Save the Deli

Is Pork in Jewish Dishes Lazy?

The bacon-wrapped matzo balls at Ilan Hall’s The Gorbals.

Yesterday, Tablet published a very thought provoking essay by writer, cook, and rabbinical student Benjamin Resnick, on why Jewish chefs tossing pork into Jewish dishes just ain’t cool. Here’s just some of what he wrote:

The Jewish culinary tradition is a hot trend in American dining. At Brooklyn’s Mile End Noah Bernamoff and Aaron Israel serve up cholent with veal shortribs and kasha varnishkes with confit gizzards. At the impishly named Traif, also in Brooklyn, Chef Jason Marcus—who describes himself as “Jewish, although obviously not great at it”—focuses on pork and shellfish. At his Los Angeles restaurant The Gorbals, Top Chef winner Ilan Hall gussies up matzo balls by wrapping them in bacon. “Pork fat does something magical to matzah meal,” Hall told the Jewish Journal in November.

Jewish food that actively thumbs its nose at the laws of kashrut clearly holds tremendous social allure for some. As Jeffrey Yoskowitz wrote in the Atlantic, Traif’s Marcus “is counting on other Jews to hear about his restaurant and think, ‘Cool, I’m a non-kosher Jew too.’ ” Indeed, most of the critical praise earned by establishments like Traif and Mile End has highlighted—knowingly or not—the clever disjuncture of embracing Jewishness while simultaneously rebelling against it. Thus when the New York Times fawned over Traif’s “seared foie gras, slumming it with fingerling potatoes, crisp shards of ham, and a fried egg, all dribbled with maple syrup and hot sauce,” the reviewer, Ligaya Mishan, had to add: “Now this is chutzpah.”

Before starting rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2009, I put in time behind the stoves at Telepan on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I smoked upward of 5,000 trout, and at Restaurant Saul, in Brooklyn, not far from Mile End, where I once cooked by candlelight when the block lost power in the middle of dinner service. At the time I was working in kitchens I was not observant—and I therefore ate just about every abomination in the book. I also learned all the tricks at chefs’ disposals. But now I know some of the rabbis’ tricks, too, and, with this dual knowledge, I can’t help but see the menus offered up by this new generation of trayf-worshippers as lazy—not religiously, necessarily, but culinarily. READ THE REST OF THE ESSAY HERE

As usual with anything kosher related, this set off a firestorm of debate, including a response in the comments by Noah Bernamoff from Mile End:

the notion that I’m being lazy is absurd: Mr. Resnick, clearly, has never visited the restaurant, because had he, he would discover that we cure and smoke all of our meats and fish, bake all of our breads, and pickle all of our vegetables. Show me one Kosher restaurant or delicatessen that is attempting to retain the methods of our Ashkenazi culinary tradition like Mile End, Saul’s, Kenny & Zuke’s and Caplansky’s?

While I have no problem with a restaurant like Mile End serving a breakfast sandwich with bacon in it, I do have some sympathy for Resnick’s point. Tossing bacon into a Jewish dish, like the matzo balls above, or the chopped liver at Joe Doe, sits poorly with me for two reasons. The first is that it really is a slap in the face to the tradition. It doesn’t honor it, or update it. It just takes it away. But the other reason is that it is a missed opportunity. When I was in Hungary last summer, or at Maison David in Paris years before, I tasted dishes that were firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition, and kosher, which held the culinary potential that Jewish cooks in North America have just begun to touch on (Mile End’s cholent is a prime example). Sure, you can wrap a matzo ball in bacon, but to make it out of goose fat, or air dry cured veal, or make salami with duck and hazelnuts…that pushes the culinary envelope out of the comfort zone while staying true to the one thing that made this food Jewish in the first place…that it was based around the rules of kashrut (whether it is certified or not). Chopped liver made with cream and butter isn’t chopped liver, it’s pate. Kreplach sauteed with bacon are just Polish pirogies. They’re not Jewish, they’re just Eastern European.

14 Responses to “Is Pork in Jewish Dishes Lazy?”

  1. aaron levy Says:

    I don’t know what this is all about. I know I am Jewish, brought up in a kosher home, and now our home continues to be a kosher home. I have no need or desire to eat pork, bacon etc. I never ate it, don’t miss it and will continue to live without it.
    A Jewish deli is a prize worthy of keeping. For those who want to eat non kosher, there are scores and scores, multitude of those restaurants that are there for them.

  2. Pinchas Schwartz Says:

    Sounds nice, but Treffe and Kosher just don’t go nicely together. I’d suggest that U guys keep with the more traditional stuff.

