Can You Order Lobster in Front of Your In-Laws?
Suzy Weiss explains the rules of keeping kosher. Ish.
No one should eat pigs. About that, the Jews got it absolutely right. Pigs are as smart as a toddler, and should never be eaten by anyone.
They got it largely right in the world of fish, too. Jews can only eat fish with fins and scales, which means no octopi. One twist of the screw in our primordial stew, and I think we’d be living in an octopus’s world.
Kashrut is the set of Jewish religious laws about how to eat, what to eat, and what to avoid. As I read about the laws of kosher eating, I loved how many were early animal rights laws: a kosher slaughter requires a special butcher who killed the animal humanely, quickly. That law was developed by a society that did not have refrigeration, and routinely animals were killed slowly, eaten over days, limb by limb. Kosher laws of butchering were a response to that vile cruelty. In Judaism, vegetarianism is a legitimate spiritual goal to strive for.
But when I say that I admire these rules, that they make sense, I want to make one thing clear: I do not mean shellfish. No. No, sir.
I was once in New Zealand for three days. I ate green mussels for lunch and dinner, obviously. But also for breakfast.
Then there’s the matter of my mom’s cooking. My mom makes the best goddamn shellfish in San Francisco. The brown butter scallops. The dilly shrimp. As a 22-year-old who moved back to my hometown after college, I tried really hard to keep my life separate and independent — I moved across town and made fun new work friends at the San Francisco Chronicle. But every Sunday night I found myself back at the old kitchen table for nothing other than to have my mom’s shrimp stir fry (and yeah ok I’ll take leftovers home, and fine ok my week was good how was yours).
I couldn’t find pics of Ma making shrimp but here’s the annual flaming plum pudding making to give you a sense of what a pro this woman is:
When Bar and I were first talking about living more Jewishly together, I said this would be my line in the sand. We called it: “Nellie’s heritage shrimp.”
Even as I started converting, I held on hard to that shrimp.
What changed was friendship. I have made close friends with observant Jews over the years, and I respect the ways they’re living. I want them to feel comfortable in our home. And what also changed is trust: I see how much Judaism is giving my life, and so I am willing to trust it with more of myself.
So I came up with a new rule: I could eat treif (non-kosher food) out in the world, but our house would stay as Jewish as possible. No pork enters these walls. And no shellfish.
It is actually the same rule that the Weiss girls grew up following, more or less. It is a rule that at first seemed absurd, but the longer I spent in conversion and living Jewishly, the more it makes total sense.
No one observed all of this Kosher chaos better than one Suzy Weiss.
Suzy is my future sister-in-law, future-boss and the New York Post’s finest cub reporter. She is also an expert in the art of eating kosher-ish, or being kosher socially. These are utterly irrational, possibly hypocritical standards that have absolutely nothing to do with Jewish law, but everything to do with making a community.
The Unofficial Guide to Keeping Kosher
By Suzy Weiss
Similar to a certain monotheistic religion to which I happen to be born into, Nellie Bowles has strange and absolute rules surrounding food. Pigs are way too smart to eat. Flesh should generally be avoided. Junk food is for the weak. Cheetos must be Flamin' Hot.
But my dear Nellie, bless her California heart, loves seafood. Leviticus 11:11? Basically a subtweet about her. The girl could single handedly take down an aquarium. When it comes to keeping kosher, anything involving a shell, antennae, or claw, is a hard no.
Now, every Jewish kid who grew up in the wilderness between reform and conservative Judaism (as we did) and who eventually brought home a significant other is familiar with the Restaurant Paradox. It goes like this: kosher-keeping family members, insist, nay, demand that the non-kosher eating guest get whatever they want. “No really, we don't mind, whatever you want,” they'll say. “Suzy, tell him! Seriously, it’s okay.”
Friends, it is not okay. It is a test. Parents are grading daughters, daughters are grading parents, parents are grading daughter's boyfriends and daughter's are grading dates. And then there's the poor soul trying to order dinner and make a good impression on everyone.
Here’s a rubric for a passing grade, and the first Weiss Rule of Kashrut for Potential, New, or Existing Members: mid-tier price-wise, one beer but no cocktail (will signal to parents that you like wasting money), and Keep. It. Vegetarian.
Which takes us to a family trip to Provincetown two summers ago, in which Nellie Bowles was going to be put to the test.
My sister, Bari, is a wise woman. She knows well Nellie’s appetites, especially when unleashed on the treif capital of the Eastern Seaboard. And so she took her out one evening at a ritzy inn on the water for the works. Without getting graphic, I would bet bibs, and the word “sampler” were involved.
This was all before dinner with my parents, two cousins, another sister and her husband at a different restaurant down the block.
