Matthew Ackerman // New York, NY
On occasion, this happens: When sitting at a shabbeslunch and my observant Jewish lunch companions start talking about the treyf food that they have never eaten, my wife or I volunteer that non-kosher food is a topic I know something about, as I grew up eating it.
Living as a ba’al t’shuvah—a Jew who grew up non-observant and became observant as an adult—often means being the most ignorant adult in the room. Ayeshivish word gets used and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what it means. A joke is made over ahalakhic principle, and I’m the one who doesn’t get it.
Treyf food is the one thing I get to be the authority on. That’s not something I am usually able to pass up.
Someone asks, “How does x taste?” or “X looks delicious, is it?” to which I can say nearly anything I want because usually only I have the requisite experience to provide the answer.
“Shellfish is no big deal,” I might say, explaining that prawns can be quite good when cooked well. I may tell them, depending on how comfortable I feel, that a pile of blue crabs steamed and covered in Old Bay may be something whose taste seems easy to dismiss. But when you grow up in Maryland to a family and world with no thought to biblical restrictions on diet, those crabs are an essential annual experience associated with cooling sunburns on August evenings on Rehoboth Beach.
The cheeseburger seems like it deserves a mention, because that is probably better than most observant Jews expect, but I usually skip it.
I might also mention some of the stranger things I’ve eaten, such as armadillo, guinea pig, llama and juatusa (a kind of jungle rodent), all when I lived for a couple of years in South America, but that sometimes disgusts people.
I tend to focus on the pig, referencing the scene inThe Simpsons episode “Lisa the Vegetarian” when Homer asks Lisa if she’ll ever eat pork chops again, or sausage, or bacon or ham. “Dad,” she says, “Those all come from the same animal!” to which Homer replies, “Right, Lisa, like there’s some magicalanimal…”
It’s a funny bit, and it gets right to the heart of the issue with pork. The pig simply produces so many unique delicious flavor and texture combinations. A lamb sausage is good, but it cannot compare with a thick breakfast sausage at City Diner on the Upper West Side, far from the finest pork sausage around. Ham, either sliced as a deli meat or served as a warm steak—a taste I never loved—still is a flavor and texture that is utterly unique. Both crisp and juicy, delicious on practically anything up to and including cheesecake, bacon is a food for which words cannot do justice. Nearly everyone at the table has seen and smelt bacon and can understand its appeal.
Foods whose name includes the word pork have featured in some of the most memorable meals I have eaten in my life. I can never forget the ribs from the Dinosaur BBQ in Rochester that I ate at my sister’s graduation from medical school nor the pulled pork sandwich at the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina where the sandwich came topped with coleslaw, bits of barbecued skin chopped into the vinegary slop and was served on a cheap hamburger bun along with a tall styrofoam cup of sweet tea. I still remember the bowl of hornado pulled out of the center of a pig sitting on a paint-splattered stall I ate in Cuenca, Ecuador. One of the last pork meals I enjoyed, which I recall at weak moments, was a pork shoulder smothered in a mole-like sauce at Lupa, just off Houston street in New York City.
As delicious as pork is, I never manage to quite convince my lunch companions that they are missing out. They have eaten beef ribs of high quality and to them a pulled pork sandwich looks like a sloppy joe. One person may nod his head vigorously, saying that I am describing it all just right and that he wishes he could one day try pork, but he is probably the one sneaking pork meatballs at an Italian restaurant near where he works once a year or so. Everyone else moves on to other topics, no longer interested.
I am left to sit remembering the flavors and textures I have left behind, to consider that, if I live as I hope to, as an observant Jew, there never will be a return trip to Ayden, at least not to eat a pulled pork sandwich. And I wonder, does it matter so much, this not eating pork? Why not allow it for myself, at least now and again? The moment becomes a time, once again, to wonder over the totality of the commitment Judaism asks of us. Have I made the right choice?
But what are pork’s flavors and textures when compared to the chance – the chance that lifts my soul to consider it – that by not eating the forbidden pig I am brought closer to God, to my people, and to my heritage.
Still, it tastes awful good.
Matthew Ackerman is a Program Specialist/Analyst for The David Project, a nonprofit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and The New York Jewish Week, and he is a regular contributor to Contentions, the Commentary Magazine blog.