  3. ken gordon Says:

    The thing is, there are virtually no Kosher Jewish Delis anymore. You can talk about tradition all you want, but what’s undeniable is that it’s all moot if you can’t stay in business. Kind of like if you stayed Kosher in the woods and there were no customers around to hear you…

    If we stayed strictly Kosher in Portland, OR, we’d have closed years ago. So we do Reubens, and serve sides of bacon, and have dairy in our coffee, kugel, challah french toast, etc. We don’t really do anything like taking a traditional dish and combining it with pork – a al the bacon-wrapped matzo balls – but why not. You act as if there’s this one tradition that is set in stone and never changes, and a 1920′s menu somewhere engraved on a tablet. Nonsense – that tradition of which you speak is only about 100 years old. Deli’s, like Jews, adapt and change. I think it’s possible to keep alive tradition while still changing with the times.

    Look, most Kosher laws came into existence for a reason. Shellfish wasn’t eaten because of toxins and lack of ice and refrigeration to keep the shrimp fresh. Pork – triganosis was a pretty major incentive not to eat it. Milk and meat – bad for the digestion. But sanitary conditions have changed over the years to the point where triganosis and shellfish poisoning are almost non-existent.

    The fact remains that very few people keep Kosher these days. And Delis are businesses that need to stay in business. No one is telling people they shouldn’t keep Kosher if they want to. But if you don’t, what’s the point of towing a line that has been crossed so many times as to become an anachronism?

    We sell 2500 lbs. of corned beef and pastrami per week. We sell maybe 70 lbs of bacon. What’s it going to hurt?

  4. Howard Bender Says:

    As a Jewish Delicatessen owner (Maybe one day David will recognize us…unreal), I am a believer in validating the term Jewish Deli. I also love the idea of a bacon wrapped matzo ball. It doesn’t belong in my store, but I love it! If I hang Christmas ornaments on a menorah, do I still get to call it a menorah? or Jewish? So what if people are taking a twist on old Jewish dishes. That’s fantastic, that’s an honor in progress and an honor to our Bubbies that we see their dishes progressing. That is what happens not just in our levels of religious tradition but also in our food! Listen, we too sell 1000′s of pounds of corned beef and pastrami, and matzo balls every week. The bulk of my customer traffic is not Jewish. I believe its essential to Schmaltz Deli that we respect our Jewish patrons to some degree. Our line is drawn. I do not sell pork in my building, I do not sell shellfish. I do sell a Rueben. I’m not Kosher by any strech of the imagination, but certain things validate you as a Jewish deli and actually build respect, honor, and tradition to the concept. Many Jewish deli’s serve bacon or ham. Fine, just not us. I have NO lost respect for those that choose to do so. Some believe it is essential to their ability to stay in business. I cant wait to go home and wrap a matzo ball in bacon! Thinking kreplach rumaki sound good too?! Thank you for the great article. Lazy? NO!

  5. Mark Says:

    In my opinion, once you add pork it’s just not Jewish anymore! I used to cringe when BK first sold Egg, Bacon and Cheese on a bagel!

  6. John Says:

    My take on all of this is — if you want to be a DELI, be a deli. What these folks want to do is be — much as I hate to use the term — hipsters. Why the pork? Irony. Now, I’m a Gentile, and I like my pork from time-to-time — and I won’t get into the whole “kosher-style” debate — but, dammit, if you’re going to be a delicatessen of the Jewish flavor, I can’t fathom serving pork. Yes, you can (and plenty do) get away with mixing meat and milk — people want their Ruebens. But…pork? Really? I mean, really, really? True artists aren’t afraid to work within constraints — indeed, working within constraints is what leads one towards perfection, IMO. So, no, no pork. Just my two cents. And for the record — I’m not gonna get worked up over this, but, hey, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to certain types of food. Peace.

  7. John Says:

    Oh, and I should add — I absolutely don’t look down on others for choosing otherwise, *particularly* those who are in the business. Everyone’s gotta make a living, so, no offense intended to anyone who does the pork thing. (I certainly do, hehe.) Oh, and — I don’t think the kosher-style debate will ever disappear. Who knows, maybe the next “Atkins” will be “everyone goes Kosher!” — food for thought ;)

  8. Dee Says:

    In Montreal we always went to Ben’s for smoked meat. I was French-Canadian and Brit, German and Swiss and the priest who married my parents made sure I was raised Catholic. So I eat pork.

    But my favorite lunch is pastrami on rye with Gulden’s, a couple of pickles and one great latke.

    A year ago a restaurant tried a pastrami sandwich. It was awful and I told him about your book. I made the mistake of lending it to him and haven’t seen him since. When I buy your book again please sign it for me? Thanks, Dee

  9. Donald Says:

    I’ve eaten Ilan Hall’s balls with bacon. They are good. I’m a goy, so I’ll leave it to MOTs to argue the appropriateness of it. That said, what about foods that evolve from the kosher tradition, but clearly are not, like the Rueben? Nowhere close to kosher, but clearly of a more recent version of the tradition.

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    I dont want to get graphic.

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