When Bacon, Shrimp, and Whale Are Perfectly Jewish Eating

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

This piece starts with the young man I have been dating for a few months, David. He is very Jewish. David is also from Cincinnati, and one of his favorite foods is Cincinnati-style chili. For those of you who are not familiar, Cincinnati chili is more of a meat sauce than a chili. The delicacy is Mediterranean-spiced ground beef served on spaghetti, with any or all of beans, onions, and mild cheddar cheese on top. The combinations are culturally set in stone. Though Cincinnati chili has its detractors, it is widely loved. The local Skyline chain has a following so big that it has expanded to nearby cities, and the Cincinnati diaspora in Florida. The chili is also not kosher, given that it mixes meat and milk. Even so, David and his family love it, and it is in his family tradition.

Learning about Cincinnati chili from David – who makes and eats it at least once a week – got me thinking about Jewish treyf. Not in the Orientalist and perhaps overanalyzed ‘safe treyf’ of white Jews eating Chinese food in New York. Nor was I thinking about the real and life-saving practice Conversos in Spain adopted: Jews in hiding added lard to traditional dishes to avert the deadly eyes of the Inquisition. I did think of the famous Treyf Banquet that heralded the split between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the late 19th century. I also thought of the newer version held in San Francisco quite recently, with wondrous bacon treats. Rather, I was curious about treyf as an everyday practice. How did it get inserted into family and community traditions? How did folks relate to treyf with their Jewish identity, and vice versa? Could I discuss this without the tired discourse of “reconciling”? On a more basic level, were there Jewish treyf recipes that I could discover? Also, which treyf?

Brown closed clams
Clams – forbidden to some, delicious to others. (Photo Michael Dorausch via Flickr/CC)

I was also exhausted over the level of judgment that went into Jewish treyf. Recently, I fell off the “traditional egalitarian” bandwagon, much of which seemed to involve ever-more-performative kashrut. The consistent dismissal of Reform and Reconstructionist practice appalled me. So did the judgment against our parents’ and grandparents’ not-echt-halachic practices. Handwringing about authenticity bothers me more and more nowadays. The endless jabs about Jews who had “forgotten their heritage” strike me as cruel. Nothing in our communities, not even the halachically-shaky ban on microphones on the Sabbath, would be totally recognizable to a religious person from two centuries ago. So I figure it would be more interesting to answer the questions I raised above. For certain, it would be more useful to do so. The Jewish community may not always have a given interpretation of kashrut. But we will always have treyf-eaters.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
These might be treyf. Who cares? (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

I set out to find some answers, beginning with a post on Facebook. I asked my Facebook following to answer a few questions. If they were a Jew who ate treyf: why? What did they eat? What did they do before or after, if anything different? Do they have any neat traditions or recipes involving treyf? What about some funny stories? At the end, I threw on an addendum reminding folks not to judge fellow Jews for not keeping kosher. I expected a few responses.

A few shares and many comments later, several dozen people responded. Most of these responses were by private message. (I have made all respondents anonymous.) In fact, as I begin writing this piece, I still have a few responses to read! I was really touched to see how many people responded to my hasty request. What was better though was to see the variety of stories, perspectives, and ideas that people from all walks of Jewish life shared with me. I am going to be thinking about all the wonderful things I learned and was struck by for a long time.

Fried bacon on a white plate
Bacon: a perennial favorite of treyf eaters. (Photo Kim Ahlstroem via Flickr/CC)

Here are a few patterns that emerged.

Firstly, guilt was a less common emotion than defiance or pride. Many past works talk about guilt as a driving emotion around Jewish treyf consumption. But my (admittedly unscientific) sample seemed to be less guilt-ridden about the whole thing. Though one person did note, “we Mexijews [Mexican Jews] talk about it all the time.” Rather, many people were proud of the fact that they did not keep kosher and were still totally Jewish. “I’m as Jewish as a rabbi,” one person said, while another said that “Judaism isn’t about diet for me.” Both then happily listed their preferred treyf. Others felt defiant, especially if they had left religious communities, where kashrut wars are often the sour undercurrent of daily life. “Halachic chops – not as tasty as pork chops!” one person commented. For many people, treyf is a symbolic way of defying the things that defined their past. So an ex-Orthodox Jew might eat pork ribs on Yom Kippur, or someone leaving an abusive household may eat treyf as a symbol of their liberation.

