Review of Kosher Nation

Review of Sue Fishkoff’s Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority (Schocken 2010) offers many interesting insights into the evolution of kashruth in America, as well as its perceptions and misperceptions.  The writing is engaging and flows well, though the separate chapters sound like they were written to stand on their own and so do occasionally overlap a bit with information in other chapters. Still, the book does offer some insights that may be new to the reader, even one familiar with the world of kashruth.  Among the most interesting is the progressiveness of  the Star-K, which introduced: the first national training program for mashgichot” [women kosher supervisors]  in 2009 (84). The kashruth business is very much male dominated.

For those of you who are kosher consumers and who perceive  that your food bills are much higher than the average American’s, this book confirms that you are right.  The reason the stores want to attract those who keep kosher is because they “ are known to spend more money than other consumers.  Kosher marketer Eli Rosenfeld says one of his largest clients, a major national chain, claims Jewish customers spend close to a billions dollars in its stores, between 200 and 300 percent more every week than non-Jewish customers “ (136).   In fact, the selling point of kosher is recognized even by those who don’t understand what it  entails. Fuji film  printed an OU symbol on the box in the 1980s.  The company’s explanation was their having been informed  “’that products with this symbol sell better in the United States’” (70).

An insights that is not particularly surprising is the fact that people are demanding more kosher options is not surprising for those of us familiar with Orthodox neighborhoods and kosher markets.  We already know that people who keep kosher today “ travel more than their parents, and they expect to find kosher food on the planes they take, the stores they shop in, and the hotels where they stay” (18).  We also know about the increasingly sophisticated options in kosher foods and wine that are attributed to “the influx of baalei teshuva, or newly observant Jews, into the ranks of the Orthodox in the last decades of the twentieth century. Used to drinking good wine insecular America but now constrained by the laws of kashrut, these new kosher consumers were no longer content with inferior hooch” (115). Wine seems to fascinate the author, as she devotes many, many pages to the developments in kosher wine, including organic varieties.

Some interesting history include the fact that The phenomenon of Jews eating “kosher style” rather than truly kosher food has its roots in “nineteenth-century Europe, where it was known as fressfroemigkeit, German for ‘eating religion’” (96).  In the United States, the 20th century saw a number of eating establishments that provided the flavor of kosher food for those who were nostalgic for the dishes associated with their past, though without the  halachic strictures in place. As for kosher wine in America,  “Manischewitz wine was created almost as an afterthought by The Manischewitz Company, founded in 1888 in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the country’s first commercial matzo bakery” in 1901  (113).  The next year, a clash on kashruth spurred violence during  the 1902 boycott on kosher meat organized by women who “took to the streets, breaking into kosher butcher shops, dousing the meat with gasoline, and setting it afire” (62). 

But the Jews of the present generation seem to reserve their excitement to celebrate new products becoming kosher. Many celebrated the arrival of  kosher Oreos in 1997.   Before that the Nabisco company had a truly treif history, as it used lard in its products. While Nabisco did not disclose exactly how much it cost them to make their famous cookies, including Chipas Ahoy! kosher, they had to replace one hundred belts at the cost of “ $150,000 each.” And of course, on top of that , "they pay yearly certification fees.”  As they seem to have come out ahead in the end, they must have had to increase their sales substantially. The kosher Oreos were seen by some Americans as a major milestone, attaining, “one more popular food product that it was allowed to eat.” (23). However, this trend began long ago.

The chapter entitled “Big Brother Is Watching” details then evolution of rabbinical certification in the 20th Century as more and more foods were prepared outside the home.    “In 1912, Procter & Gamble became one of the first major food manufacturers to ask” for certification for “Crisco, the company’s newly developed vegetable-based shortening. “ (50). This provided a kosher alternative to lard and a parve alternative to butter for baked goods that could be served with a meat meal. The next big event was 11 years later:   “In 1923, Heinz Vegetarian Beans became the first item to carry national kosher certification. This also represented the first successful effort to convince a major food manufacturer that the country’s growing Jewish population was a lucrative market” (48).   But they did not want to be marked as to “ethnically specific, which is why “the OU agreed to drop the word kosher from the original design: of the logo (49).
Coke got kosher certification in 1935, and the ingredients derived from grain were also removed so that the soft drink was kosher for Passover “Company executives were so persuaded of the need to satisfy the very small market of kosher-keeping Jews that they agreed to replace those ingredients, an amazing step for a major food manufacturer to take at the time” (21). And, of course, every year, Coke reverts to its original sugar in its soda formula to offer a kosher for Passover version of the soft drink.

