From pickles to salmon, the joys of kosher-style.

Author:Levin, Sala
Position:Talk of the Table
 
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No expression is more emblematic of the balancing act between Jewish tradition and American assimilation than "kosher-style." Though mutable, kosher-style typically denotes "a certain type of cooking or preparation that's reminiscent of Eastern European Jewish dishes but made without kosher ingredients" or the kosher supervision process, says Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University. "It wants to both be Jewish but it wants to be less expensive and doesn't want all the rigmarole of the supervision."

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When it appeared in the 1920s, kosher-style satisfied the yen of assimilating Jews to feel that they were eating in a Jewish style without necessarily following Jewish dietary restrictions. "To use another food analogy, it's like wanting to have your cake and eat it, too," says Diner. For American Jews, it was "good enough that it was redolent of immigrant-era food." It is a uniquely American innovation, although the idea has roots in the 19th-century German practice of fressfroemigkeit ("eating religion"), which referred to Jews who displayed their religious affiliation only by partaking in traditional foods on holidays.

While there are many American Jews who practice fressfroemigkeit, kosher-style is a much broader term. It can encompass any food that, in theory, could be kosher, whether that means chicken noodle soup or pareve meals such as fish or vegetarian dishes, even if not kosher by Jewish legal standards. Critics point out that the term is "oxymoronic," says Diner; it merely creates the illusion of kashrut. "Kosher isn't a style of cuisine; it's a style of slaughter or supervision." Under Jewish law, corned beef can be as kosher as sushi, foie gras or kung pao chicken--or as treif.

In post-World War II New York, Baltimore, Chicago and other cities with large Jewish populations, kosher-style was primarily used to describe restaurants that served salami, corned beef pastrami--deli foods. These establishments functioned as "safe places for Jews to bring their non-Jewish friends," says Sue Fishkoff, author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Food Answers to a Higher Authority. Jews could eat food they liked and "be proud to show off to outsiders." Kosher eateries of the period were "hole-in-the-wall affairs in Jewish neighborhoods," says Fishkoff, but kosher-style diners were more stylish. As some do today, these restaurants...

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