Holy Food!: Kosher and Its Imitators in Connecticut

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What exactly is kosher? The short answer is a religious certification given to any cooked or processed food that an observant Jew is permitted to eat. A satisfying answer in detail is not easy, so a visual aid may help: picture three identical matzo balls, each floating in its own bowl of soup: one at Shuman's in Bloomfield, the second at Gold's in Westport, and the third at Michael's in Middletown. The first is kosher, the second is "kosher-style", and the third is just an unaffiliated bowl of matzo ball soup. In addition to these three states of existence, the matzo ball itself straddles yet another stratum of culinary holiness: kosher-for-Passover knoshing.

The Jewish population of Connecticut is a bit over 100,000, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Of that number, how many actually keep kosher? It's impossible to say with precision, but the truth is that it's a small minority: 15 percent nationwide if you believe About.com. The truly observant, however, tend to cluster near other Jewish families, making it possible for communities like New Haven, Stamford, West Hartford and Waterbury to sustain a few businesses that cater to a kosher-only clientele, and providing an incentive for local bakeries and ice cream parlors to maintain a kosher certification.

For a business to be considered kosher, its food preparation areas must be inspected and approved by religious authorities. There are a number of rules: 1) No pigs, nor any other mammal that cheweth not the cud and cleaveth not the hoof (horses are out), or is not butchered in the approved-of manner. 2) No cheeseburgers, or any other food that creates the theoretical risk of a calf being cooked and served with its own mother's milk, a category stretched to include turkey and swiss. 3) A kosher fish cannot be a scavenger, a bottom feeder, or a carrion eater, and it can't have a shell, an exoskeleton or a cartilage spine. 4) There are 821 more rules, give or take, plus an infinite number of variations, and only so many hours in the day. Therefore, a restaurant or deli counter must be truly detail-oriented in order to be deemed kosher and gain the patronage of that fraction of the faithful who are culinary purists.

There are the usual suspects, like Westville Kosher Market in New Haven or Crown Market in West Hartford, that are nestled among sizeable Jewish communities; then there are places known for their Joe Lieberman sightings, like It's Kosh in Stamford. There are the surprises, like the bakery section inside many a Stop & Shop Supermarket, or specially certified vegetarian spots like Claire's Corner Copia and Edge of the Woods Natural Market, both in New Haven. To maximize their customer appeal, a number of dairy bars and dessert places, like Rita's Italian Ice in Milford and West Haven, and Beldotti Bakery in Stamford, have obtained kosher certification.

However, there are many places where, maybe because of the corned beef, or the ambience of old-school schmaltz, or because of the word "deli" in their names, you'd think they'd be kosher but they're not. Places like Katz's in Woodbridge, Gold's In Westport, or the New York Pickle Deli in Rocky Hill are what you would call "Jewish style", "kosher style" or "New York style." These places celebrate the culture of New York's Lower East Side circa 1900, where Middle- and Eastern- European Jewry mixed in a Yiddish-speaking American melting pot complete with matzo balls floating on the surface. It has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with flavor and aesthetics. Welcome to "fauxsher"; would you like cheese on your massive stack of pastrami?

While a lovingly prepared pastrami sandwich can still be found at your finer Subway's or mom-and-pop grinder shops (shoutout to South Main Pizza in West Hartford and its toasted rye bread!), and a few very special eateries may even serve matzo ball soup, they don't earn the secular badge of "New York style" because, well, they're not trying hard enough. With some places, it hinges on a subtle distinction, like a critical mass of Italian dishes, which is why the separate term "Italian deli" exists. Therein lies the essence of the matzo ball soup enigma, that the exact same dish of the exact same deliciousness, prepared the exact same way from the exact same ingredients, can be either kosher, kosher for Passover, or "tref" (out-of-bounds) depending on the facility. Frozen desserts from Carvel, Rita's or Baskin Robbins (except Rocky Road and Pink Bubblegum) are kosher at the point of manufacture, but not necessarily at the point of sale.

What it means to be kosher for Passover is that food cannot have come in contact with yeast or certain other leavening agents, because the Hebrews fleeing Egypt did not have time to let their bread rise. Kosher-for-Passover kitchens or manufacturing facilities must be cleaned, inspected, blessed, and deemed free of all breadstuffs plus a seemingly arbitrary laundry list of other ingredients that are off limits for eight days in springtime. Because of the great number of restrictions, matzo ball soup is the most edible thing to pass muster at Passover, and for that alone, it would have had its claim to fame even if had not been so delicious (Dayenu! Enough!).

With such mighty logistical hurdles to Passover cooking, you would think that there would be a strong temptation to find a kosher-for-Passover resort and book an eight-day stay away from home, letting the hotel staff take care of the hassles. The website Totally Jewish Travel boasts a great many offerings in places like New Jersey, Las Vegas, and Florida. Closer to home, Upscale Getaways is staging a Passover retreat at Dolce Resort in Norwalk, and Mendy Vim's Holidays is having theirs this year at the Heritage Hotel in Southbury. For those wanting a more rustic, close-to-nature kosher-for-Passover getaway, the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village offers a 9-day all-inclusive package that not only includes food and lodging but also lectures and activities on Passover themes and other topics.

