I enjoy the food writer Michael 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 rich culinary and anthropological detail in his latest book, Cooked, but I still feel wiser having learned about the layers of myth, science, culture, and tradition found in a cuisine 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, he 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 in Religion Dispatches magazine 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 cheese-making — that he explores so deeply in Cooked.
It helps to know that Pollan is one of our most articulate critics of an industrial food complex that he says is “systematically and deliberately undermining traditional food cultures everywhere.” Pollan urges 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.
If that sounds a little like, well, “the kashrut,” that’s Schorsch’s point.
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.”
“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,” writes Schorsch. By excluding predators from the Jewish diet, for example, kashrut reflected the Jews’ “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.”
I think Schorsch may be a little hard on Pollan, who in writing about food is under no obligation to either defend or fully explain the cuisine of his own ancestors. But I understand Schorsch’s frustration at those foodies who, while enamored with the “rituals” of food preparation and eating, are skeptical about anything that smacks of religion in the supernatural, non-materialist sense. I get why people think it is ornery to eschew so much of nature’s bounty according to an obscure legal code. But I have a harder time with those who can’t be bothered to understand what a Jew, or any religious person, gets out of a diet based on mindful distinctions. It reminds me of what Leon Wieseltier once said about Jews who lacked curiosity about their own tradition: “Most American Jews are not renegades; they are slackers.”
Schorsch provides a pithy defense of Jewish eating, which “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),” and that we “tithe all agricultural produce, directing a portion of it to the poor.” All he is asking is that foodies show more curiosity about the individual cultures, like Judaism, that actually share their goals.
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 Ways We Eat.