Kosher Culinary Hell

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Thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Rackover for this guest post.  Rabbi Rackover is Assistant Rabbi and Director of Education at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, Maryland.

I live in kosher culinary limbo – a purgatory filled with memories of what once was, shattered by the brutal realities of my current state.

Having grown up without observing any Jewish dietary laws I have tasted “the other side.”  Occasionally I find myself overwhelmed by memories of Italian sausage, shellfish, oyster sauce and exceptional all-you-can eat buffets where chicken and macaroni and cheese rub elbows and the shrimp scampi stretches as far as the eye can see.  There are wistful moments when I recall the charcuteries, greasy spoons and hidden lunch counters in my hometown of Montreal, Quebec.

Aaah…the Greek food. The barbecue. The unrivaled smoked meat…I swoon.

Flash forward to today.  Without regret, I am a Rabbi, a foodie and a father who is trying to introduce the best possible food practices into my family’s life and kitchen.  Unfortunately, the neighborhood my family inhabits can not support our taste for delicious, healthy kosher food.

We have the mandatory pizza shops flavor-crippled by the limited cheese and topping options.  Then there is the hamburger place, which I love – but the physical damage that their fried chicken imparts on my body and soul is too much for me to ignore.  I can’t even mention the Chinese place. It makes me weep a little.

Then there is ‘the new place.’  It’s pretty good I suppose, for kosher. But I am tired of ‘pretty good for kosher.’  I fear this new restaurant will take the path of many other entrepreneurial attempts at kosher restaurant ownership across the country – an initial burst of enthusiasm inevitably met with a crushing economic reality; good service and great food vs. profitability and efficiency.

So here I am, a panhandler looking for kosher handouts.  I’m seeking – somewhat desperately – deeper flavor profiles and ecstatic moments with well-crafted sausages and cheeses (just not at the same time) and really amazing wine.

Over the next few months as I guest post on The Jew & The Carrot, I hope to explore some of the food choices that my family and I make – and to hear from other readers how they cope with similar challenges. I will post about my attempts to recreate the foods I love in my kosher kitchen. I will question the spiritual issues involved with the Jewish dietary laws and their relationship to sustainability – and hope that I will have the courage to share the successes, and the failures. (In an emotional neurotic binge last night I ate nearly an entire box of Pringles and three-quarters of a box of JuJuBes. I washed it down with a caffeine-free diet coke. I count the fact that I skipped the caffeine among my small victories.)

Welcome to one man’s quest for a slice of food-heaven in the narrow world of those things sustainable, kosher, and mind-bogglingly delicious.

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1, 2, 3 Strikes You’re Out at the…Kosher Hot Dog Machine?

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15 Responses to “Kosher Culinary Hell”

  1. Leah Koenig Says:

    I think it’s wonderfully ironic that this post is listed directly above a post about the first Kosher Culinary Institute. It indicates how very necessary such a school really is!

  2. Rachel Says:

    What an interesting post! I grew up in Rockville, so I think I know which places you’re referring to. ;) It’s sad that all the really good kosher places seem to close – like L’Etoile downtown (never ate there, but I heard good things). Out here in the Bay Area, we just lost a very good kosher place too. Yet the greasy-spoons always seem to stick around – why is that?

  3. Karen Says:

    Rabbi, glad to read your post. I was raised in a kosher home, but explored a bit in my young adulthood. When I decided finally to observe kashrut again I knew the two foods I would miss the most: white clam sauce and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sigh. We can probably add hard salami to that list. So I feel your pain.

    Here in Houston there has never been a problem with good kosher restaurants – until recently, there were ZERO. A couple of years ago the one sad meat restaurant changed ownership, and the new proprieter, who has a lot of catering experience but never had a retail space before, has changed our local tastes. She is a Persian Jew, and her menu is delicious. My main complaint is that the prices are outrageous (although one dish is really enough for two people…but who orders that way?).

    So come to Houston and try Suzi’s Grill. I think you will be pleased. And there’s a South Indian vegetarian restaurant with a hechsher, too. Yum.

  4. Tovah Says:

    Can’t wait to read your posts. We struggle with the same issues as two people who became observant as adults. I am so grateful that there is a good kosher BBQ joint in Teaneck (Smokey Joe’s) where I can have reasonably good BBQ & tex-mex food (fajitas, smoked brisket, etc). And a decent sushi place. It keeps me sane.

  5. Hannah Lee Says:

    When I gave up meat in my teenaged years, the only item that I missed was my mother’s wok-roasted chicken. But after a few years, my goals of becoming a vegetarian– humanitarian, environmental, spiritual– became such an integral part of my persona that I no longer had any desire for meat.

    When I converted to Orthodox Judaism, it was not hard for me to observe kashrut, as I’d already given up on animal products (except eggs and dairy in those days).

    I consider it a blessing that there are kosher vegetarian restaurants in my vicinty and I never wish to step into the kosher Chinese glatt places because of their Americanization (kosherization?) of recipes.

