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Why West Coast Jewish Chefs Are Embracing Pork

The relationship between Jews and pigs is complicated. For some it’s like an extramarital affair that can be thrilling yet satisfying, despite whatever guilt it conjures.

Illustration courtesy of Ben Kendall

Illustration courtesy of Ben Kendall
xiao long bao

My grandmother's fragile 94-year-old heart would break if she knew how much I love pork, especially juicy and maple syrup-drenched bacon. It would be equally heartbreaking for her as it is heart-stopping for me.

She is a Holocaust-surviving orthodox Jew and I am her prosciutto- and lechon-loving Jewish nightmare.

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The Bible states that Jews should only eat animals with split hooves that chew their cud. So, cows and sheep? Great. Pigs? Forbidden. The main reason—according to the Bible and as argued by the character Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction—is that pigs are supposedly filthy. And yes, while some pigs may be dirtier now than ever before, a more important reason may be that pigs eat so much that they're financially unsustainable as a domesticated food source.

Menashe compares it to a painter that's not allowed to use black, blue, and yellow. You can still be a good artist but you're going to be missing something.

Ultimately, as with a lot of Jewish rules, it's just because the Bible says so. And as with any "because I said so!" rule, many Jews are disobedient. According to Lubicom Marketing Consulting, producer of the kosher trade show Kosherfest, there are 1.3 million Jewish consumers in the US who keep kosher year round. With estimates of total Jews in the United States numbering 5-6 million, that leaves millions of non-kosher Jews.

That includes Jewish chefs, like Ori Menashe from Los Angeles' meat-centric Bestia who grew up in a pig-free kosher household in Israel. He was inherently rebellious and was forbidden to eat pork, so naturally he moved that to the top of his to-do list. From a chef's point of view, Menashe compares it to "a painter that's not allowed to use black, blue, and yellow. You can still be a good artist but you're going to be missing something." Today, Menashe butchers three and a half whole pigs each week and moves more than 700 pounds of steamed pig face charcuterie, sausage, shoulder, legs, salami, and pork scraps for his fried pork cake—not to mention Bestia's Instagram-famous 37-ounce tomahawk pork chop.

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Chef Alain Cohen argues the exact opposite. He helms one of Los Angeles' best kosher restaurants, aptly named Got Kosher. He champions kosher cooking and consistently proves it can stimulate as many tastebuds as its porkier counterpart. At his restaurant in the Pico-Robertson district known as LA's "Kosher Corridor," Cohen serves Tunisian dishes like merguez sausage with harissa as well as Kansas- and Memphis-style beef brisket.

"I grew up in a kosher family and my father had a kosher restaurant, but from my 20's to my 50's I was non-kosher. By a very strange situation I became the owner of this company called Got Kosher—it was not even my choice. I realized that I better be kosher myself or I would be a hypocrite. The day I had that realization and made that decision it's like an amazing weight had been lifted from my body. I felt it physically. My soul lightened up. Because all the time I was not kosher there was that tiny, tiny little voice in the back of my head saying 'that's not good, that's not right.' So when I made that decision I felt I was coming home, I was complete."

Cohen assuredly believes that Jews have a promise that our ancestors made to fulfill the commandments, and when that promise is broken it manifests itself as guilt. "The most important reason to keep kosher in my opinion is that it is an act of devotion that you repeat every time you open your mouth. And it's also a reminder to remember you're Jewish."

Could it be America's fault? Perhaps the country that wraps everything in bacon broke down some previously pious pork nonparticipants. Michael Zusman, who co-authored The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home with Nick Zukin of Portland's Kenny and Zuke's, comes from a long line of Jewish Americans. Zusman's great grandfather was a kosher butcher in Portland and his grandparents were orthodox Jews who kept a kosher household. "But, as the family history goes, [Zusman's grandfather] Abe used to sneak out as often as he could for bacon and eggs. It was his secret weakness."

The fattiness threw me off at first; now, I love pâté, carnitas, and jamon iberico.

There was no pork in the Portland-based Belarusian chef Bonnie Morales's house when she was a kid, but she never really questioned why. In gathering old family recipes for her restaurant in Oregon, Kachka, Morales discovered that her "parents ate primarily pork all their lives (even though [her] great grandfather was a kosher butcher). In Belarus, pork is the primary protein. They only stopped shortly after they immigrated." Social pressures and a push from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish refugee organization, made her family feel compelled to "act more Jewish." She continues: "My brother went to Solomon Schechter at the urging of HIAS and he came home one day refusing to eat pork."

Morales acknowledges that the absence of pork as a kid had an affect on her later in life. "To this day, I have this dangling in the back of my head. I understand pork. I know that it can be delicious and is in no way 'dirty.' But, there are times when I feel guilty or don't enjoy it as much because of that."

The Jewish pork-love sentiment is echoed by Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger and 800 Degrees fame, as he was also raised in a non-pork-eating Jewish household. "I didn't try good pork until I was 18. The fattiness threw me off at first; now, I love pâté, carnitas, and jamon iberico."

Even Jews who grew up eating pork feel the pervasive guilt.

The relationship between Jews and pigs is complicated. For some it's like an extramarital affair that can be thrilling yet satisfying despite whatever guilt it conjures.

Supermensch Shep Gordon admits, "I've always eaten pork for my whole life, and I always felt guilty. I never knew why. It seems it's the ultimate manifestation of Jewish guilt." Shep, who recently hosted Anthony Bourdain for an imu-cooked kalua pork lu'au at his Hawaiian home, tries to keep the pork to a minimum when he has Jewish guests, "just not to have to deal with the issue."

Guilt and rebellion, however, aren't always tied to Jewish views of pork. Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan—chef-owners of a restaurant empire that includes Cassia, Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry Café & Bakery, Sweet Rose Creamery, and Milo and Olive—love pork and don't feel any guilt eating it. Loeb states, "I'm respectful of kosher practices, but the ideas behind don't personally resonate with my own food choices. For our family, eating locally grown food that is either certified organic or uses organic level practices are what really matters to us."

The relationship between Jews and pigs is complicated. For some it's like an extramarital affair that can be thrilling yet satisfying despite whatever guilt it conjures. For others it's a challenge that forces creativity that is difficult yet deeply rewarding. Some don't think twice about it. For my grandma it's part of her mission and crusade.

I often debate whether I'm a bad Jew because I eat pork. And that debate ends over a rack of delicious, smoky, barbecued baby back ribs.