Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Profiles In (Culinary) Courage"

A recent issue of the Atlantic included a composite review of a trio of books penned by “foodies”, gluttonous gourmets, who pride themselves on their willingness to eat virtually anything that is placed in front of them.

Not content to brag about the unlimited range of delicacies they will willingly sample, these dietary daredevils felt the need to disparage those who are less adventuresome in their eating habits, including people who reject certain dishes for religious reasons, the believers charged with the unforgivable sin of culinary cowardice, their religious convictions depriving them of the delicacy of Yak's Eye Soup.

I see that perspective as arrogant, supercilious, mean-spirited and wrong.

Consider this story:

I’m nine years old. It’s my birthday. I attend the Toronto Hebrew Day School, an Orthodox Jewish parochial school (some called it a Pinocchio School, because the kids who went there had big noses.)

I invited all the boys in my class. For some reason, boys’ birthday parties did not include girls, and vice versa. The explanation for this may possibly be found in the Old Testament, though – and I have, admittedly, not read the whole thing – I recall no Biblical citations regulating children’s birthday parties.

One of my Third Grade classmates was Arye Leibowitz, not a close friend, but on birthday parties, it was all-inclusive. Except for girls. Who knows? Maybe girls did come to my party, but, being Orthodox, they were required to celebrate it in a separate room. I never actually checked to find out.

“That room’s not for coats. The girls are in there.”

Nah, probably not.

Anyway, the standard menu on these occasions was hamburgers and hot dogs.

My mother, though not Orthodox, always kept a kosher home, this arrangement requiring the purchase of exclusively kosher food. (Which included kosher Jell-o, or Ko-Jel, the real Jell-o reputedly containing pork hoofs among its jigglifying ingredients.)

The hamburger meat was bought at a kosher butcher shop; the hot dogs came pre-packaged from the supermarket, the product’s wrapper branded with a small but prominent “R” with a circle around it, certifying kosherosity.

I don’t know why they picked “R” to signify “kosher.” Perhaps they were following the Hebraic approach, making “R” the first letter, if you were reading the word “kosher” from right to left. That may not be correct. It’s just a guess.

The call went out: Curtail the festivities. It’s time to eat.

As the other kids race to the table, ultra-Orthodox Arye marches into the kitchen, seeking confirmation for the acceptability of the menu before he can partake. The “Okay” sign would be a specific rabbinical signature. It had to be exactly that guy.

And that’s when it started.

Though the rabbi’s “Seal of Approval” was absent, my mother assured Arye that the food was indeed kosher, producing the name of the kosher butcher, and the wrapper for the hot dogs. (“See? An ‘R.’”) This, unfortunately, fell short of the requisite guarantee.

It turned out that, though the food was kosher by my mother’s standards, it did not reach the more rigorous plateau maintained by my more observant classmate Arye and the family who raised him.

What we had here was a standoff. A nine year-old boy, dressed in cuffed blue jeans and a faded flannel shirt, sticking tenaciously to his guns, in the face of adult pressure, and the natural urgency to fit in. Arye argued his position forcefully. The food was not acceptable, and he refused to give in. He couldn’t. His religion forbade the possibility.

Understanding but firm, my mother kept at him, her position,

“It’s okay, Arye. It’s kosher enough.”

The kid held his ground. Though not without cost. As this painful scenario played out (I was watching from the sidelines, feeling terrible for what my classmate was going through, and not a little bit to blame), Arye bore the strain of his predicament. Surrendering to the tension, he eventually…

Started to cry.

“I can’t eat it,” he whimpered, his voice still strong, but his shoulders hiccupping with anxiety, and tears running down his reddening cheeks.

In the end, my mother made him something else.

Self-righteous “foodies” want us equate such behavior with cowardice. To me, Arye’s solitary stand was the most incredible act of personal courage I had ever witnessed.

Tomorrow, a story about me. Where I behave exactly the other way.

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