Passover remains the most popular Jewish holiday, with far more people staging some kind of Passover dinner than the number who keep kosher during the balance of the year. Dr. Richard Freund, the Greenberg Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, writes that different versions of the Haggadah -- the traditional Passover guidebook — demonstrate how cultures throughout the ages have added local flavor to Passover rituals: "The Passover Haggadah continued to evolve for the past 2000 years from a simple series of biblically ordained Temple rituals to a home 'event' that continually evolved with new questions, new and more relevant readings, rituals and songs. Finally, starting in the Middle Ages it had the addition of illustrations that literally put the Jews of all lands and their lives, customs, dress, and food into the story of the Exodus. Moses became an Italian Renaissance figure for some, a Shtetl Jew of Europe, or in our own period an Israeli pioneer."

Not surprisingly, this year's Passover retreats are booked solid now, so for this year's homebodies who find themselves furiously trying to clean every crumb out of the oven at the last minute and wishing they had planned ahead, it's never too early to start looking toward next year. And for people curious about kosher eating and the relationship between religion and food, the Isabella Freedman center does hold other events throughout the year, including a conference from the 17th to the 19th of May.

As difficult as it is to find bona fide kosher restaurant meals in Connecticut under normal circumstances, it is nearly impossible to find genuine kosher-for-Passover restaurant dining in this state. Crown Market in West Hartford, which has no seating, has a very modest refrigerator case where kosher-for-Passover prepared foods are available during that week, but other venues for kosher foods, such as Shuman's Deli or Westville Market, close down entirely. In New York City, dining out for Passover is becoming increasingly popular, with more restaurants serving the traditional meal, the Passover seder, a ritual reenactment of (and culinary improvement upon) the haste-trumps-taste exodus from ancient Egypt. Possibly the closest thing Connecticut has to offer is a non-kosher, traditional-style seder at Adrienne's Restaurant in New Milford. There's also Passover at "The Nosh," the kosher dining facility at UConn in Storrs, which is accessible to the public much of the rest of the year as well.

For some foodies, however, the holy grail (in a manner of speaking) is to use real Passover ingredients to create totally unexpected, nontraditional foods that taste nothing at all like slavery and suffering. This is what Upscale Getaways is going for in their Passover travel packages. "The whole point is that even though it's Passover food, it looks the same and almost tastes the same as real," said Managing Director Ben Camille. "We have cakes that aren't made with flour because you can't eat flour on Passover — they're made with tapioca powder or potato flakes — that really taste phenomenal." The rest of us, however, have to make do with the limited selection of approved ingredients and our even more limited cooking skills. Many people on special diets the rest of the year and trying to follow the rules for Passover are basically screwed — especially true for the gluten-free, thanks to the heavy emphasis on matzo meal. One saving grace is that quinoa somehow snuck past the religious authorities, and this Peruvian grain makes for an awesome tabouleh salad when mixed with all that extra parsley that never made it to the seder plate.

Many conventional supermarkets have seasonal kosher-for-Passover sections, often in their frozen and dairy sections as well as on dedicated dry goods shelves, set aside in late winter and filled with products that bear the little letter "P" (for Passover) next to their regular kosher stamps. Regular kosher symbols might include the letter "K" for kosher, or a "U" inside an "O", which stands for Orthodox Union, one of the major certifying bodies. Check your tub of spreadable-whipped Philadelphia Cream Cheese and see if it has sprouted extra seasonal labels; your bottle of Tropicana orange juice almost certainly has. It is from Florida, after all.

Regular kosher (not for Passover) certification has become so widespread that you probably haven't noticed that many common non-meat foods from the supermarket do bear a kosher symbol. This near-universality of kosher food in the American marketplace is what makes it kind of weird that the food most often thought of as kosher is least likely to be the real thing. That pickle from Rein's Deli in Vernon? Not kosher! The Corned Beef from Katz's? Manhattan or Woodbridge? It doesn't matter — not kosher! That English cheddar you got at Zabar's? Yep... it's a pattern.

Cheese is actually the second most problematic category of food, after meat, for the kosher eater. The issue is that many cheeses, particularly the harder cheeses, contain rennet, which is material containing enzymes taken from the stomach of a cow. Anything considered part of an animal's body, including gelatin from the hoof (found not only in Jello, but in gummy candies and most marshmallows), falls under the same slaughterhouse rules as a two-inch steak. So even making a truly kosher pizza — like they serve at Kosher World in Waterbury, Mike's Center Cafe in Woodbridge or Claire's Corner Copia in New Haven — is no small feat.

The million-dollar question for many is: Are there any health benefits from eating kosher? Yes and no; a 1970s Hebrew National hot dog commercial strongly implied that you can't go wrong when your food is served with an extra helping of scrutiny. The book Kosher Nation explains many of the ways that kosher labeling can help people better understand what they are eating, a particular boon to those with special dietary needs. One might even speculate that being forbidden to add cheese to a hamburger must have some benefit to the heart, right?

Those who make kosher food their business will often bend over backward to avoid putting out any unsubstantiated claims. "I wouldn't put out the argument that the non-mixture of milk and meat is healthier," said Marc Bokoff, owner of West Hartford's Crown Market. "You could argue that kosher meat is healthier because it's slaughtered with greater care and oversight; the conditions are cleaner." But that's about it. "A cow is a cow is a cow. It doesn't become kosher until it's slaughtered. There's nothing super healthy from a cardiac perspective about Jewish food."

 

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