I recently received an e-mail from Amazon.com informing me that, based on my previous purchases and ratings, I might enjoy Paula Shoyer’s “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy.” Not one to doubt Amazon’s grasp of my culinary tastes, I clicked the link provided and read the product description. It begins:
“Producing flavorful and appealing kosher desserts has been a challenge in Jewish households throughout the ages. Without access to butter, cream, milk, cheese, yogurt, or other dairy products, creating a tasty and memorable dessert for family and friends requires more than simple substitutions and compromises.”
At this point I was deeply unnerved. Hadn’t I used buttermilk in a cornbread last week? Hadn’t my wife just put together some really killer, profoundly buttery brownies? These were not kosher baking ingredients! Not only were the brownies inedible, but the pan in which they’d been baked was now treyf, as was the cast iron skillet I’d used for the cornbread. I began taking a mental inventory of everything we’d baked with dairy in it and which equipment we’d used, wondering how much of it was salvageable. Some of it would have to be discarded, but other pieces might be saved through an intensive kashering process involving (I hoped) blowtorches.
Midway through preparations I realized it was all hogwash, and my breathing slowly returned to normal. As I carefully packed away the camping stove — the closest thing in our apartment to an actual blowtorch — I reflected on the unspoken assumption that formed the basis of what I’d just read: you are eating meat, and eating it all the time. It’s not a rash assumption. Meat, which Jewish cultures have historically treated as a luxury item reserved for Shabbat, holidays and other celebratory occasions, has become so widely available that many people consider it a basic necessity. A typical American eats about half a pound of meat per day, while the USDA recommends only five and a half ounces daily of meat and beans combined — and that’s the number we get after the meat and poultry lobbies have had their say. (I suppose chickpea-producing farmers must also have their lobbyists, albeit less powerful ones. Who ever heard of a senator in the pocket of Big Legume?)
Increasing meat consumption, both in America and around the world, appears to be an important factor in the rise of cardiovascular disease as a major killer. So is the consumption of trans fat, which often abounds in the dairy substitutes used in pareve baking. The meat industry also contributes substantially to climate change: according to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, meat production accounts for between 14 and 22% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, and that number has most likely climbed in the past four years as production has grown to meet rising demand.
Yes, people enjoy eating meat. It’s one of those foods that we’re naturally inclined to like because it yields quick and easy calories, protein and iron. Famines were common occurrences throughout most of human history, and still are in much of what we call the “Third World,” so our bodies are primed to respond to the gift of meat on those increasingly frequent occasions when it is offered. But why allow one pleasure to crowd out another entirely? Have you ever eaten at a kosher meat restaurant that was known for the flavor and texture of its baked desserts? Do you actually think that soy-based ice cream tastes as good as the real deal? Have you ever really believed, with perfect faith, that it’s not butter?
A final word now, on the idea that “kosher” means “pareve.” I’ve seen this confusion run in both directions, most notably four years ago when Duncan Hines reversed its short-lived switch to an OU-D hekhsher from a pareve one for its cake mixes, a switch that had rendered them unsuitable for use at meat meals. Jeff Asnell, Duncan Hines’s CEO, said of the reversal, “We made this shift in production because we wanted to once again offer our long-time and valued pareve consumers non-dairy cake mixes.” (The only “pareve consumers” I know are vegans.) The language used in marketing “The Kosher Baker,” whose product description never actually mentions meat, seems to have produced the reverse effect. One online review of the book reports that the secret of non-dairy baking is to use “kosher products” such as margarine and ersatz whipped cream. Is that really the image we want for all kosher food?