So, Nellie, glowing from a day at the beach, and, one would assume, full from her first dinner, is presented with the Restaurant Paradox. And immediately takes the bait. “Really? You mean it?” she asks, “All right, then, linguine and clams please!”
A bush league order. Amateur hour at Cafe Heaven.
I could feel myself well up with righteous indignation. “Clams? On Dad’s tab? The insolence!” I ordered probably a grilled cheese to make a point, or if I was really trying to balance the scales; the veggie burger. Something forgetful and just okay, because I’ve been to this rodeo.
Platters arrive, bills are paid, Nellie is as happy as a, well, you know.
Later, post-gaming the evening's event--me, Bari, and Nellie, that is, because we’re all in a totally normal and not at all weird or codependent in-law, sister, little sister relationship--Nel was rightfully annoyed that we were annoyed with her. She said something along the lines of, “I feel like there's trip wires in every menu I pick up. What are the rules here? We just keep kosher when your dad is watching?”
Me and Bari exchange a look. “Yes!”
Our dad, by the way, is pretty much a teetotaler, except for the occasional glass of red or an even rarer Cape Codder that would be defined by most as just a glass of cranberry juice. He’s a pescatarian of over 30 years, and would not consume what we do on a normal weekend if it were his last days on earth. This probably factors into why my eldest sister and I are a bunch of umami-craving, overspending, french fry-obsessed, Negroni-guzzlers, though that's a conversation for me and my shrink.
Where were we? Oh yes, the Dad Dance. I know it’s hard for him to stomach our halachic transgressions, dietary or otherwise. One sister was once spotted literally ducking under a table while seated at a wedding to slurp up something sacrilege, mid-conversation with my Dad. Which sort of explains it all.
You should know: the one thing Nellie loves more than seafood is moral order. This neither-here-nor-there kosher business? No, no, no. In comes Nellie with a bullhorn, and we are forced to face the hypocrisies on our plates.
The food in my house was made exclusively by my mother and her parents -- once-divorced, my grandparents came back together in a cold peace under our roof. My grandpa’s favorite thing was to go to the all-you-can-eat buffet and take the entire steam tray of lobster tails to his own table. But at home, we did it up: two sets of plates and silverware, one for dairy meals and the other for meat, double dishwashers -- the works. When my aging grandparents mixed up a platter or bowl, no one said anything.
It wasn't until I was older, that I thought about what my super-rare burger was cooked in (butter), or how the poultry might have been killed (brutally). That’s why there's the second rule: Don't ask don't tell. Nellie also loves breaking this one.
I don't think our situation is that unique. Sure, I have friends whose families strictly play by the rules. But I also know people who are rabbinic in their house, but it’s a treif party in anyone else’s dining room. There’s a crop of families in any community who will spend a regular shabbat at Joe’s Crab Shack, but who lose their minds around Passover, including getting kosher dish soap. A close friend, who grew up orthodox, during a rumspringa of sorts, tried a cheeseburger for the first time, but she had to make it herself with glatt kosher beef and cholov yisroel cheese.
My own system is this: anytime I want to eat something flagrantly treif, I theatrically reason out loud, “Wow, I mean, I’ve never tried [insert offending food here] before. Is it really that good? Worth it?” My tablemates have heard this one before. Rule three: Never ask what’s in the bolognese.
All of this to say, logic doesn’t exist if you want to devise a game in which you can both feign the rules of kashrut and enjoy the spoils of breaking them. And, at least for me, embarrassingly, human impulse reigns staring down the barrel of a raw bar. Rule number four: don't make anyone explain their rules.
A big theme of this past year has been Shalom Bayit, literally peace in the home. In some cases that means understanding that while I’m an adult, and my parents are adults, I don’t need to flex that muscle in front of them. But worrying about what’s allowed in front of who distracts from choosing for yourself. It’s distracted me, anyway.
Shalom Bayit, and kavanah--Jewish intention-- is the guiding force behind The Rules, but ultimately that’s not enough. Now that my sisters are starting families of their own, new lines need to be drawn in the sand. Everyone has to figure out what their version of heritage shrimp is -- to figure out the balance between obligation, commitment, indulgence, and principle in their kitchens.
Lately, I've been on the receiving end of more than a few dietary decrees which Nellie dispenses at random: “We're meatless.” “We’re meatless except on the weekends.” “We don't drink anymore.” “Beyond burgers are better anyway.” “Our children will never taste pepperoni!” “Or processed sugar!” “Unless it's a special occasion!”
And I think, “Now she's thinking like one of us.”
Follow Suzy’s work on Twitter @SnoozyWeiss