Just in case you thought only Rod was allowed to post pictures like this.
They even served deep-fried hot dogs.
The photo is from the Great Googa Mooga food festival in Prospect Park, which took place this past weekend. Rod would have had a grand old time.
A foodie, of course, is not exactly what Rod is; indeed, I’m sure he could go into great detail about the many differences between his relationship with food and, say, the execrable Anthony Bourdain’s. But they both come from a place that says: this relationship, between me and my food, is a meaningful one, and the meaning is tied to the experience itself – the sensual experience – rather than merely emanating from the social, economic and cultural penumbra.
I’m not really a foodie myself, though I love food, both to eat and to cook (used to post recipes and menus on my old blog, in fact, and might well do so again here if nobody stops me). But I come from a different place on food questions: a Jewish place.
On the one hand, food is a primary lubricant in Jewish social situations, and a primary means of control within the family. (Joke: what’s the difference between an Italian mother and a Jewish mother? An Italian mother says to her son: finish your food, or I’ll kill you. A Jewish mother says to her son: finish your food, or I’ll kill myself.) Before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the central event in the Jewish religion was barbecue. Check out Numbers 28:1-29:39 some time. Pay particular attention to the sheer quantity of sacrifices offered at the Sukkot festival. Puts that whole roast steer in the photo above to shame.
But we’re also famously heavy on food rules. Supposedly, the intent of the kashrut rules (and much of the other regulation of everyday life) is to focus your attention on what you are doing and thereby infuse your everyday life with an awareness of God. But I spent a number of years trying to accommodate myself to them (I didn’t grow up keeping kosher, and started to become more observant in my late-20s, only to fall away in my late-30s), and while it’s true that you focus your attention, it isn’t really on God, but on the food. And not always on the food qua food, but on the food as a symbol of desire.
* * *
And the rules are voluminous. Most people are familiar with the prohibitions on pork and shellfish, but the list of prohibited animals is much more extensive than this – and there are surprising inclusions and exclusions. Did you know that there is a variety of locust that is kosher? Most contemporary Jewish communities cannot identify that variety, and therefore will not deem any locust kosher – but the Yemenite Jewish community has maintained a continuous tradition of identification, and will eat one variety of locust. Did you know that turkey is only kosher because of an accident? Unlike with mammals and fish, where the biblical text gives a rule for determining if an animal is kosher (mammals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud – bison is in! – while fish must have fins and scales – shark is out!), for fowl the text just gives a list of prohibited birds. So what do you do when you encounter a new bird – how do you know if it’s kosher or not? What you do is: you determine if there is any tradition about its status, and if there is no tradition pronouncing it kosher, then it is presumptively not kosher. Needless to say, there could be no tradition pronouncing turkeys kosher, because they are a New World species. But when the colonial American Jewish community wrote back to the Old World rabbinate about this new bird they’d encountered, the bird was mis-identified as an “Indian chicken” mentioned in the Talmud, and pronounced kosher. Of course, eventually the mistake was discovered – but by then, the mistaken ruling had itself established a tradition of kashrut, and the turkey remained a kosher bird!
And prohibited animals are just the start. Most people, again, are familiar with the concept of kosher slaughter, but may not realize that this is a rabbinic addition to the law. What is biblically prohibited, and in the strongest possible terms, is eating blood, because the blood is the life, and its only proper use is for making expiation on the altar. But blood is not the only prohibited portion of the animal. Any of the portions that were reserved for burnt offerings – the lobe of fat on the liver, for example – are prohibited to eat. The sciatic nerve is prohibited, in recollection of Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel, which means no leg of lamb. And then, of course, there’s the prohibition on mixing meat and dairy, which derives from the prohibition (repeated three times in the text in three different places) not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (which was perhaps a Canaanite fertility ritual).
As I say, the rules are voluminous. There’s a kashrut joke I’m rather fond of, which goes like this.
Moses is on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law. God says: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk!”
Moses replies: “Got it: no kid in mother’s milk. But, just to be clear, since we might lose track of which kid came from which goat, probably we shouldn’t cook goat in milk at all.”
“Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk!”
