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High on the Hog

The national infatuation with pork has reached Jewish cuisine, prohibitions notwithstanding

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(From Pigs: Breeds and Management, by Sanders Spencer (Vinton & Company, 1897))

Utopia Bagels in Queens is known for its bacon-flecked egg bagel. In Manhattan, the restaurant JoeDoe boasts a sandwich called the “Conflicted Jew”—a concoction made with a bacon, challah, and chopped liver. During Hanukkah, the website YumSugar suggested frying latkes in bacon fat. And, last year Top Chef winner Ilan Hall opened his Los Angeles restaurant, The Gorbals, and made a splash with bacon-wrapped matzo balls, pork belly braised in Manischewitz, and Israeli couscous pudding with bacon brittle.

“Pork has become very much in vogue,” says food writer Ed Levine. “It tastes good. People can cook with it easily; you can make pork chops or roasts, or you can cook with bacon—and bacon makes everything taste better. You can’t do the same thing with chicken.” But for Jewish chefs and foodies, such an indulgence is more complicated. Though the rules of kashrut forbid pork consumption, the advent of a bacon-cream cheese shmear, to choose instead of lox spread, suggests that adherence to anti-pork restriction is hardly what it used to be.

We’re living in an era of “post-modern food,” says Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University and the author of Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. The trayf-meets-traditional combinations are just another example of a phenomenon that includes “jalapeno-Jack rugelach, chocolate chip bagels and, frankly, Tandoori salmon,” she says. “Show me a salmon that went anywhere near India.”

BBQ Jew logoJubon's logobacon mintsbacon-print shoes

From top: the BBQ Jew logo, the Jubon’s logo, bacon mints, and bacon-print shoes

The particular mix of Jewish cuisine and pork is “part of the increasingly porous world we live in,” Diner says. “The idea is that things don’t have to be in fixed boxes: X is Jewish so it can’t have pork; Y is Italian so it can’t have pineapple and tuna. All of these are now open to the creativity and predilections of whomever wants to make or consume them.”

Not everybody does. For Gil Marks, a kosher-observant rabbi, chef, and cookbook writer, “the thought of a bacon bagel sort of turns the stomach,” he says. “Not just from the religious perspective—though there is that—but from a sociological perspective. It’s like an American eating a horse.”

Nonetheless, Marks, at work on an encyclopedia of Jewish food due out this summer, sees a bright side to the heretical trend. “You always retain your roots, to a certain extent, no matter how hard we try to reject them,” he says. “No matter how assimilated you are, certain things draw you back—like comfort food and nostalgia for childhood; when you were sick you got homemade chicken soup with matzo balls. By adapting these foods, you’re embracing them in a certain way, without totally embracing them.”

And to many Jews, the allure of pork is simply irresistible. “It’s the ultimate taboo,” says Dan Levine, who as “Porky LeSwine” is the co-founder of, dedicated to news about North Carolina pork barbecue, a topic which enjoys religious-like devotion. “Where we live, pork is in so many dishes,” says the Chapel Hill resident. “It’s a flavoring ingredient in everything from vegetables to cornbread.”

The “ultimate taboo” also makes a great marketing tool. “It gives us a bit of identity and sets us apart in the barbecue world,” says David Rosen, a co-founder of Jubon’s, a competitive barbecue-making enterprise with a name that plays on the words “Jew” and “Ubon’s,” the Yazoo City, Mississippi, barbecue restaurant that mentored the team. The team mascot is a yarmulke-wearing pig, and its slogan is, “At least the salt is kosher.” “It’s a little controversial, but so what?” Rosen says. “We’re not out to offend.”

This movement evolved thanks, in part, to the increased prominence of celebrity chefs, says Heather Lauer, author of Bacon: A Love Story: A Salty Survey of Everybody’s Favorite Meat. “Now we’re watching more cooking shows and doing more cooking at home,” she says. “Bacon is a secret weapon in the kitchen.” The Internet, too, plays a role in selling artisinal pork producers as well as purveyors of products like bacon mints and bacon-print shoes.

Others are less tolerant of the combination. “It’s sacrilege, in my opinion, and disrespectful of the tradition,” says David Sax, the author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. “Jewish food was defined by the fact that it was made in this way, and didn’t have these certain products.” And this month, Hall says, he got his first piece of “hate mail” from someone who called his creations “a cheap thrill.”

But such rebukes have failed to slow this trend. Jubon’s is winning accolades at barbecue contests across the country for their slow-cooked pork ribs, and a retired Israeli cardiologist named Eli Landau is self-publishing an entire cookbook devoted to pork, allegedly Israel’s first.

