Ear­li­er this week, Roger Horowitz uncov­ered the invis­i­ble chemist” of the Ortho­dox Union and shared mem­o­ries of his grand­moth­er Bertie Schwartz, the first woman pres­i­dent of the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. The author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Oth­er Tales of Mod­ern Food, Roger is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I came across an amaz­ing man while look­ing for infor­ma­tion on kosher meat. Har­ry Kas­sel came up in a New York Times search, appear­ing in a 1973 arti­cle about meat short­ages and described as the largest whole­saler of kosher meat in the New York area. Oth­er search­es turned up noth­ing more; so I turned to one of the historian’s great resources, the tele­phone book, and found him liv­ing on Long Island just past the end of the Belt Park­way. Spry and sharp at 89, he told me about his remark­able life, and in so doing gave me the back­bone of chap­ter sev­en in Kosher USA, which I called Har­ry Kassel’s Meat.”

Har­ry was born in Racine, Wis­con­sin to a Jew­ish fam­i­ly that tried to keep kosher. He joined the mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II — rather than try­ing to build up his mil­i­tary ser­vice, he joked with me in his self-dep­re­cat­ing man­ner that since the Unit­ed States want­ed to win the war, they kept him in the coun­try. Recent­ly demo­bi­lized in 1946, he agreed to a blind date with Zeena Levine, who was then a fresh­man at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin. The two hit if off (even though she called him a cheap­skate” in our inter­view — he took her to a bar instead of a restau­rant) and were soon mar­ried. Har­ry joked that since she wouldn’t go to work, he had to, and took the easy way out by join­ing his new father-in-law’s business.

Zeena’s father was a butch­er — on a big scale. With his part­ner Sam Cohen, Joe Levine owned sev­er­al large kosher butch­er shops in Brook­lyn and a small chain of non-kosher shops. Kosher meat was a thriv­ing busi­ness after World War II, and Levine took in his son-in-law and taught him how to eval­u­ate recent­ly slaugh­tered meat and decide which car­cass­es to buy for his butch­er shops.

After a few years Kas­sel went into busi­ness for him­self and estab­lished a meat whole­sale com­pa­ny in the Brook­lyn plant once oper­at­ed by Swift & Co. His train­ing made him acute­ly aware of the pecu­liar nature of kosher beef, and that the same ani­mal yield­ed kosher and non-kosher cuts. The Ashke­nazi tra­di­tion was to only con­sume the fore­quar­ters, so even though these cat­tle yield­ed kosher briskets and rib roasts, the desir­able loin cuts could not enter the kosher trade. Kas­sel made a name for him­self by buy­ing the hindquar­ters of prime, kosher-killed cat­tle and dis­trib­ut­ing the ten­der­loins and porter­house steaks so prized in New York’s white table­cloth restaurants.

He quick­ly real­ized the ben­e­fits of buy­ing the entire car­cass, and send­ing the fore­quar­ters into kosher dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nels while the hindquar­ters went to the high-end restau­rant mar­ket. By the mid-1960s Kassel’s com­pa­ny was sell­ing all over the Unit­ed States as the nation’s largest kosher beef whole­saler. He was one of the first to work with the new Cry­ovac tech­nol­o­gy that allowed plas­tic pack­ag­ing to be shrink-wrapped over meat before ship­ment, vast­ly extend­ing the time it could spend in tran­sit. Able to send cuts from the non-kosher hindquar­ters to insti­tu­tion­al buy­ers through­out the Unit­ed States, Kas­sel was well-posi­tioned to man­age dis­tri­b­u­tion of meat from the fore­quar­ters to kosher outlets.

A Reform Jew and an active bene­fac­tor of Jew­ish caus­es, Kas­sel was able to man­age the tricky shifts in kosher meat sup­ply and demand in the 1960s and 1970s. The large slaugh­ter­hous­es in the New York area that had sup­plied kosher meat to the region for decades had large­ly closed by the 1950s, push­ing kosher meat pro­duc­tion to the Mid­west and into small region­al plants. It took a whole­saler with feet in both the kosher and non-kosher meat trades to sus­tain a steady sup­ply to both mar­kets. He was espe­cial­ly adept at pro­vi­sion­ing Hasidic and Ortho­dox cus­tomers who want­ed glatt beef, a demand­ing stan­dard that gen­tile slaugh­ter­house own­ers had a hard time under­stand­ing. Com­mit­ted to respect­ing the pref­er­ences of his co-reli­gion­ists, even if their notion of Judaism was dif­fer­ent than his, Kas­sel worked dili­gent­ly to make sure that the meat he sup­plied ful­ly met the require­ments of the super­vis­ing rabbis.

Har­ry Kas­sel left the meat busi­ness in 1980, con­vinced that meat con­sump­tion was going to fall (it did) and wor­ried about the pres­sures of the new large meat con­cerns on his oper­a­tion. His con­cerns were well-placed. Tur­moil swept through the meat indus­try in the 1980s, with old firms going bank­rupt and new dom­i­nant com­pa­nies form­ing out of this chaos. He put his skills to use for Israel, help­ing to cre­ate Yarden, an export-ori­ent­ed coop­er­a­tive that brought Israeli food prod­ucts to an inter­na­tion­al mar­ket, and served for many years as vice-pres­i­dent of his syn­a­gogue. And every fall, Har­ry and Zeena trav­el to France to see the places they love to vis­it. It was a great mitz­vah to have the chance to get to know this remark­able man.

Roger Horowitz is a food his­to­ri­an and direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the His­to­ry of Busi­ness, Tech­nol­o­gy, and Soci­ety at the Hagley Muse­um and Library. He is the author of Negro and White, Unite and Fight, Putting Meat on the Amer­i­can Table, and Kosher USA.

Relat­ed Content:

Roger Horowitz is a food his­to­ri­an and direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the His­to­ry of Busi­ness, Tech­nol­o­gy, and Soci­ety at the Hagley Muse­um and Library. He is the author of Negro and White, Unite and Fight: A Social His­to­ry of Indus­tri­al Union­ism in Meat­pack­ing, 1930 �“ 1990 and Putting Meat on the Amer­i­can Table: Taste, Tech­nol­o­gy, Transformation.

Roger Horowitz is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.