Food Rules

Among the major gifts of the Jews to humanity — the idea of one God, the Bible and Ten Commandments, individual rights and human equality — there is also this: finicky eating.

Nowadays, we take for granted the idea that when we sit with others to eat, someone is going to announce what he can or can’t put on his plate. There’s the “I don’t eat red meat” announcement, the more specific “I only eat fish and chicken,” the au courant “I don’t do wheat” and the flip-all-the-cards, pass-the-salad “I’m a vegan.”

Jews started this. The laws of kashrut, the specific set of dietary restrictions set forth in Leviticus, ensured that Jews couldn’t just eat what’s on the menu. While their neighbors gorged uninhibitedly on porky forcemeats, Jews refused. For Jew haters, what their dinner guests didn’t eat became their defining characteristic.

“This disdain for pork and even more so for lard exacerbates the hatred of their neighbors, who consider it a desire to denigrate what is for them the most desirable and precious part of the animal,” writes the anthropologist Claudine Fabre-Vassas in, “The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians and the Pig.” The derogatory word for Jews who pretend to be Christian, Fabre-Vassas points out, was marrano, which literally means “young pig.”

What was once cause for persecution is now a trend. Thank the Jews for pioneering the right of dinner guests to freely and loudly proclaim what foods are anathema to them. Every host has to cook his or her way through a minefield of special diets, and every guest feels duty bound to announce what particular dish is forbidden on moral, political, physiological or nutritional grounds.
Oddly enough, the surest conversation starter at a dinner party is to discuss what people won’t eat.

All this seems to weaken one of food’s sacred powers: to bring people together. Breaking bread breaks so many other barriers as well. It awakens us to our common humanity: Seeing others enjoy the same foods we do has to lead to some degree of empathy.

If the joy of a good meal is the best way to bring friends and strangers together, why do the laws of kashrut make it so difficult? Many years ago, I was at a high-level meeting between local Jewish leaders and officials from the Syrian government. The hotel wasn’t kosher. Syrians ate Chilean sea bass with olives and crusty bread; the rabbis ordered in a prewrapped fruit salad. No bread was broken, no wine glasses raised. The meeting did not end well.

It is all so problematic, these walls we erect at the dinner table. You might think the solution is to do away with them, to ridicule or force people into eating what the majority eats. But here the realm of food starts to sound a lot like the world of politics, where it is neither realistic nor desirable for everyone to think the same. There’s something useful in having the vegan remind us we can make
it through life without hamburger, or the Pollanistas force us to remember that the Chilean sea bass we’re wolfing down may, in fact, be the last, or the kosher-observant Jew remind us that even our appetites must answer to a Higher Authority. It’s a burden any decent chef can gladly bear — I do by making sure at least one substantial dish at every dinner party or Shabbat meal is not just vegan, but really good. People who won’t permit themselves a roast chicken once in a while have suffered enough.

That’s the host’s responsibility. What about the finicky guest? I was a vegetarian for 14 years — no fish, no chicken — so I have some experience here. Rule No. 1: Communicate. A cook wants to please his guests; if I invited you, I want you to leave happy. So don’t wait until the meal is on the table to tell me you’ll just be having the seltzer. 2: Don’t keep saying over and over, “Please don’t make a fuss; it’s no big deal.” If it’s no big deal, eat what’s in front of you. Otherwise, let the cook decide how big a deal it is. 3: If you’re kosher, don’t expect miracles. If a non-Jew is cooking for you — and by non-Jew, I guess I include many Jews — give them clear guidelines and hope for the best.

That last point is bound to upset some people. Am I saying a kosher-observant Jew should occasionally eat something made with the right intention but perhaps the wrong utensil? Is it ever permissible to break the kosher rules for the sake of social harmony? Is it ever OK to be a little less kosher and little more convivial? I’m saying: Keep an open mind. And when in doubt, remember Levi Eshkol, the prime minister who guided Israel through the Six-Day War.

In his new book, “The Prime Ministers,” the former aide Yehuda Avner relates how, just after the war, Eshkol visited President Lyndon Johnson’s Texas ranch, trying, for the sake of his nation’s survival, to procure American fighter jets to counteract the massive rearmament of the Arab nations. It was a hard sell. At the evening meal, Johnson decided to honor his guests by serving birds he had shot that morning. When Lady Bird Johnson saw the Israeli contingent push the main course aside, she was visibly perturbed. She told Avner that her chief of protocol had assured her birds were kosher. An Israeli guest politely explained the intricacies of kosher slaughter.

“But,” said the First Lady, “your prime minister is eating them.”

The Israeli answered that the prime minister must have made an exception to the ancient laws because the First Family’s food was too delicious to resist.

Crisis averted. Israel got the planes, and Avner got a lesson on when to keep kosher, and when to eat crow.