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Not even the most pious Bubba (grandmother) would have been so unaware of sociological trends as to predict that in 1996 kosher foods would not only be trendy but HOT!
Surprise! The number of kosher products are skyrocketing. In the United States, although sales to kosher consumers topped 2.25 billion dollars in 1995, the total kosher industry amounts to 30 billion dollars a year. These unanticipated statistics in a decade with a 50% religious intermarriage rate does not indicate that everyone who marries a Jew feels compelled to keep a kosher home. Rather, it's proof positive that a Kosher label has become a guarantee of superior purity and cleanliness in the mass market. Vegetarians and Muslims, two of this decade's fastest growing culinary denominations, share dietary principles that eschew the eating of pork and pork products, and support this market. Obviously, Joe and Jane Public also feel that rabbis answer to a higher authority than does the USDA. To put it succinctly: what's good for Allah and Jehovah, must be good for me. One-third to one-half of the foods, ordinary to exotic, found in supermarkets have kosher certification. The OU symbol, the most universally accepted, is found on 80% of the kosher items produced in the US today.
How do food purveyors like Herr's and San Georgio acquire kosher certification? The old-fashioned way -- they earn it. Rabbis (mashgiachs) check every step of the plant and the process from start to finish to ascertain that everything is as it should be. Yearly site inspections, usually unannounced, keep purveyors on the straight and narrow. More and more national companies are acquiring kosher certification because kosher is more than hot and trendy -- it's now big business.
The Hebrew word "kosher," when applied to food, means fit and proper for eating. The dietary laws, the laws of kashruth, are set out in the Book of Leviticus in the Bible. Kosher food comes from three sources -- animals, fish and the earth. These are assigned to three groups: meat, dairy and parve, the latter a neutral group containing fruits, vegetables, grains and kosher fish.
For meat to be kosher it must come from animals who chew their cud and have split hooves. These include cows, goats, lamb, venison, and would you believe buffalo? Domestically raised fowl such as chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, and quail are also kosher. These animals must be slaughtered according to Jewish Law in a manner that inflicts the least amount of suffering and results in instant death, i.e. severing the jugular vein with one stroke of a razor sharp knife which has no nicks or flaws. (Rabbis in ancient times must have been the first animal rights group. In Jewish Law, killing animals for sport is regarded as cruelty to animals.) The hindquarters of large animals are only considered kosher after the sciatic nerve has been removed, a process so costly and time-consuming that it makes the most tender steaks unavailable. Packing houses sell these parts to the general market. Pig, camel, horse and rabbit are non-kosher animals and no part may be eaten in any form.
Milk and milk products from a kosher animal are dairy. They may not be eaten with meat or poultry or used in the preparation or cooking or meat dishes. If a recipe is quoted as dairy or a meal is dairy, this means that absolutely no meat or ingredient containing meat has been included for the ethical reason that it was considered improper and cruel to cook any animal in its mother's milk.
Foods which contain neither meat nor dairy ingredients are parve, and as such may be included in a meat or a dairy meal. Besides all fruits and vegetables and grains, fish with fins and scales, such as salmon, halibut, flounder, are kosher and parve. Bivalves, shellfish or scaleless fish like eel, sturgeon and catfish are not kosher.
To ensure the total separation of meat and dairy products, the kosher kitchen contains separate sets of dishes, pots, silverware and utensils: one for meat and one for dairy. These are not interchangeable. Glassware, which is not porous, is considered neutral and may be used with both.
At Passover, special dietary laws are observed. To be considered kosher for Passover, foods must contain no ingredients than can leaven or ferment. They must be labeled "Kosher for Passover." Grain or cereal products and their derivatives such as grain alcohol or vinegars, and legumes such as peas, beans, corn or rice are forbidden although Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and North Africa, do allow the use of rice.
In addition to separate sets of dishes and utensils for meat and dairy, observant households keep an additional set of everything to be used only at Passover. So, even with the thousands of Kosher for Passover products available, cooking for this holiday is a challenge.
The kashering of a kitchen or manufacturing plant is a fascinating process. What it is, who does it, and what it costs, is food for thought -- and for another column....