February 10, 2005
My Kosher Catering Conundrum
A wedding in Los Angeles should mean only one thing: beach. My fiancé and I wanted the reception to evoke thoughts of a Hawaiian luau or Costa Rican beach party -- minus the pig on a spit, of course.
I had one overriding concern: 30 religious guests from New York and Jerusalem, all expecting kosher food. Meanwhile, my secular Jewish friends and non-Jewish college friends expect classy, tasty food. Are kosher and classy food mutually exclusive options? How could I please all the guests at my wedding?
After one day of panic and two of extensive research, I considered the following options:
• kosher dinner boxes for the observant guests kosher table for the 20 observant guests and regular seating for everyone else
• kosher caterer
I have to be honest. Vegan can be kosher, but it's just not my style. In my opinion, it is the breakfast of champions for the nature-loving, Birkenstock-wearing, only-change-my-clothes-once-a-week, '90s-style hippy that I went to college with. I find the food lacking in flavor, similar to chewing on low-grade Xerox paper. Plus, it is very expensive. This option was immediately ruled out.
Ahh, vegetarian, I thought. The perfect solution. No meat. No problem. However, I soon found out that my vegetarian lasagna slathered in cheddar cheese would not be kosher either. Who knew dairy doesn't equal kosher? Only certain brands of cheese are kosher and, anyway, I worried that my guests would be starving. I come from a meat-and-potatoes household. I wouldn't know what to do if I saw a stuffed roasted pepper as a main entrée.
Next, I explored the pros and cons of kosher dinner boxes. The upside? I could order any kosher meal. But the cons: My guests would have to eat their meals out of a brown cardboard box. Would the meals stay warm? Would the meals be flavorful? I would hate for my family and friends who have traveled so far (Jerusalem is 11,000 miles from Malibu) to have a "boxed" meal. Would they feel awkward, sticking out by eating out of a brown paper box? I had flashbacks to third grade when my mom refused to buy me the new, cool yellow Scooby Doo lunch box. I actually ate of out of my second-grade blue retro lunch box with Papa Smurf on the front. I stuck out. I was the laughingstock of the entire third grade. How could I do this to my friends and family at my wedding?
I also considered having a separate caterer for the kosher people, who would sit at separate tables as well. Would they feel segregated from the rest of the guests? How about the pressure of resisting every tempting plate of tasty treif hors d'oeuvres? The more I thought about it, the more I resisted this option.
So finally, I decided to explore the option of hiring a kosher caterer. But first, I went home and cried. I pictured a meal of matzah ball soup and knishes. What happened to my teriyaki Hawaiian chicken and sea bass? Most women dream of their wedding dress. I dreamt of exotic food. I wanted a wedding that mixed the nontraditional with the traditional, infusing Jewish culture into a secular setting. I would be dancing salsa with my new husband, shimmying to a steel drum band and running in circles to a 30-minute hora. I obviously had to have nacho chips and salsa, jerk chicken and cheese knishes. In Los Angeles, everything is fusion.
I contacted nine kosher caterers in Los Angeles. At first, my nightmares seemed to be coming true: A few caterers simply didn't bother to return my calls; a number of others asked me why I would bother hiring a kosher caterer if I had so few kosher guests attending my wedding; one even went so far to ask me how I knew so many non-Jewish people. (Didn't she notice my last name was O'Brien?) I was beginning to feel that hiring a kosher caterer was like going through the process of conversion, where they have to turn you away three times.
Finally, I found two caterers willing to work with me. I selected the caterers because of their solicitous attitude, good prices and, most importantly, because they assured me that kosher was divine and we didn't have to serve traditional Jewish food. Even observant Jews ate tuna tartar, they said. After a few taste tests, I built a delicious menu of teriyaki salmon, jerk chicken and banana flambé. Thanks to my new caterer, it seemed like my perfect wedding was all set. In the clear, I sauntered off to plan the photo shoot.
However, there were still a few obstacles.
Because we were getting married at a beach setting, I wanted tropical drinks. I wanted margaritas, mai tais and apple martinis. Then the caterer told me that certain flavored liqueurs were not kosher.
What? If my guests couldn't drink a mai tai at sunset, then what was the point of getting married? (I thought of calling the whole kosher thing off.)
My initial solution was to have two bars -- one kosher, one not. However, I quickly learned that the caterers would lose their glatt kosher certification if I did that. My ideal wedding was almost ruined -- until I learned that there was a terrific substitute for Apple Pucker. One crisis avoided.
Right after the Apple Pucker fiasco, I found out that the milk chocolate fountain I wanted for dessert wouldn't work after my jerk chicken. Lo and behold, there was a solution for this one too. Instead of using milk chocolate, we're going to use dark. For almost every problem I encountered, I learned there was a more than adequate substitute. Who knew?
Believe it or not, while the substitute liqueurs cost a tiny bit more, the kosher food was actually cheaper. The only real catch was that the food would be prepared off site and kept warm in the club's oven. The kosher caterer would blowtorch the oven ensuring its purity and protecting the food. As long as the caterer knew someone handy enough to handle a blowtorch and not burn down the place, it worked for me.
I learned a lot from this experience. Basically, kosher has a bad rap. You may pay a bit more for certain liquors, but if you ask the right people, a great substitute exists. While there are some basic restrictions, such as not mixing milk and meat, so many wonderful options exist in both categories.
My wedding is in two months, and I'm excited again. My religious family and friends will be comfortable, while my non-Jewish friends can feast to their heart's content, all together doing the steel drum hora.... Uh oh. I guess there are some other things to consider.
Lisa O'Brien is marketing director of The Jewish Journal.