White salo with pepper
Salo, preserved pork fat from Eastern Europe, with pepper. (Photo Roland Geider/Wikimedia CC)

Defiance and pride are hints to a larger thing. Treyf is always interpreted through a Jewish prism. People took into account all the communities they lived in, and all their lived experience, and filtered their Judaism through it. This went to treyf. Even people who always ate treyf interpreted their treyf in line with their Jewishness, not as a resistance to it. For Russian Jews, it was a part of their heritage of Soviet eating and nostalgic cooking. “I love salo,” my colleague said, “whatever the rabbis say.” For Israelis, it was a treasured memory of being secular and Jewish in the ‘60s. My mother, who lived in Israel then, recounted with glee the delight of eating grilled pork chops on kibbutzim. (I highly recommend the Israeli documentary Praise the Lard about pork in Israel.) For diasporist Jews, treyf is often a central part of being diasporist. One person noted that the Reuben – famously treyf – made them feel Jewish.

Judgment from others was mentioned, sure, but largely negatively. “Judaism isn’t a diet,” and “I’m just as Jewish as a 613 mitzvot keeping Jew” were two of many statements. And in return for people judging their Judaism, treyf-eaters shared some wonderful humor about their position. A few people reminded me of various kashrut scandals, like the chronic worker and animal abuse in Postville, Iowa. On a more humorous note, one respondent from Maine mentioned the blessing her father recites for shellfish. (How regionally appropriate.) And of course, one of my closest friends cherishes his San Francisco family’s tradition of Dungeness crab. I would too.

A shrimp cocktail with a lemon over lettuce
The shrimp cocktail, with a treyf fan favorite. (Photo Jon Sullivan, released to public domain)

On a day-to-day level, certain treyf is more common than others. Some of this is seasonally and financially based – Dungeness crab, for example, is expensive and seasonal. Otherwise it is a taste thing. Most treyf-eaters seem to love bacon and shrimp. Some common treyf however – like canned clams – was rarely mentioned. The most beloved treyf for many is bacon. It is a love that I do not quite share, since pre-kashrut me never got the hype around it. Bacon ends up in soups, in breakfasts, on sandwiches, and in lentil soup and matzah balls. One very nice bacon-maker even told me about his business making bacon, and experiments with flavor! Jewish recipes were often improved with bacon or shellfish. I received recipes for lentil soup, cholent, matzah balls, brisket, shakshouka, latkes, and even hamantaschen with bacon. Similarly, an appetizing spread, hraime, or again, shakshouka benefited from shrimp. I guess then that bacon-wrapped shrimp is the ultimate treyf. Not because of the combination, but because of the crowd of treyf enthusiasts pleased.

For many people, eating and making treyf is also a part of livelihood. Many people worked or work in food service. Treyf is on the menu, treyf gets eaten. Others work in jobs where they often have to eat with clients, coworkers, or consultants – and it would be rude not to share in the shellfish soup. As I noted, one respondent had a bacon-making business. Another had spent time cooking shellfish in his first job as a restaurant chef. These respondents often had the greatest insight into how expensive it was to keep kosher.

Clam chowder with oyster crackers in a smiley face
The clam chowder is smiling! Treyf has never been this happy! (The photo is CC/Flicker from The Cooking of Joy. Joy, the author, has posted her clam chowder recipe here.)

And how often times, it is a privilege. If your job depends on it, you will eat treyf. It is rather baroque and classist to critique someone’s Jewishness based on that. Some did not keep kosher because of a history of eating disorders. In that case, imposing new dietary restrictions can be quite dangerous. If anything, because it is to save one’s life, Jewish tradition would also prefer that one not keep kosher if it is unsafe. Also, many treyf eaters stopped keeping kosher because of the labor and expense involved. The bacon and shrimp were less interesting to them. To them, there was no controversy at all in eating cheaply, well, and Jewishly, with the added benefit of canned clams or bacon. Judging someone based on that would be markedly cruel. Keeping kosher does not make you a better person. Being mean does make you a worse one. Especially being mean over someone enjoying or even celebrating treyf that is affordable, accessible, and tasty food.