“Understood: no kid in mother’s milk, no meat cooked in milk at all, just to be on the safe side. But, again, just being clear, if we’re going to keep milk and meat separate, we need to know what to do about residues of milk or meat on our pots, utensils, dishes. I mean, we don’t want any accidental cross-contamination. Maybe we should just keep separate sets for milk and for meat?”
“Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk!”
“Right: totally with you there. No kid in milk, no meat in milk, no meat on dishes that ever touched milk, or vice versa – all set. But, there’s still that question of what happens inside our own bodies. I mean, if I eat a steak, and then have a glass of milk, clearly the meat and the milk are going to mix. There’s steak in my teeth, there’s steak in my stomach. We’re going to need some kind of rule for how long we have to wait between meals. And another thing – ”
“Thou shalt not . . . oh heck; do whatever you want.”
* * *
“Do whatever you want.” It’s perfect. Because whatever kashrut is supposed to mean, it transparently doesn’t mean that. And yet it does: kashrut standards vary widely across time and between communities, and in a modern context everybody who follows these rules, to whatever degree, is “doing whatever they want.” But why would they want to do that? Why would God want anyone to do that?
Within the tradition, there is considerable disagreement about the purpose of these voluminous rules. Most notably, there is a dispute between Nachmanides and Maimonides, two towering medieval commentators, about whether treif (non-kosher) food should inspire desire or disgust. One held that it should inspire disgust – these foods (and combinations of foods) are forbidden because they are (for some obscure reason) hateful to God, and by avoiding them you train yourself to find them hateful yourself, so that you are actively disgusted by the very idea of eating, say, a bacon cheeseburger. This disgust, then, is the evidence that you have brought yourself into harmony with God’s will. The other held that, no, there was nothing particularly hateful about the foods themselves, neither to humans (they are perfectly nutritious) nor to God (they are unremarkable parts of the “very good” world He made). In fact, you are expected to desire the bacon cheeseburger, even supposed to desire it, which is undoubtedly tasty, and then you are supposed to resist your desire for the sake of following God’s command – and this resistance for sake of obedience to a higher principle is what is pleasing to God.
This is a dispute that I found fascinating once upon a time. I recognized both disgust and longing in my relationship with treif – there were times I found my gorge literally rise when I realized that I was eating something that I was not supposed to eat, while other times I would look at something forbidden and feel nothing else in the world could really taste good so long as that was forbidden. These days, I don’t have much use for either psychology. I learned the hard way that they are two sides of the same coin, two ways of describing the same neurotic relationship. If you want to live in something resembling harmony, you can’t go around cultivating either disgust or desire for the forbidden. Disgust and desire, like love and hate, are kin more than they are opposites; they are both emotions that attach you to an object, and attaching yourself to something you can’t have is a recipe for anxiety and neurosis. And it is very hard for me to understand why being neurotic about food might be pleasing to God.
But I also recognize that continuity in a tradition is a precious thing, not to be thrown away lightly simply because something doesn’t make any sense. What I do is one thing; what we do is another. Reform Judaism, which threw away the dietary laws whole cloth over a hundred years ago, has come a long way back from there in the direction of respecting this tradition, and teaching it, though not as a mandatory obligation but as a traditional discipline one might choose to adopt. So now, I still keep a kosher home (within the standards of kashrut that I acclimated myself to back in the day) but I don’t follow the dietary laws outside my home. (Except on Passover.)
Does that make any sense? No, it doesn’t make any sense. Then again, kashrut doesn’t make any sense in the first place.
And where does this leave me? It leaves me enjoying a food festival like Googa Mooga without an appreciable anxiety at the time. But it also leaves me wanting to write a blog post about my relationship with food in its wake, suggesting some residual feeling – dare I say guilt? – about my food choices that leaves them unresolved. It leaves me in something of the same place of all those Singer heroes, not a heretic, arguing that kashrut should be abolished, but an unbeliever, who simply won’t make the sacrifice demanded.
As an aside, there’s been some negative press about Googa Mooga, but that all (so far as I could see) related to Saturday’s festival, and we only went Sunday. The weather was great, the food was plentiful, the lines were reasonable, the music was fun . . . a lovely day all around.
[UPDATE: I thought I had saved this as a draft, discovered I had published last night. Apologies to anyone who read a somewhat less-coherent version earlier this morning.]