We are wild, we are violent, we devour, defile, despise and destroy: that is man, unplugged.
There’s a theory that religion developed to tame the beast. By channelling mans natural impulses into positive forces that build and sustain society, religion keeps every human group from devolving into a scene from Spartacus, and I don’t mean the Dalton Trumbo one, I mean the soft-porn one on Starz. Those who hold to this theory of religion always bring up sex. Instead of completely suppressing a sex drive that, left to its own devices, would impregnate every orifice from a bike lock to the Grand Canyon, religion directs our compulsion for pleasure and procreation into marriage. Most religions don’t say, “Don’t do it,” they say, “Do it, but this way.”
The same with food. This is the most common rational explanation for the otherwise inexplicable Jewish dietary laws, or kashrut. Why are pigs forbidden but pesticides permitted? If kosher were about health and science, anything that could make us sick, from pork to pesticides, would be outlawed. Why is it forbidden to eat a cow together with its milk, but permitted to eat a chicken with its egg? Why is it okay to kill and eat a giraffe, but forbidden to eat an almost insensate barnacle? If kashrut were about compassion, wouldn’t these laws be consistent, or flipped?
The most common answer is that kosher rules are not about science or compassion, but about putting a fence around our appetites, instructing us that we can’t just eat whatever we want whenever we want, there are rules. Our desires know no bounds, our appetites are bottomless. Kashrut puts a fence around our natural gluttony. And the rules, like food, come from God. So kashrut is a way to reinforce God’s presence in every detail of our life, even in breakfast. It’s not about the importance of specific rules, but about the idea of rules, rules in general.
This is an explanation that makes sense, because it removes the need for rationality or consistency from a system that exhibits little. Kosher teaches that you can’t have it all.
It also removes the idea that kosher is more compassionate, which isn’t true. Maybe it’s more compassionate than the way some non Jews used to eat or still do, but it’s also far less compassionate than the way other cultures used to eat, and still do. It is far more compassionate to eat a clam than a cow. Period. Those who follow kashrut can allow themselves to feel good about many things—maijntaing a tradition, doing what they think God or their grandparents want them to, following ancient text to the letter, if not always to the spirit. But they can’t make the claim to being kind and gentle simply becuase they’re kosher. That is a whole other endeavor, and one that has been noticeably, egregiously missing from the commercial kashrut industry for years. See Agriprocessors. See any kosher butcher. I grew up believing that kosher slaughter was somehow more compassionate than a stun bolt to the forehead, but in a factory farm environment, this is likely untrue. In any case, once you decide to kill an animal, compassion becomes an extremely relative term.
( I spent the weekend with my sister, a veterinarian, and after batting the idea of “humane meat” back and forth, we decided—admittedly over three scotches—that the most compassionate butcher who ever existed was Elmer Fudd. Remember his M.O. in the Bugs Bunny cartoons? He would sneak up behind an animal with his shotgun—“Be vewwy vewwy quiet”—then KABOOM, blow it away before it even knew what was coming. Talk about humane slaughter. One instant you’re contentedly munching away in the meadow, the next instant you’re meat.)
So, the answer is, kosher can lead the way to compassion, but kosher alone isn’t enough. You have to consciously infuse kashrut with compassion. The folks behind Wise Organic meat are trying to see if there’s a market for that. They just started shipping their kosher, organic, “humane” beef to Los Angeles. A few days ago, tipped by Tori Avey, I went to Doheny Meats and found it in the freezer section. It’s about $10 per pound, and only available in shoulder steaks and stew cuts.
According to the company’s web site, the beef is raised on grass pastures on small family farms in the Adirondacks. I haven’t read any on-the-spot reporting on this, or on the actual slaughter, so for now, take it all on faith.
I bought three packages, defrosted it in the fridge overnight, then made a steak dinner. The beef, which I tasted, was less flaccid than regular kosher beef, with a denser texture: chewy, but in a good, flavor-revealing way. More importantly, it’s a step in the right direction, to kashrut…and beyond.
[RECIPE] Italian Dandelion
I made these to go with the steak and baked potato. For me, they were the highlight. My garden is full of chard and Italian dandelion this winter—I cut it and thanks to loads of fresh goat poop, it reappears weeks later. So we eat this a lot.
1 bunch greens (kale, dandelion, chard, etc)
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 t. red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
In a large pot boil greens until cooked. Drain. Chop.
In a skillet heat oil, add anchovies and saute until dissolved, add garlic and red pepper, stil a minute, then add greens, salt and pepper and stir until blended. Serve warm, cold or room temperature.