GRETCHEN TRIES STUFF EP 13: The One With The Kosher Diet

I've done a few month-long challenges now: A month without sugar, my month of living zero-waste, and of course my totally failed month of waking up early (expect an update on that one as I re-attempt to become a morning person). This April—kind of in honor of Passover—I decided to give going a Kosher a try. How hard could it be?

As a kid, I always had a vision that Kosher food involved some rabbi standing in front of an assembly line of package food, blessing it as it passes. This isn't exactly how it works (unless is secretly is, in which I need someone in the know to contact me immediately!) Eating Kosher isn't just about hunting down packaged foods with the little Kosher label printed on them and opting out of bacon at breakfast. It's a much more comprehensive set of rules for what you can and can't eat, how it's prepared, and how your kitchen is arranged/used. Keeping a Kosher kitchen goes beyond the process of avoiding particular foods—one must take extra steps to avoid cross contamination with cookware, knifes, plates, utensils etc. To further complicate the matter, these rules are written in the Torah in sometimes broad, lofty sounding terms. After reading a few different informational site, I settled on following a generally agreed upon interpretation of the Kosher law, which I will summarize thusly:

  • The 3 Categories of Kosher Foods: In terms of Kosher, food is broken up into three groups: Meat, Dairy, and Pareve—neutral foods that are neither dairy nor meat such as vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds, or Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal (I have yet to look into how Lucky Charms makes their marshmallow and cannot confirm if it's Kosher; further more, any major cereal brand might not follow Kosher law in its factory, so Cinnamon Toast Crunch could be a purely ancedotal example in this case). While I found it to be a grey zone, the websites I used to source my Kosher law interpretations put eggs in the category of Pareve. I decided to go with it because my diet would become much more limited if I couldn't combine egg and cheese.

  • The separation of meat and milk products: This is a fundamental part of Kosher law. The statement that it's forbidden "to cook a baby goat in it's own mother's milk" comes up multiple times. It's pretty commonly accepted that the Torah didn't just mean for this to apply to goats, but is used as a metaphor to say that you cannot combine dairy and meat products. Thus buttermilk fried chicken is about as Kosher as a ham sandwich (Meat and dairy can both be pair with Pareve food, but obviously not at the same time.) Taking this a little further to ensure that meat and milk products are kept apart like two feuding families in Verona, dairy and meat products are never prepared or served with the same dishes, cookware, etc. For example, if you use one serving plate for a cheese board, you cannot then serve any sort of meat product on said board. Likewise, if you cook a steak in a pan, that pan is officially off limits for a "one pot" pasta with a cream sauce meal, or preparing a cheese omelet. One must not forget to make sure these foods don't mingle with each other in your stomach. While you can eat dairy and then eat meat (such as a cheese plate appetizer and meat with dinner), you must wait three–six hours after eating meat to eat dairy (there will be no ice cream for dessert).

  • Meat specifications: Kosher law is pretty particular with what animal meats you can and can't eat. The most famous example of this is not eating pork, but the actual specification in the Torah is that you can only eat the meat of cattle or game that have "cloven hooves" and "chew cud." By this rule, you also can't eat camel, but being that I've never seen camel as an option on at any of the menus of restaurants I've been to in Portland, not eating camel isn't really lifestyle switch for me. In addition to not eating pork or camel, only certain poultry (and their eggs) are on the ok list. Chicken, duck, turkey, and goose? No problem! Eagle, owl, pelican, swan, vulture, and stork? That's a no go. Fish with scales and fins (like salmon and tuna) are on the ok list, but shellfish (such as shrimp or crab) are forbidden. How an animal is raised and slaughter is also super particular in Kosher law (and in my personal opinion, we should just be more strict about that in society regardless, but I'll not go into a factory farming rant today. That deserves it's own post.)

  • Wine: Only drink Kosher wine. (Kosher wine, if I remember correctly, does need to be overseen by a rabbi so maybe my childhood idea of Kosher isn't so far off afterall?!)

This is seriously just a brief overview of Kosher law. There are way more details if you're going to follow it strictly and I'll put a list of resources in the sidebar for anyone looking to try eating Kosher or just curious and want to know more.

So how'd my month of Kosher eating go? Well, I was vegetarian for the entire month. I eat like 99 percent vegetarian diet to begin with so that's really not a big shift for me. Being vegetarian makes abiding to Kosher law so much easier! Keeping a Kosher kitchen isn't so difficult when you're cooking all your own food, not sharing cookware with roommates, and, of course, not introducing meat into the mix. Pro Tip: Trader Joe's has a nice selection of packaged foods that are labeled Kosher. What ended up being really difficult for me is eating out. I just don't trust most restaurants to be following Kosher law when it comes to cooking and food prep. I ended up not really eat out during April to avoid any unknowns. The couple of times I did end up eating out, I attempted to be very careful about where and what I ate (so if something I ate ended up not being as strictly Kosher as I hoped, at least I tired my best).

The funniest part, to me, is that abiding to Kosher law kind of lingered with me after the month was over. It's been more than a week since I stopped being Kosher, but I continuously forget and get a tinge of anxiety if I'm going out or grocery shopping. I keep checking if something is Kosher and I'm constantly reminding myself that April is over.

As of now, I am totally free to eat cheese from a charcuterie board... or go really crazy and order pepperoni pizza!

Kosher Resources