Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Oth­er Tales of Mod­ern Food

  • Review
By – April 19, 2016

In his new book, Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Oth­er Tales of Mod­ern Food, Roger Horowitz does a deli­cious job of describ­ing the kosher food indus­try. With tongue-in-cheek com­ments and fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal and per­son­al anec­dotes but­tressed by sol­id archival research, Horowitz ful­fills his goal of pro­vid­ing a his­to­ry of kosher food and its place in the Amer­i­can food sys­tem in the indus­tri­al era of mass pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion; its encroach­ment, con­quests, and exclu­sions.” He also pro­vides a live­ly read.

Horowitz reports that Kosher food is often the cen­ter of our iden­ti­ty as Jews and a touch­stone of our rela­tion­ship to Judaism.” His chap­ter The Great Jell‑O Con­tro­ver­sy” illus­trates how kosher food prac­tices reflect­ed changes in reli­gios­i­ty of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. In the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Jell‑O was a pop­u­lar dessert for both Jews and non-Jews. In the 1930s ques­tions were raised about its kosher sta­tus because it is made with glyc­erin, a chem­i­cal­ly changed ani­mal prod­uct. A rul­ing by the high­est rab­binic author­i­ties of the peri­od con­firmed its kosher sta­tus. But the con­tro­ver­sy con­tin­ued. In the 1950s the Ortho­dox Union (OU), a kosher-cer­ti­fy­ing agency, elicit­ed the help of the very high­est rab­bini­cal schol­ars includ­ing Rab­bi Moshe Fein­stein. Rab­bi Fein­stein and his asso­ciates ruled that Jell‑O and oth­er sim­i­lar glyc­erin-based foods were not kosher. This edict was a mile­stone event in kosher food pro­duc­tion. It served to high­light the dif­fer­ences in the strin­gency of Con­ser­v­a­tive and Ortho­dox kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion prac­tices. It also meant that from then on Ortho­dox kosher cer­ti­fy­ing-agen­cies, includ­ing OU, would strict­ly super­vise every step of the pro­duc­tion process before they deemed a prod­uct kosher. Ulti­mate­ly, the rul­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly turned kosher law…in a more restric­tive direction.”

Today the kosher food busi­ness is boom­ing. A 1988 study found that the mar­ket for kosher cer­ti­fied goods exceed­ed $1 bil­lion and that there was at least three non-Jew­ish kosher food con­sumers for every obser­vant Jew!” In many con­sumers’ minds, kosher is asso­ci­at­ed with high­er qual­i­ty and safe­ty. Even many non-Jews see the heck­sh­er label as more trust­wor­thy than a firm’s own self-inter­est­ed prod­uct labels,” writes Horowitz. Numer­ous large indus­tri­al food com­pa­nies seek kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from the major Ortho­dox cer­ti­fy­ing agents even if this involves refor­mu­lat­ing their prod­ucts. For exam­ple, Oreo pro­duc­tion and ingre­di­ents were changed to enable it to receive a kosher imprint, which meant that Nabis­co could now sell Ore­os and cook­ies-and – cream ice cream in schools and hos­pi­tals — enabling it to keep a mar­ket share in those cru­cial sec­tors. OU even pro­vides inter­na­tion­al super­vi­sion of food pro­duc­tion and uses local rab­bis work­ing on a part-time basis to ensure the kosher sta­tus of prod­ucts. The indus­tri­al­iza­tion of the kosher prod­ucts has dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduced the costs of the super­vi­sion process, fur­ther expand­ing the mar­ket for the kosher stamp.

Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Oth­er Tales of Mod­ern Food includes many more fas­ci­nat­ing pieces infor­ma­tion about the world of kosher food — includ­ing the large-scale pro­duc­tion of kosher meat, Hasidic kosher des­ig­na­tions, and mak­ing the Kosher killing of ani­mals more humane. This cap­ti­vat­ing book is rec­om­mend­ed to all peo­ple who love to eat, learn, and enjoy a juicy corn beef sand­wich fol­lowed by a tempt­ing plate of choco­late Tofut­ti (a kosher non-dairy ice cream).

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Roger Horowitz

My Grand­moth­er, Bertie Schwartz

Abra­ham Gold­stein: The Invis­i­ble Chemist of the Ortho­dox Union

Har­ry Kas­sel, the Kosher Meat Man

Relat­ed Content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions