Swine of the Times



By Leah Koenig

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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Last December, the blogosphere ignited over a culinary curiosity called the Bacon Explosion. Best visualized as a pork lover’s jellyroll, the dish calls for a weave of bacon wrapped around sausage and smoked on the grill. The original post on bbqaddicts.com received 835 comments (and counting), including one that read: “I feel sorry for the Jews and the Moslems and the vegetarians. They shall never know the true blessing of such a pork overload.” Perhaps the reader should suspend his sympathy.

Just 21 days after the Bacon Explosion’s debut, a music industry professional named Marc Shapiro launched the blog BaconJew. The blog features posts about such oddities as bacon jellybeans, interspersed with shtick-y humor. A self-proclaimed “super Reform” Jew, Shapiro views his site (inspired partly by the Bacon Explosion) as a lighthearted but earnest homage to his favorite meat. He is not alone in his obsessions.

Over the past few years, pork-loving Jews have staked out an irreverent patch of ground within the larger Jewish community. Online, BaconJew is joined by a community forum called Jews for Bacon, and in May the Web site Jewcy published an article called “Exposed: The Jewcy Bacon Fetish.” Author Jessica Miller wrote, “I am about to let you in on a little secret that is shocking, but true. Jewcy people love bacon. So, so much.”

In a less gratuitous but equally revealing example, Meatpaper — a journal dedicated to exploring meat culture — recently published a “Pig Issue” that included some contributors with Jewish surnames (Adler, Rose, Wizansky, etc.). Meanwhile, Shapiro’s other project, an apparel line called Kosher Klothing, includes a T-shirt with a pig image diagramed into cuts of meat with the word “kosher” stamped underneath. The shirt is his most popular seller.

These cultural markers suggest that among a certain population of Jews, it is hip to be treyf. Unlike previous generations of American Jews who knowingly, but guiltily, consumed ham at Chinese restaurants if the lighting was low enough, today’s Jews proudly embrace — and even flaunt — their pork consumption as a central, albeit ironic, aspect of their identity. “[Eating pork is] in some ways a form of social currency in young and progressive Jewish communities,” writer Jeff Yoskowitz commented on the blog The Jew & the Carrot. It pushes buttons, redefining the boundaries of how a “good Jew” should act. Not insignificantly, the same pattern of transgression holds for other taboos (for example, Jews with tattoos).

Still, why pork? Kashrut forbids any number of animals from landing on the Jewish plate. And as David Kraemer writes in his book “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages” (Routledge, 2007): “[In] the Torah’s enumeration, the pig appears side by side with other prohibited animals, marked by no highlighting formulation… it is but one of many outlawed species.” So how did eating a bacon cheeseburger become the ultimate act of gastro-transgression? The irony and shock value factors are certainly part of the equation, but the pull of pork on the American Jewish psyche goes deeper.

Yoskowitz, who contributed an article to Meatpaper on Jewish and Muslim pork prohibitions, points to the pig’s ubiquity in the American diet. Pork is relatively easy to produce, and it’s as beloved in the diner as it is in the fancy restaurant. “It’s the ultimate food of the everyman,” Yoskowitz told the Forward. Or as Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine, asserted in a recent panel discussion on food and gender: “Bacon is a universal. It is hard to love food and not love bacon.” What better way to jump “whole hog” into secular society than by consuming its most universal food?

On a darker note, the pig is steeped in centuries of oppressive symbolism. Kraemer writes:

II Maccabees records two related, gruesome stories in which the pious heroes… demonstrate their steadfast commitment to the faith by refusing to eat swine’s flesh… the text indicates that the king’s men sought to force our heroes to eat this meat as a means of compelling them to transgress their ancestral law.

Countless examples of similar acts of persecution can be found throughout history — enough so that, over time, Jews’ strained relationship to the pig ripened into a full-fledged loathing. With symbolic baggage like that, it is no wonder that pork eventually became the superlative shande (and therefore, an alluring forbidden fruit).

But here’s the real irony: On a broader level, Jews’ relationship with the pig is one of the few experiences shared by all Jews, regardless of observance. Most kosher-keeping (or at least pig-avoiding) Jews have a “pork story” — a vivid memory of a first greasy, rebellious bite of bacon, or a twinge of temptation over the ham at a friend’s Christmas party. And even Jews who grew up eating pork chops may either harbor a tiny bit of ambivalence about it or, like Shapiro’s Bacon Jews, view their kosher transgressions as part of their Jewishness. These experiences ask us to define where we stand in our personal observance and among the larger community. So while the Bacon Explosion will come and go (“There will be some special on MTV, and then it will be over,” Shapiro said), the pig itself will remain — a burly, grunting reminder of the hidden things that unite us.

This is the first in a new monthly column by Leah Koenig on food and culinary trends. Koenig’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Saveur and other publications. She lives in New York City.

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