Jews eating pork, as Hasia Diner points out, is simply a fact of modern life. Moreover, there’s nothing particularly “traditional” about, say, cinnamon raisin bagels, either. “There are people who believe there is a clear boundary between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic,’ ” she says. “But what we think is authentic was once brand new. Culture is always being reinvented, and every time it has a certain contentiousness to it.”

Lisa Keys is a freelance journalist in New York City.

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Jeff Carpenter says:

as I understand it, kosher is more than just tradition, but a defining sign of identity, of covenant with God; dabbling with pork is more than just a matter of poor taste.

Steve Dickstein says:

“It’s a little controversial, but so what?” Rosen says. “We’re not out to offend.” What a schmuck. A First-Team, All-Public Putz. But back up, David; I’m not out to offend. I just wanna be a little controversial.
Jewish food is more than food, bound as it is to religious obligation. It’s not merely “ethnic,” kids; it’s inextricably linked to ancient theosophy.
Many Jews, myself included, don’t rigorously follow kashruth. We, who are less observant, don’t consider that to be a source of either pride or shame. But there’s no reason to promote it with such juvenile fanfare, either. Labelling a bacon, chopped liver and challah sandwich the “Conflicted Jew” isn’t ironic. It’s disgraceful and disrespectful to someone’s religious belief, not their discernment of cuisine.
You wanna sell a cheesesteak? Fine. On your menu, call it “The Philly Original.” Don’t call it “A Shanda for the Jews.” Oh, and David? A yarmulke on a pig? That’s like putting a prayer shawl on…. you. Now THAT’S irony.

Barry Leonard says:

Kashrut is Jewish Torah Law, not tradition, custom, ethnic proclivity, regional preference etc. It is not like different styles of Chinese foods based on city or region, or same for Indian foods, Italian etc. The fact that many Jews no longer follow Kosher Laws, does not make it obsolete or out of touch. The taking of traditional Jewish foods, which were also Kosher and tainting them with deliberate treyfe, is far more than bad taste, it’s worse than offering a vegans something cooked in meat base, or giving the Pope brisket on Friday.

Verificationist says:

hey commenters – chill out. believe it or not, there are Jews out there who define their Jewishness in non-theological ways (and still have robust Jewish identities). this site serves them — us — too. you don’t consider me (enough of) a Jew because I eat pork? no problem. but stop being so damn sanctimonious. Jewish pork-eaters deserve articles, too.

yid vicious says:

Dude, Heeb Magazine told this same story about 4 years ago. This just in: there’s a hasidic guy who does reggae!

Middleof theRoader says:

My father was Jewish, my mother was not. I was raised in a pork-eating household, and I received training in both my parent’s religions. After 9/11, I decided to formally embrace my Jewish side. Part of that involves a form of kashrut I’ve developed for myself: no pork or shellfish unless served to me as a guest at someone else’s table. I blithely ignore the caveat about “seething the kid in the milk of its mother,” since the likelihood of that happening in today’s supermarket world is slim to none. I do this as a reminder of who I am and what I believe in, as a little sacrifice to my own beliefs. And when (once in a blue moon), I break these rules of mine, I do not feel guilty. It is my choice. And in this 21st century world, some things may seem in bad taste, but hey, to each his own. What we eat does not define us. If we are Jews, we are Jews.

David Star says:

The idea that pork products and shell fish are delicious and nutritious cannot be argued. Taste is an individual matter and always has been.

To argue that Jews in a “post modern” era should welcome the opportunity to widen their horizons in food is also true. My daughter makes a spectacular “Chinese cholent”. She and her Rabbi husband, kids and guests enjoy this Shabbat meal fequently. In our home we frequently eat spaghetti and meat balls using “Maria Angelina” sauce made in Oswego New York and sold in our Maale Adumim, Israel supermarket.(with an OU kosher label)

There are many other dishes from cultures throughout the world which Jews eat which are not on the palate of the effete “Post-modern” Jew.

But one thing is common to all Jews, aside from DNA, and that is Torah.
The eternal commandments set us apart. For those who find this distinction too much, go your way, but stop spitting on the heritage of our people.

As to David Rosen’s comments; I can only paraphrase the evaluation given by a Chief Bosun’s mate I knew in the US Navy 2 generations ago.
He was evaluating the seamanship of a new officer on our destroyer.
“Rosen couldn’t make a pimple on a real Jews Butt.”

