Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Ultimate Kosher Culture Shock

Last year, Tuvia had mentioned something called "The Big E" to me when I asked him whether states out this way rock State Fairs like we do in the Midwest. We missed it last year because we were newly dating and our schedules weren't meshing, so we'd vowed to go this year to the gigantic fair that honors all of the states out here -- Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. I was stoked that we got tickets and managed to find a small window of time to go this past week. But boy oh boy was I in for a serious shock.

We arrived at The Big E fairgrounds with dozens and dozens of other cars, people schlepping on food, and RVs pulling in for the long-haul. We parked, walked through piles of mud, handed them our tickets (which they digitally scanned, which I thought was odd considering fairs in my mind are old-school), and went on our way. We wove our way through sheds and jacuzzis for sale, landing out near the Midway and near what would be something I wasn't prepared for: Fair Food.

When I was a kid, we once drove to the fairgrounds in Missouri, driving around for hours trying to find an empty hotel room, just to see some butter sculpture of Garth Brooks. We ate fried food, funnel cakes, gigantic turkey legs, and every fried goodie in between. You see, the Midwestern way when it comes to fairs is to consume as much as you can that is either fried or on a stick, or better yet -- both! You drink soda or hot chocolate or a big slushie, chow down on a deep-fried Twinkie, and marvel at gigantic vegetation or animals.

As we walked around the fair, I was reminded at how un-Midwestern it was. Yes, they had all the food trappings (the fried dough could be smelled from every corner of this place), but to see the gigantic animals you had to pay a buck. It was disappointing. But the buildings all housed the basic goods -- ShamWOW!s, choppers and knives, various pet goods, and the obligatory "Pray with Us" booth and the "Abortion is Wrong" booth with a gigantic fetus plastered on the booth wall.

As we walked around, I was feeling starved. All I wanted to do was buy some fried pickles (a classic Southern Missouri/Northern Arkansas treat), grab a basket of cheese fries, and top it off with some funnel cake. But I couldn't. I couldn't even approach the stands. I couldn't even consider it.

I'm kosher.

So imagine my delight when, after entering the craft corner, Tuvia shouted "Chavi! Look! Kosher!" Yes, there we were, in front of a candied nut booth that sported a local hechsher. Nuts. This is what I can eat at a fried, fatty-filled fair? Nuts? Cinnamon candied nuts? That's it? Okay, that's a lie. Tuvia managed to grab a coffee (a locally hechshered brand, mind you) while I had some chai (also kosher). We thought about purchasing a pretzel, since the brand that's plastered all over the heating elements is one that's kosher. But who's to say that the pretzels IN there are kosher?

As we walked through the state houses, we discovered Ben and Jerry's and a local dessert ice place, as well as a placed that was dishing out baked potatoes (with OU-certified Cabot [barf] sour cream), but by then we were worn out. Tired from all the food we couldn't eat. Or maybe it was just me. Tuvia's a Jersey boy. I'm a born-and-bred Midwestern with a palate for fried cheese and treats on sticks.

I know that it's just food, but food is how we socialize, it's how we relate to one another, the world around us. And being there, on gigantic fairgrounds spewing food that we couldn't eat, was depressing. It was a culture shock. The reality of my situation really hit me then.

Since early June, I've only eaten non-kosher once (it was a Jones for some TGIFridays). It's not so bad, but it is hard. I like to eat out. After all, my Yelp profile is full of eateries in Chicago and Washington DC and even here in Connecticut. Unfortunately, in Connecticut, the closest kosher restaurants are in Waterbury and that's just deli and pizza. If you want something real -- sushi, burgers, barbecue, steak -- you have to schlep to Monsey or Boston or New York.

I haven't had a cheeseburger in probably five years. That goes the same for shrimp and pork. If I consumed pork or shellfish since then, it was by no knowledge of my own. It took me a while to warm up to the idea of no meat and cheese. Don't get me wrong -- I've been doing no beef/dairy for years. But the chicken/cheese took me a while to really figure out. Keeping kosher dishes and containers and pots and pans and stuff hasn't been so bad. It's been staying healthy and kosher that's been the biggest problem for me. But I'm working on it. I'm back on my Morningstar Burger bent. Amen for Morningstar.

How do we do it? How do Jews in the boonies (not that Hartford is boonies, but I can't even go to the deli and get a sandwich for Pete's sake) manage without kosher restaurants? We all get tired of cooking, especially when it's the same stuff over and over again. Even trying new dishes can burn you out. I just know that when Tuvia and I are in Israel in two months that coming back will be difficult, if not impossible. Having kosher food at your fingertips -- even having that cultural mindset of kashrut -- will blow our collective minds into submission to those pushing aliyah.

But one thing's for sure: I can never go to the fair again.

Until, of course, they offer something kosher and delicious. How hard would it be to put up a kosher booth? After all, The Big E states are full of Jews -- Connecticut and Massachusetts especially. Do Jews not go to the fair? Maybe I'll start my own fair. Or maybe that's what the Purim fair is for. Who knows.

Either way, this Kosher Cornhusker can't go home again. At least, not with a corn dog in one hand and fried cheese on a stick in the other.