What is “Kosher,” and how can the average Dago be sensitive to the needs of our Semitic friends? Most people know about the restrictions of milk/meat and shellfish, but why do Orthodox observers keep turning down my dinner invitations? I went to Borough Park, Brooklyn to find out about Kosher and Italian cuisine’s place in it.
First off, Kosher (or Kashrut) food requirements derive for the stringent and severe book of Leviticus, and apply to almost all foods, both the by-product and the process of making it. The regulations—there are too many to name here—are upheld by certification, or by routine rabbinical inspection by a local Rabbi:
It’s immediately apparent that Italian food is popular in Borough Park—Amnon’s Kosher Pizza is bumping with modestly dressed women pushing strollers and visibly warm young men with peyos. I spoke to a couple of people behind the counter, and gathered the following about Italian cuisine through the lens of Kosher:
• Cheese: they use Haolam cheese, and it comes from sheep and cows only. I followed up, and the cheese also has to be made with rennet from a Kosherly-slaughtered cow, or grown bacterially (without coming into contact with animal).
• Vegetables: these are routinely inspected by a Rabbi. Why? Because vegetables may contain insects. Insects are not (not not not) Kosher.
• Bread: when it’s time for unleavened bread (i.e. Passover) the Italian restaurants have come up with a solution—no yeast whole wheat pizza and calzones! They look as if they have passed through the tunnels of the human system already, but I was assured that they are quite popular year-round.
I went into a Kosher liquor store on 13th Avenue, and talked to the clerk about Kosher wine. If invited to a Kosher household, what should I look for on a wine bottle or know about the wine before purchase?
• Certification: this is paramount in all Kosher foods, especially for those who observe Kosher and are eating outside the home. The most familiar and popular is OU, or Orthodox Union Kosher, which has 600 rabbinic field representatives world wide, and its “New York headquarters staff consists of over 50 Rabbinic Coordinators who serve as account executives for OU certified companies, supplemented by a roster of ingredient specialists, flavor analysts and other support staff.” OU is symbolized by the following sign:
• Process: I was told it had to be pasteurized, or “cooked” so to speak, but Baron Herzog wines indicate that wine only needs to be handled by Kosher methods, and use yeasts that are also Kosher.
Fellow goyim might wonder: what’s the deal with Kosher salt? In addition to being Kosher itself, Kosher salt is used in the process of Koshering meat (ritual slaughter and preparation). Since Torah dictates that one cannot consume blood, the large crystals cure and remove the residual blood within the meat.
All of you Catholic eye-talians out there, don’t try to Kosher at home! In addition to individual items and processes, Kosher also refers to a system: kitchens that have separate milk and meat plates and silverware, dishwashers, and even stoves. This is often the reason why Orthodox or Conservative Jews may decline invitations at your home, or as I heard it, will not “eat by you.” Do not be insulted my brethren—Kosher Pizzerias make the only passable Chicago-style pizza in New York!