We can all chose what laws to break, to regard as antique, silly, out of touch with modern times, and this is true for LEGAL as well as RELIGIOUS laws. But a person should know at least that he or she is violating that law, and that the law itself does not vanish in the fact of their personal denial. Goyische Yidden it seems will always be with us. My parents believed it was somehow OK to eat treyf food OUTSIDE, not in the house, which was kosher, and even as a tiny child, i remember saying, but it’s about US and our Bodies! Even as a tiny agnostic, i knew the difference. you know what they say about ignorance of the law.

charlie salem says:

Dear Ms/Mr Middleoftheroader,
You contradict yourself.What a JEW eats very much defines him.It’s from the Torah and a central feature of has set us aside and apart.Non jewish nutritionists have told me that not eating pork in those days and maybe today – is a very healthy thing with all the tapeworm around. And as for shellfish – they’re filled with the pollutants they live in.
That’s fine for them…i’m cool with that but I’m not a shell fishand i have enough trouble dealing with the pollution where i live in London. Why add any more!
As these idiotic chefs who claim it’s ‘cool’ to mix pork with traditional jewish food from countries where people who originated tghis food could be killed for keeping to their traditions. Well that’s just plain crass!Each to his own is fine but a little unity might help all of them have a kinder less offensive take on life and not just food!

Middleof theRoader says:

“What we eat does not define us.”

And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is PRECISELY why Kashrut is still relevant.

Jews have been eating pork since at least the time of the Maccabees. Why is this remotely newsworthy? Has eating pork suddenly become a sign of worldliness and sophistication? Latkes fried in bacon grease – now that’s classy. Yup. Yeah. No. Not so much. Folks can and will do what they like. I mean I don’t even eat meat, so what do I know. But still, this saddens me tremendously.

Netanya says:

Sad, that the article nor the comments contain any reference to the horrendous suffering pigs endure in industrail animal production, from artificial or forced conception, unnatural birth, manipulated growth – steroids, antibiotics for quick, painful growth – existing in miserable cramped cells of steel and concrete, brutalized before and during unspeakable cruelty in slaughter – Then, reallly, don’t we have another reason, a darn good reason for NOT eating pork. Do it for the animals!

I didn’t undertstand this article. There are many Jews who eat pork, who swear at their parents, who walk around with a chip on their shoulder, who honestly believe they are the centre of the universe, who dedicate themselves to repudiating any association with those yucky Jewy Jews, and on and on. So it has always been. So?

This is so very disturbing to me on so many levels…
I am a conservadox Jewess. Yes, I have separate dishes, no I do not see the problem with eating chicken with cheese, since a chicken never in the history of the world produced milk. But I respect those who draw more distinct lines in their lives with regard to kashrut, since I believe they are doing so with honourable intentions, be they for G-d, for tradition, or even community harmony.

A Jewish person brandishing their pork consumption openly and shamelessly is as abhorrent to me, as i genuinely wish it was to all Jews. It was suggested earlier by a poster here that it is the same as breaking any other law. I take issue with that comment. Pork consumption is not simply cooking with this fat or the other: it was the most unimaginable offense the Romans could come up with in order to defile our temple.

Pigs aren’t just “the other white unkosher meat”. The pig is a symbol with specific historical significance which OUGHT to matter to all Jews, religious or not. Why not just wear a t-shirt “self-loather”? It is really strange that any Jew would use this hallmark issue as an ad gimmick. “Look how goyish I can be!” The symbolism here is what makes this particular violation so disturbing. What’s next? The grand opening of “Avraham’s Kosher Idols”? G-d forbid!

Oy gevalt.

What a foolish man.

I am a second generation survivor. Making fun of “jewishness” has always been difficult for me. Too much pain associated with the symbols. To me Mel Brooks is offensive, especially the Producers. If you choose to eat pork, that’s your business, but glorifying and at the same time minimizing it’s importance to some of us, should not be discounted. You are not in this alone.. have some respect for the sacrifices others have made so you can laugh and make us a joke. We are disappearing, people like you are contributing and trivializing our culture. If you believe in nothing, there is nothing to save.

S Chavez says:

I am a convert, so I know from experience that there is some fine eating on a pig. Having said that, the Law is the Law; I do not eat the flesh of unclean animals. While it is true that many Jews define their Judaism in other ways, I still see no reason why a publication serving the Jewish community would glorify the consumption of pork. I don’t care that it’s “in vogue”, that it “tastes good”, or that it is “in so many dishes”. Certain bright lines must be maintained if we are to remain a distinct people, separate from the other nations. In the future, I would like to see more Shabbat recipes – pork, not so much…

Is everyone forgeting this little fact. It’s your choice in the end! Religious restrictions on food are your choice, whether or not to adopt them it’s up to you.

And to those jewish people out there, are you really surprised that this is happening? You guys are the traditional scapegoats of european history, and in this time well… everything it teased about. It’s not like religious matters this much today as it is.

a yarmulke-wearing pig,that is hilarious!

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You don’t have to be conflicted anymore. We’re making lamb bacon in Jerusalem. Get some!

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High on the Hog

The national infatuation with pork has reached Jewish cuisine, prohibitions notwithstanding

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