Not all cheap treyf is celebrated though. Some treyf is more controversial. Several different respondents did not “get” ham. They found it it was “the weirdest meat” or bizarrely sweet. Others loved ham, and fondly recalled eating it at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. I was surprised to see how many respondents were uncomfortable with ham, although pre-kashrut me also found ham a tad “wiggy” in big quantities. One person said that the gelatinous-meat-sweetness of ham was an aversion for them. That aversion carries over into kosher foods like ptcha and gefilte fish.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
If you do not like ham, you might not like p’tcha – or pihtije, p’tcha‘s Serbian cousin. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

Milk-meat combinations seem to go unnoticed. Sure, a few people did comment on cheeseburgers. I, for one, will always remember my college classmate’s Brie and ham on matzah. Here is the thing: it is far lower on the “forbidden” list than whole categories of animals. A milk and meat combination can also be harder to spot. Someone who does not keep kosher might not guess that the pumpkin cheese soup had chicken stock. The bacon bits, though, will be noticed. So will any other treyf, as was discovered at a synagogue a respondent attended as a child, where an order mix-up led to quite a bit of shrimp lo mein at the synagogue’s door. Compared to incidents like these, a cheeseburger is minor.

A cheeseburger
This cheeseburger is comparatively no big deal. (Photo in public domain)

I will have a separate post for funny stories, and a third one for stopping kashrut. Too many anecdotes were received to do justice to them in this post. Besides, many people provided insight into why they do not keep kosher now. But already, we can see some patterns, and some avenues for inquiry. We also are reminded of one thing: you can eat as much treyf as you want, and still be as Jewish as anyone else.

The outcome of this research has made me question my own kashrut practice, and why I keep kosher at all. I do not eat treyf animals, I keep a kosher kitchen, and in New York I eat kosher or halal meat, which I consider equal. The kitchen is for my more traditional friends. That said, I do not have a reason why I personally do not eat treyf. It used to be emotional, but that has gone with my own realignment of Jewish values. The judgmental environment I left, or to quote the youth, “yote out” from has dissolved any feeling of “upholding tradition” through my diet. For me, Judaism is a lived and evolving tradition, not a diet, weekly lifestyle practice, and set of givens. Pork is off the table forever, because of a traumatic and rather gross incident in my teenage years. But I do not have any negative feelings about shellfish, catfish, beef stroganoff, or kangaroo. At this point, kashrut is habit. I do not know how long it will stick outside of my home kitchen.

Black and white photo of a man in a fur parka standing under a wooden structure with drying meat hanging from the wood. The structure and man are on a grassy-muddy field.
A Yup’ik man in Western Alaska drying whale meat sometime in the early 20th century. Whale was caught, slaughtered, and dried for sustenance. The tradition is under threat but continues today. (Photo Public Domain/Library of Congress)

If I change, I do have something to keep. I promised my indigenous friends that, should I stop keeping kosher, whale and seal would be my first real treyf. In a world where colonialism is still very real, it is so important to keep native traditions alive, and I think that would be an important step of solidarity against continued colonial abuse. As a settler, I feel obligated to support the minhagei hamakom of the peoples from whose loss of land I still benefit. A mitzvah, in treyf. Afterwards, I will head on to my nearest Skyline, order a 5-Way – spaghetti, meaty chili, onions, beans, and cheddar cheese – and take a bite, and I will recite the prayer meant for everything:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro.

Blessed are you, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who created all per his will.

A heartfelt thank you to all of you who responded. As my gift to you, please enjoy my favorite song about treyf. It is by the Jerry Cans, a band from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and is in the indigenous Inuktitut language. It is called Mamaqtuq, and it is about hunting for seal to eat. Watch it here.

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