Red, White and KosherAlso see our last year's post:
By SUE FISHKOFF
IN 1972, a TV commercial changed the way Americans looked at kosher food. It showed Uncle Sam munching on a Hebrew National beef hot dog as a heavenly voice assures him it is free of the additives and byproducts present in lesser processed meats.
“We answer to a higher authority,” the voice proclaims. Trust us — we’re kosher.
That message resonated at a time when Americans were growing increasingly mistrustful of the government and were starting to worry about what dangerous hidden substances might be on their dinner plates. Today, a majority of Americans believe that kosher food is safer, healthier, better in general than non-kosher food. And they’re willing to pay more for it. Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry, with bigger sales than organic. One-third to one-half of the food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified, representing more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales, up from $32 billion in 1993.
Given that Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population, and most of them don’t keep kosher, it’s clear that the people buying this food are mostly non-Jews. While some consumers probably aren’t aware that their pasta or cookies are kosher, many are folks who believe that “higher authority” promise.
The Hebrew National campaign also captured a pivotal moment in American Jewish history: a newly confident but still largely immigrant community, basking in Israel’s victory in the June 1967 war, was almost reflexively looking back over its shoulder, not quite sure of its position in the majority-Christian society.
American Jews have always tried to balance their desire to be fully American with an equally strong desire to preserve their Jewish identity. As the social historian Jenna Weissman Joselit points out, one way that immigrant groups cement their position in a new society is by appropriating the foods of the dominant culture while simultaneously integrating their own into the mix. What better way for Jews to signal their full acceptance into American society than by stamping their imprimatur — kosher certification — on that most American of food products, the hot dog?
Americans eat more hot dogs than any nation on earth — 20 billion of them every year, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, 150 million of them on the Fourth of July alone. Making kosher hot dogs ubiquitous would be, like getting rid of university quotas and restricted country clubs, a powerful statement that Jews have made it.
The struggle, not surprisingly, has played out on the ball fields. Observant Jewish sports fans, long used to brown-bagging it or watching the games hungry, have cheered every time another stadium has said yes to a kosher food concession. Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards started serving kosher fare in 1993; New York’s Shea and Yankee Stadiums joined the ranks in 1998.
It’s not just hot dogs. Every time a major American food product goes kosher, observant Jews are delighted. Coca-Cola in 1935. Oreos in 1997. Tootsie Rolls last year and two Gatorade drinks earlier this year. Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Smucker’s grape jam, Tropicana orange juice — every new item brought into the kosher pantry is a sign of fitting in the American mainstream while being observant.
Curiously, those dogs that answer to a higher authority aren’t kosher enough for most Jews who keep kosher. Hebrew National bills itself as one of the world’s largest kosher meat processors, churning out 720 million hot dogs last year, but virtually no Orthodox Jews will eat them.
For years the company’s kosher supervision was handled by an in-house rabbi rather than by one of the national certifying agencies, a major faux pas. His supervision was considered “unreliable” by all the national agencies and the Orthodox leadership.
In 2004, Hebrew National’s kosher supervision was handed to a well-known rabbi from Brooklyn. After a delegation of Conservative rabbis visited the company’s slaughterhouses and packing plant, the dogs were pronounced kosher enough for Conservative Jews; but Orthodox authorities still won’t condone them, saying the meat isn’t glatt kosher, a higher standard.
The world of kosher meat took a big hit in 2008 when Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and meat packer, in Postville, Iowa, was raided by immigration officials. The company went bankrupt, the plant’s manager was sentenced to prison for financial fraud, and the kosher meat industry has been scrambling to restore its good name ever since.
So will kosher dogs weather the storm? This weekend should provide some answers. My guess is that, like their gentile neighbors, Jewish families will fill the grill with Hebrew National hot dogs. Unless, of course, they’re Orthodox. Or vegetarian. Or locavores, or opposed to the entire industrialized food system — in which case they won’t be having the kosher-certified Coke, bun or mustard either.
Sue Fishkoff is the author of the forthcoming “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.”
Quite an interesting op-ed, and sure to stir some controversy in its negative characterization of the Orthodox view of the kosher nature of Hebrew National products.