I’ve been listening to Michael Pollan’s Cooked during my commute, and each night bore my wife and kids with fun (to me) facts and real insights from the book, which is a sort of cultural and historical meditation on four basic cooking techniques. I enjoy Pollan because he makes me feel smarter about the things I buy and eat — smarter in the sense that he convinces me to make healthier, more sensible choices; and smarter in the sense that I actually learn something about the chemistry, economics, and history of the stuff that keeps me alive. Because I keep kosher I won’t eat the pork barbecue sandwich that Pollan describes in page after page of rich culinary and anthropological detail, but I still feel wiser having learnedabout the layers of myth, science, culture, and tradition found in a foodstuff enjoyed by, I don’t know, almost everyone who isn’t an observant Jew, strict Muslim, vegetarian, or comatose.
Pollan, who is Jewish, obviously does not keep kosher, although in a long section on hogs and cooking rituals can’t avoid including some of his own perspectives on what he calls “the kashrut.” These are mostly inoffensive acknowledgements of the traditional taboo, unlike the cheeky celebrations of “treyf” that some other Jewish foodies like to indulge in.
So I braced myself before reading a long response to Pollan by Jewish studies professor Jonathan Schorsch called “Pigging Out: What ‘Radically Unkosher’ Jewish Foodies Like Michael Pollan Are Missing.” I assumed I was about to read a scolding piece aimed at assimilated Jews who have turned their backs on their religion, or a manifesto on the nutritional and spiritual genius of the Jewish food laws.
As it turns out, Schorsch’s essay is something else entirely — a sharply argued essay that critiques Pollan on his own terms. Schorsch doesn’t much care whether Pollan does or doesn’t keep kosher, but he does lament that Pollan doesn’t extend the same curiosity or respect to Jewish foodways that he does to the other eating cultures — from Southern barbecue to French baking — that he explores so deeply.
For example, in his barbecue section, Pollan writes that the kosher laws are “probably designed more to enforce group identity than to protect health.” Which is true to some extent, but, Schorsch convincingly argues, incredibly reductive of a long and rich tradition of rabbinic thinking about what we kill, cook, and eat. Schorsch acknowledges that many (although not all) scholars agree that some of the kosher laws have no “rational” explanation (like being healthier, for instance). Nonetheless, the Jewish understanding of what is proper and improper to eat is much more sophisticated than, to quote a famous Weequahic High School cheer, “Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam / We’re the boys who eat no ham.”
But a more generous reading [than Pollan's] would see that the pastoral, agricultural Israelites sacralized their natural environment and the limited set of mostly domesticated animals on which they depended. These creatures kashrut declared good to eat. Other animals were deemed to be out of place in the Hebraic cosmos and therefore unsuitable for consumption: most notably, those that fell afoul of inferred characterological norms for each ecological niche—for example, water-dwellers lacking the standard fins or scales of fish, land animals with more than four legs, airborne creatures that were not birds. This taxonomy ended up excluding predators, many wild animals, unusual and exotic beings, and creatures with “extreme” features. The edible Israelite cosmology reflected their idealized self-image: familiar, docile, well-ordered.
In other words, the Israelites would have agreed, to quote the title of a book by Margaret Visser much revered in foodie circles, “Much Depends on Dinner.” Adds Schorsch: “Kashrut comes within a dense, rich, long-standing culture promoting, ideally, upright, prudent, modest living, including, reverence for and balanced coexistence with the natural world.”
A writer who laments that the industrial food complex is “systematically and deliberately undermining traditional food cultures everywhere,” as Pollan does, might be expected to show a little more respect to the food culture of his own ancestors. And a writer who has urged his readers to be more mindful of the things they eat, more respectful of the environment in which they are produced, and more willing to embrace the lost social rituals that were attached to the kitchen and dinner table, as Pollan has, could show more curiosity about the individual cultures, like Judaism, that shared the same goals.
Pollan and his peers should know that, similar to many of the other traditional cultures they look to for wisdom, Judaism insists that we express thanks for all foods consumed; eat while sitting; turn meals with other people into more than just individual ingesting (by talking Torah); tithe all agricultural produce, directing a portion of it to the poor (the rest went to the levites when the temple stood in Jerusalem); remove a small portion of any bread dough to be burned up as a kind of home sacrificial offering; reserve special meals or feasts for special occasions, i.e., sabbath and festivals.
Schorsch notes that Pollan and other foodies, while enamored with the “rituals” of food preparation and eating, are skeptical about anything that smacks of religion in the supernatural, non-materialist sense. But Pollan strikes me as the sort of writer who might see Schorsch’s thoughtful essay as a challenge, not a rebuke. Perhaps Schorsch has just gifted Pollan with an idea for his next book: “Our Daily Bread: Food, Faith, and the Things We Eat.”