Sunday, 22 August 2010

But is it kosher?

Via The Times for Saturday August 21 (no link due to paywall): a number of publications have carried the interesting story about the latest in a series of feasts organised by the researchers Ari Greenspan and Ari Zivotofsky.  For a number of years they've conducted culinary-religious detective work to identify kosher foods whose documented status as kosher has been lost for various reasons including the Diaspora, the Holocaust, development of industrialised food supply/marketing, and mistaken categorisation.

See the equivalent article by the same author: At Kosher Feast, Fried Locusts for Dessert (by Nathan Jeffay, Jewish Daily Forward, August 6, 2010).  Some items on the menu arise from Talmudic tradition as recommendations for the curious who wanted to know the taste of forbidden foods: for instance, the carp Barbus grypus (called shibuta) is said to taste of pork.  Others involved disputed biological characteristics, such as demonstration that the water-buffalo has cloven hooves and chews the cud, and that the swordfish has scales.  Yet others involved finding an attribution trail via oral tradition (necessary for a bird to be kosher), old documents or practices of isolated communities, such as Yemenite and Moroccan Jews with a tradition that identifies which species of locust match those of biblical description.

The whole issue of kosher food often leads to fascinating exercises in scholarship. - "the premier kosher information source on the Internet" maintained by the food scientist Arlene J. Mathes-Scharf - has in its articles section a number by Rabbi Zivotofsky, including Kashrut of Exotic Animals: The Buffalo, Is Turkey Kosher? and The Halachic Tale of Three American Birds: Turkey, Prairie Chicken, and Muscovy Duck (the latter two explore the slightly paradoxical status of the turkey, a New World bird which Zivotofsky argues got a fairly easy ride into kosher status compared to other birds with better credentials).

Googling around the topic led me to an excellent gastronomic website, Culinary Historians of New York. Catch while you can its semi-annual newsletter, online for a limited time. Its Spring 2008 edition contains an article about the shibuta and the lead article for Fall 2003 is Early Sephardic Foodways in the Hudson Valley, but it's not just limited to Jewish cuisine, and has interesting articles about the wide-ranging ethnic and locally-evolved cuisines of the USA. Also check out, for example, From Great Cake to Curiosity (On the Trail of the Hartford Election Cake); From Raw Beef without Salt to Freedom Fries (Haute Cuisine, the White House, and Presidential Politics) and Early American Opinions on Chinese Food.

- Ray

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