    I have been a subscriber to Bon Appetit since my college days (Class of ’82) and my favorite day of the week is Wednesday because of the New York Times’ Food section, so I do count myself as a foodie. However, I consider it a creative exercise in turning standard recipes into kosher ones, and for vegetarians and vegans too.

  6. Mordechai Rackover Says:

    Thanks for all the comments. I feel very blessed that people can come together in a community wherever they are.

    – Leah – I have a friend at CIA (Culinary Institute of America & and the other one, but that’s another story). She is in pastries and they have been accommodating of her needs but obviously the straight cooking divisions would be far more complicated, nearly impossible I would bet.

    – Rachel – I wasn’t around when D.C. had higher quality kosher places. I think that most people like plain cheap food. Otherwise there would be hundreds of “French Laundry” restaurants in this country instead of McD, Burger King, Taco Bell…

    – Karen – Houston! Whoda thunk it? You are really lucky to have good food and a great rabbi (Barry Gelman!). I miss great cold cuts. There are hundreds of posts in my head and fingers relating to pork and pork fat. I never loved shellfish, as my wife would say about lobsters, “it’s like eating a giant bug.” I miss the flavors they impart to (mostly) asian cuisines.

    – Tovah – I’ve been to Teaneck, a few times. I have a desire to rent a a wheelchair and be rolled from restaurant to restaurant gorging myself. The kosher restaurant density is so high. I have never been super impressed by the food but it is ‘better than nothing.’

    – Hannah Lee – I am a simple person who misses food. Maybe I’ll make it someday. Of course, as noted, I share your disdain for the Ko-Chi food but I can’t stay away… Like a bad relationship.

  7. Shmuel Says:

    Hi Rabbi, I also grew up in the neighborhoods you’re describing and continue to hear through the grapevine the ebb and flow of the kosher restaurant world in the Greater DC area. I’m confident that I have found the best solution to your legitimate disappointment with the kosher, delicious, sustainable options in your neck of the woods: ALIYAH!

    Here in Israel you can find the very best in kosher cooking. What’s better than local, organic beef grazed on the Golan? Homemade goat’s cheese from the hills surrounding Jerusalem. Organic olive oil cold pressed from the Galilee. Award winning, kosher wine from the slopes of the Hermon to ancient city of Hebron. Organic fruits and vegetable grown according to Halakhic agricultural laws as can only be grown here. Then again, have a yen for fast food? Fresh, kosher shwarma and falafel on every street corner.

    So, I certainly do sympathize with your plight when it comes to quality, fresh, healthy, available, gourmet kosher dining. But I have three words for all your problems: Land of Israel! Get out of Culinary Hell and come to Culinary Eden.

  8. Larry Lennhoff Says:

    I also miss the treif food of my youth. Some of my favorites aren’t even intrinsically treif, they just aren’t available at kosher restaurants, at least not in good quality.

    The solution appears to learn to do it yourself. My wife and her friend have started learning to cook Indian food, and plan to move on to Thai food after that. I’m also slowly expanding my repertoire, although I’m starting from a much lower point than they are. I’m also trying to create kosher fusion cuisine – I have a lovely recipe for Chicken, Coconut, and Mango cholent that I invented.

  9. devadeva mirel Says:

    I heart Yuan Fu on Rockville Pike. Since we are Hare Krishna kosher (no meat, fish, poultry, eggs or onion and garlic) this is basically the only restaraunt my family can eat at on the entire East coast. We live three hours from the restaraunt, but whenever we visit my in-laws in DC we try to make it over to see Mary and enjoy the dumplings, mock roast duck and mock tuna steak. Mmmm.

  10. Asher ben Avraham Says:

    I just spent a year in Paris with my partner and the kosher situation is well, definitely better than Chicago where we come from. From the Sephardic kosher for passover deli, to the boucherie Norbert and literally dozens, if not scores of little kosher restaurants and bakeries, it is a kosher foodie paradise. Amazing kosher wine is harder to find there, just as it is everywhere. Really fine bottles are produced and come with a big price tag, but the sad part is most of the retailers take those awesome bottles, stick them on a shelf, in a too-warm tiny grocery store, under lights that could hatch chicks, and there they sit, because who’s gonna buy a bottle of wine for 100 euros in those conditions? Now we’re in London. Any suggestions, anyone, for must-go kosher places?

  11. abby Says:

    i love all these posts.And the article. Just as another poster said, yes i was also a vegetarian in my teens. Honestly , although i’ve eaten a lot of great barbeque brisket from my kansas city days,& fried chicken, the only thing i miss is catfish.i hate bacon. But after three times of being a vegetarian now in texas, it stuck with me. I enjoy it, because i learned how to cook well. For the rabbi, i suggest doing a google search.I remember seeing a kosher link for sausages & turducken, & fried kosher turkeys, i think it was aaron’s? something like that.Anyway, just cook & grow & share the best way you can.Our tastes & cravings change.Our skills improve. I’m determined there’s no such thing as an awful vegetable.Just a bad way to cook it! good luck, bon apetit!

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