Kosher Food and Food Messages

I am from a Jewish family, but I did not grow up keeping Kosher. Like many non-Orthodox families, my folks had a way of eating that combined some of the strictures of Kashrut with a real-world approach to eating. Namely, they didn’t bring home any type of food that could never be Kosher under any circumstances. So, we didn’t eat pork or shellfish at home. We did eat cheeseburgers (combining meat and dairy foods is not allowed). Very little of the poultry, beef and lamb we consumed was Kosher-certified–but it’s possible that those foods could have been Kosher if we’d been willing to put the money and work into sourcing them. We ate non-Kosher animal foods when we were out at a restaurant, and we even cooked them if we were in someplace like a rented condo, but they were not on the menu at home. (I have fond memories of “seafood pig-out” night at the beach, a bacchanal of peel-n-eat shrimp and sauteed scallops seemingly piled elbow-deep on the table. And Mom always ordered bacon when we had breakfast out.)

As adults, my older brother is an Orthodox Jew, while I’m pretty reform in my approach. I make absolutely no bones about eating pork or whatever else I feel like eating at home or in a restaurant. My brother does the whole shtick–separate dishes and everything. He travels with most of his food in a cooler because he’s learned just how hard it can be to find Kosher food at a supermarket in a place like, oh, say, West Virginia. As his occasional host, I try to find anything I can for him nearby, and I offer him things like fruit and beer that I know he’ll consume eagerly, but it’s odd to feel like I can’t feed him the way I love to do for anybody else who swings by these parts.

My brother visited me recently for a few hours while he was in the region. He came right around my little boy’s second birthday. The big day fell during the Passover holiday this year, and since the baby doesn’t fully “get” his birthday yet, we planned to celebrate it a few days later when my parents were coming to visit. Our designated birthday party was still during the Passover holiday. So I told my brother that our folks were visiting and we were going to open presents and have a cake…and he cut me off with, “Wow, a cake, that sounds real Kosher for Passover.” Uhhh, guilty? I blushed and changed the subject.

The truth is, a part of me does feel a tiny bit guilty about all this. Pork and shellfish in particular had a tinge of the forbidden to me as a child since we did not eat them at home. I didn’t develop a taste for pork until my late 20s, when I resumed an omnivorous diet after nearly a decade of vegetarianism. I grew up living kitty-corner from the Stamey family of Greensboro BBQ legend, but I never once tasted their food because a pork BBQ restaurant was way too trayf for my folks. I didn’t eat at Stamey’s until a couple of years ago, and even then I looked around myself constantly to see if I recognized anybody. (The only familiar face was Chip Stamey, who remembered me even though he hadn’t seen me since he was in high school and I was 7 or so.) I feel guilty enough that I “respect” my parents by not serving foods that they wouldn’t eat at home if they are visiting my home. They’ve never said they’d mind, but it just feels too weird to put shrimp in front of my mother when she’s in my home. At the beach, sure, but not in her house and not in mine either.

I’ve made my rational choices as an adult, and I really have no issue living with those choices. That’s not what this post is about. I’m more interested in the ways parents can give their children messages, subtly or not, about what constitutes good food and what doesn’t. As a parent myself, I’m doubly aware of how I am transmitting those messages and monitoring how they are received. I’m proud that my son has no idea what McDonald’s is, and I bragged earlier today that his lunch was a baked chicken finger, a bowl of peas, some strawberries, and half his weight in grape tomatoes. But what does he see, and how does it affect him? How will he absorb my devotion to one or two big cups of coffee every morning? What about my fondness for Rice Krispie Treats when seeking a snack from a convenience store? Does he notice that I offer him fruit, pretzels and string cheese as snacks? How about the way I hide Halloween candy before the holiday so it doesn’t stare me in the face every time I open the pantry, or the way I bring him to the farmer’s market every weekend? Is he going to look around furtively for the Mom Police if he stops in a McDonald’s as an adult?

The intersection of faith, personal politics and nutritional gerrymandering is pretty powerful when it comes to food messages. I don’t have a solution, I just muddle through like everybody else in the best way I know how.

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