Friday, July 16, 2010

I'm An Oscar Mayer Weiner ...

Growing up, hot dogs were a family staple. My mom made Pigs in a Blanket (think a hot dog with a slice in it, a piece of cheese placed in the slice, and a biscuit wrapped around the hot dog and cheese and cooked) regularly, and when we went to the Drive-In as kids my mom always made hot dogs in buns, wrapped in foil, to schlep to the theater for good eats. Hot dogs were always a staple. Old school hot dogs. The kind with who knows what inside them. As I got older, I got hot dog cravings and opted for turkey dogs -- at least I knew they comprised only one curious item (turkey, that is).

For a lot of people, Hebrew National Hot Dogs are the bee's knees of the non-gross hot dog business because it's the non-crappy stuff that makes up their dogs. I can get behind that, but I can't get behind the kashrut. I know, I know "ages old rumors" and "Conservative hashgacha is just as good as Orthodox" and all that jazz. Nine times out of ten kashrut issues involve something that happened a long time ago that a business or store owner or company just can't get over. It happened back in the day, too (I'm reminded of a story from "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million" by Daniel Mendelsohn in which village residents remember the author's family because he was selling non-kosher meat as kosher and it caused a huge scandal!).

But what Hebrew National did for the industrialization of kosher food in the United States can't be underestimated. So mad props to Sue Fishkoff in her July 4 New York Times OP-ED "Red, White and Kosher" for her exploration of just what Hebrew National did when it did it. Today, one-third to one-half of the goods you find in your average supermarket chain have kosher certification (of course, whether Orthodox Jews will buy those certified products is questionable), but Fishkoff's point is that most of the people buying these products aren't Jewish! People (mistakenly) think that kosher = healthier, better, less junk than all that other stuff. Boy, have they walked down the grocery aisles in Monsey? Candy, chips, candy, chips, sugary treats. Have they sat down at a Shabbos meal!? I mean, come on, we're not the healthiest eaters out there.

Fishkoff has a new book coming out in the fall called “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority," and I'm super eager to read it. As the kind of person that gets giddy when she sees the kosher food carts at Yankee Stadium, I'm guessing Fishkoff's look at kosher food production and evolution in the United States will be right up my alley. Here's what the Random House page has to say:
Kosher? That means the rabbi blessed it, right? Not exactly. In this captivating account of a Bible-based practice that has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, journalist Sue Fishkoff travels throughout America and to Shanghai, China, to find out who eats kosher food, who produces it, who is responsible for its certification, and how this fascinating world continues to evolve. She explains why 85 percent of the 11.2 million Americans who regularly buy kosher food are not observant Jews—they are Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, vegetarians, people with food allergies, and consumers who pay top dollar for food they believe “answers to a Higher Authority.” She interviews food manufacturers, rabbinic supervisors, and ritual slaughterers; meets with eco-kosher adherents who go beyond traditional requirements to produce organic chicken and pasture-raised beef; sips boutique kosher wine in Napa Valley; talks to shoppers at an upscale kosher supermarket in Brooklyn; and marches with unemployed workers at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. She talks to Reform Jews who are rediscovering the spiritual benefits of kashrut and to Conservative and Orthodox Jews who are demanding that kosher food production adhere to ethical and environmental values. And she chronicles the corruption, price-fixing, and strong-arm tactics of early-twentieth-century kosher meat production, against which contemporary kashrut scandals pale by comparison.
A revelatory look at the current state of kashrut in America, this book will appeal to anyone interested in food, religion, Jewish identity, and big business.
Color me stoked. Are you stoked? Put this on your to-read list for the fall!

Note: You might recognize Fishkoff's name from her book "The Rebbe's Army," another book I'm dying to read. Anyone have thoughts about Fishkoff and/or her books?