[ok kids, we're gonna get a little religioso here. and preachy. bear with me.]
It's been a long while since I kept any semblance of kosher, but I certainly see a lot of value in the dietary restrictions of kashrut. So, I have a lot of thoughts about a FoxNews.com (I know. I'm sorry.) article this Sunday about kosher foods increasingly being embraced by non-Jews.
Maybe it's latent guilt, but ever since college, I've often thought about the secular benefits of a kosher diet, and I still believe there are many. A lot of them have to do with meat. There are strict laws about how animals are kept before slaughter -- what they are fed, how they are treated, etc. -- and about the slaughter itself. The laws of kashrut (kashrut is the noun form of the adjective kosher) also prevent you from eating dairy together with meat. This means no pepperoni pizza, no cheeseburgers, no lasagne bolognese. Depending on how strongly you adhere to the rules, you may wait several hours between meat and dairy consumption.
There are a few reasons I like this. For one, because of both the requirement for all meat you consume to be kosher (you effectively become a "fishetarian" at most restaurants) and because of the restrictions on eating dairy and meat together, you eat less meat, which to me, is always a good thing. For another, you are cognizant of what you're eating and often have to wait hours before eating the next thing. Which is to say you eat less in general -- something we can all use. You can't just mindlessly chomp down on some jerky if you know you're having mac and cheese for dinner. Keeping kosher forces you to eat consciously.
When you do eat meat, you know that meat was fed a vegetarian diet. So you don't have to worry about your cow being fed other cows. And there's no chance of it having eaten feathers, bones, brains, and other such unsavories (which, besides making you feel a bit better, also translates to no mad cow disease). You also know that the slaughtering might be done a bit more conscientiously -- there are strict and specific rules for equipment and procedures that make it as quick and painless as possible. In an age where books like Fast Food Nation and The Food Revolution tell us how quick, messy, and careless the slaughtering and rendering processes can be, and how that leads directly to infection and, as Eric Schlosser so eloquently puts it in the former book, "shit in the meat", it's nice to know that there is at least some more oversight here.
Admittedly, I don't have hard facts about conditions in kosher slaughterhouses. I assume it's a bit better, but it's still a business, and I don't doubt there's still some atrocious stuff going on. I would love for someone to write that book: a fast-food-nation-like exposé on kosher slaughterhouses, and the kosher industry in general. Maybe the trends this article points to will lead to it. If anyone has any info on this, I'd love to hear it.
And then there's the morality. These rules are in place to respect the animal whose flesh is nourishing us. Reading this article reminded me of an essay I read a while back. Many years ago, my parents received in the mail something their synagogue's sage rabbi had written on the morality of eating meat. He dealt in biblical passages, yes, but the essay was very much about the spirit of the law, in addition to its letter. His kind of kosher forbade foie gras and veal, because, as he put it, "It is not kosher to feast on the tortured." There seemed to be a bit of remorse behind every bite. Years later, these ideas still strike a chord with me. [And thanks to the glory of the internet, you can read that extremely thoughtful -- and thought-provoking -- essay here.]
Having said all that, I think a lot of stuff in the FoxNews article is ridiculous. Kosher chicken broth "seems healthier"? Come on. The author's idea of "kosher foods" seems to consist of everything that Manischewitz might box up and sell. I don't think that noodle kugel and coconut macaroons and ground fish in a jar (barf)(whoops. sorry. there goes cultural relativism.) are the path to health. Blindly trusting a symbol on a box is the very antithesis of eating mindfully. Although i will say that my Trader Joe's now carries kosher organic chicken products, which is a sign of all that this article is about, and which I think is pretty rad. Maybe it's pie in the sky, but here's to hoping this all means more awareness of what, and who, we're eating.