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