” on your starchy delights along with a dollop of sour cream (thus making your table dairy!).
The following applesauce version is courtesy of The Kosher Gourmet: The 92nd Street Y Kosher Cooking School, edited by Batia Plotch and Patricia Cobe.
6 cooking apples (two pounds or so), peeled, cored, and sliced
½ cup apple cider or water
1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, or ½ inch cinnamon stick (optional)
½ cup granulated or brown sugar, to taste
In a large saucepan over high heat, combine apples cider or water, lemon juice, and cinnamon; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until apples are soft, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary.
Stir in sugar; simmer two or three minutes longer, until juice becomes syrupy. Cool slightly before using. Pulse in your processor for a smoother result.