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[personal profile] seekingferret
Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz


This book was so much fun to read, and so illuminating. [personal profile] brainwane- I think you'd find it interesting as a supplement to my past answers about kashrut.

Horowitz's previously books have been investigations of the world of the modern American meat industry generally, and at the prodding of his family he turned to look more specifically at the kosher food industry and its evolution over the last century in this book. It features a chapter on the history of Coca Cola's kosher certification, a chapter on the history of Manischewitz and Kedem wines, a chapter on the story of Oreo's becoming kosher, a couple of chapters on the kosher beef industry, and all of them explain so much about things I've sort of halfway absorbed through a lifetime of consuming kosher food products.

There's this constantly devastating paradox of American Jewish life at the center of Horowitz's book: In order to make inarguably kosher food accessible to Orthodox Jews at reasonable cost, the majority of the people buying it need to be non-Jews. The further from this condition a particular foodstuff slips, the more the foodstuff will become inaccessible to Jewish consumers. The closer to this condition a foodstuff is, the cheaper and more plentiful it will be to Jewish buyers. And there are synergies to this process, because the food chain is complicated and interconnected, so if more processed foods have supply chains that are completely certified kosher, it means there are more input ingredients being used incidentally in other products that can then more easily and cost-effectively be certified kosher.

So, great, you might say, the primary tactic if you want to make kosher food cheap and available should be to convince non-Jews to eat kosher food! But Horowitz records a competing dynamic, which is this: When a foodstuff can be produced, at varying efforts, to satisfy people with different levels of kashrut stringency, the most stringent standard tends to drive less stringent standards out of the market. This is because the less stringent people will eat either food made to the less stringent standard or food made to the more stringent standard, and the more stringent people will eat only the food made to the more stringent standard, and in most cases the producer only wants to make one product that the most customers will buy.

This is why glatt meat has largely driven nonglatt meat off the kashrut market, and why Orthodox hecksherim grace tens of thousands of processed foods and Conservative hecksherim barely any, and why there are hundreds of mevushal wines and barely any non-mevushal wines. And taken to an extreme, this process competes with the tendency of producers to compete for the non-Jewish market, bifurcating the product line into the much cheaper non-kosher version and the much more expensive or bad tasting stringently kosher version and eliminating the non-stringently kosher version capable of competing on price and taste with the non-kosher version. So you have a tension between this dynamic, which can result in kosher products designed only for Jewish consumption at an exorbitant markup, and the first dynamic, which tends to result in kosher products designed primarily for non-Jewish consumption that are cheaper and of generally higher appeal. Horowitz has a particularly great diversion into the history of how Manischewitz wine began to market itself primarily to an African-American audience because of the chance discovery that Concord grape-based sweet wines taste similar to scuppernong grape-based sweet wines popular in the Deep South, and how this enabled Manischewitz to massively gain market share, but ultimately created a wedge that allowed Kedem to steal Jewish market share by marketing imported dry kosher wines and trying to figure out flash pasteurization techniques to make Mevushal wine taste marginally better.


The other interesting story Horowitz tells is about the way government regulation of food has interacted with the kosher industry, sometimes to the benefit of Jews and sometimes to the detriment, sometimes the same regulations! The same New York State kosher enforcement division that, with industry cooperation, minimized fraudulent kosher food and protected the food safety of New York Jews for decades eventually became a corrupt tool to enforce stringent Orthodox industrial hecksherim on those seeking to use local Rabbanim to certify small kosher businesses.

I was fascinated in particular by Horowitz's passage about the way increased record-keeping imposed by the FDA on large food businesses for health safety reasons allowed the Orthodox Union to establish computerized kashrut tracking systems and massively expand the reach of OU kosher certification. It's such a neat story. In general the role of government regulation in Kosher USA is really ambiguous- good when it works, but just as often seen justifiably as an unwitting threat to the Jewish community- as when he discusses the role of new ethical slaughter regulations in the 1970s on raising the price of kosher beef.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-09-10 04:22 am (UTC)
conuly: (Default)
From: [personal profile] conuly
That all sounds fascinating. Is it accessible to non-Jews, or full of specialized jargon?

(no subject)

Date: 2017-09-11 02:15 pm (UTC)
brainwane: My smiling face, including a small gold bindi (Default)
From: [personal profile] brainwane
You're so kind to think of me! Hey look, it's available from the New York Public Library as an ebook via SimplyE. Nice!

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