Kosher for Passover is one of the areas that the author does not really delve into. Of course, it only happens once a year, but for those 8 days, many Jews spend as much as they do for a month or more on their standard groceries with special products, wine for the sedar, as well as matzah that can cost upwards of $20 a pound for hand shmura. That fits right in with the point she comes to a number of times that the kosher consumer spends more than the nonkosher counterpart,  the Passover products and the increasingly popular trend of going to hotels for the holiday at the cost of thousands per person, certainly deserved a chapter of its own.  All it merits in this book is a fleeting reference by a mashgiach who says that it involves a great deal of work, though she does not follow one around as she does for other kosher preparation and supervision.
 When she brings up someone who normally is not observant of kosher but does buy kosher for Passover products for the holiday, the author indicates she has not researched the topic well enough to understand why kosher for Passover ketchup is not just whimsical but necessary for kosher law. Ketchup ingredients typically include corn syrup, which is kitniyot, and even more problematic, vinegar, which is usually grain based and, therefore, in the category of chometz. Another nitpick I have is the fact the author is inaccurate because she did not bother to get updates about her report before the books was published. She mentions that in the  5 Towns, there are five large kosher supermarkets in the area, all of them thriving” (268). That includes Glatt Kosher Kingdome, which was so far from thriving that it went out of business within less than a year, months before this book came out.

These bits of omission, though, are relatively minor, though, compared to the fact that in all 384 pages on schitas Beit Yosef or the standard of avoiding bishul akum  for Sephardim even though she makes a point of showing her knowledge of chassidishe shechita.   She also fails to get into the ramifications of stringencies of halacha, like cholov Yisrael, pas Yisroel or  observance of yoshon. Those who abide by such stringencies still abstain from popular brands, like Nabisco cookies, which are dairy, not pas Yisroel, and would only be yoshon at certain times of year.  Instead of including the entire spectrum of Orthodox kashruth laws, she goes off beyond kashruth altogether with many pages on the standards of Muslim dietary laws (the prohibition on alcohol, for example, can make vanilla extract forbidden), especially in college campuses that strive to accommodate both.  Consequently, she gets somewhat diverted from  her stated purpose .

In the prologue, the author explains her inspiration for writing the book: “Seeing, on one hand, the lengths to which a hassidic family will go to keep kosher in Ukraine, and on the other hand, the determination of young Jewish social-justice activists to honor Jewish tradition while excluding no one, I was struck by how broad the spectrum of Jewish sacred eating had become” (xi).  Clearly, some within the Orthodox camp have been excluded from what presents itself as an exhaustive study of the subject of kashruth in all its American manifestations. The bottom line is: the book is interesting, but the author is not well-informed enough to present the ultimate compendium of kashruth observance.

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Abba's Rantings said…
nice review. sounds like an interesting book. wish i had time to read it. just one note. you write, "Consequently, she gets somewhat diverted from her stated purpose." these "diversions" may not be of interest to the casual jewish reader interested only in the specifically jewish angle, but such cross-cultural "diversions" make the book more robust, revealing and relevant, all ingredients (no pun intended) for academic success. (i don't know her background or intended audience)
Ariella said…
Thanks for the comment. She does feature anti-kosher people, including a place that went out of its way to serve wine that was NOT certified kosher or someone who believes that refusing to eat pork is an insult to her mother. Those do fit in with her stated purpose about the spectrum of kosher views by Jews, even though a frum person would find them krum.

I got the sense that she put together articles that were written for publication on their own at some point. She must have done a piece on Muslim dietary standard, particularly in college campuses that seek to accommodate them at some point. Technically, that is not a question of "kosher" though, especially as she says many insist on real halal and do not want to accept kosher in its place. That's why I think that is a bit beyond the pale for this book.
But cross-cultural should, certainly, include Sephardic standards, and that she does not address at all. Though I am not Sephardi myself, I do believe their view merits attention in discussing shechita, as well as bishul Yisrael. Had she devoted a chapter to Pesach, she could also have discovered that none of the major kosher agencies in America grant a kosher for Passover symbol to kitniyos (the case is quite different in Israel).

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