It’s Difficult To Be a Foodie When You Can Eat Only at Kosher Restaurants
My family loved eating out together. But when my daughter became Orthodox, almost all our options got crossed off the menu.
Five years ago my daughter telephoned from college to inform me that she had made a decision about dining out: Now that she had become Orthodox, she was only going to eat in kosher restaurants.
Tears streamed down my face. I know there are many things that are far worse for a mother to hear. But for a restaurant-obsessed food blogger whose identity is strongly tied to dining out, this was very upsetting. Dining out was a shared passion in our family. I devoted hours of my free time to researching restaurants, as every meal out was an opportunity to be seized. I discovered online communities where restaurants were as hotly debated as politics. I kept a bulging file of reviews from the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine and made lengthy lists of restaurants I wanted to visit. My husband, daughter, and son had been the grateful beneficiaries of my efforts.
This wasn’t the first change my daughter had announced since beginning her transformation from a Conservative Jew to a more strictly observant one, after she graduated high school. But unlike her other decisions—tossing out her skimpy tank tops in the name of modesty, refraining from turning lights on or off on Shabbat—this one affected not just her, but all of us. And her decision about where she would and wouldn’t eat felt like a dismissal of a family ritual that I had encouraged, one that was particularly dear to me.
Dining out has been an integral part of my life since I was a child. I have fond memories of vacationing with my parents in Southern Florida, where no trip was complete without a visit to the now-shuttered Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House. We were herded into a line according to party size and inevitably served by a waitress with big hair who had worked there for 40 years. We indulged in oversized corned beef sandwiches along with bottomless bowls of sour pickles and pickled tomatoes. Once, we all sat separately at the counter so we could each get our own basket of fresh rolls, most of which we took home to enjoy later. This was our own version of family bonding.
As an adult, I began to pursue more adventurous and innovative cuisine. From the time my kids were young, I schlepped them to high-end restaurants, including some that weren’t really age-appropriate. On a family vacation to San Francisco in the mid-1990s, we took our then 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to a trendy hot-spot. We were led to our table by a very chic transvestite who navigated us through a packed bar full of inebriated singles. The most kid-friendly food we could find was exorbitantly expensive sliders. We had drinks and a few teensy burgers and high-tailed it out of there—even though my kids were oblivious and would have happily stayed for more. They grew accustomed to out-of-the way adventures for dining destinations, frequently putting up with my fervent determination to locate just the right spot, even when hunger was making us all cranky.
Neither my husband nor I was raised in a kosher home, but we made a decision to keep kosher when we married. We agreed that while our home would be kosher, however, our bodies were another matter. This resulted in some overcompensating in restaurants. Cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, barbecued shrimp, BLT sandwiches … nothing was off limits.
Still, our days of the family feasting on crabs, or getting our hands sticky with barbecue sauce from grilled pork ribs, were already long gone before my daughter’s phone call. A few years earlier, when she was 17, she stopped eating nonkosher food—although she would continue to eat in vegetarian restaurants. Around the same time, my husband, then-president of our Conservative synagogue, decided to observe the dietary laws by eating only vegetarian meals or seafood (no shellfish) in restaurants. Next, my nonreligious son declared after graduating college that eating animals—whether they were kosher or not—was unacceptable to him. I dedicated myself to identifying the best vegetarian restaurants in the D.C. area where we live, and while vacationing managed to discover some world-class spots.
I recognized that the day might come when my daughter might make even more stringent moves. For months, I had been trying to comprehend the plethora of new rules she was adopting about everything from time periods when shopping was not permissible to restrictions about dog-walking on Shabbat. As she stepped out of the halls of her Jewish high school for the last time, something inside her clicked: She believed in God, and she would demonstrate this by fully incorporating the teachings of the Torah into her life. She never questioned the sacrifices. But all too often our conversations ended in tears—sometimes hers, sometimes mine. I perceived each step she took toward more stringent religious observance as a movement away from our family. With family celebrations looming, I wondered if she would be willing or able to participate in these simchas, where the levels of observance wouldn’t be up to her own. Was she headed into black-hat territory? I had many sleepless nights, wondering what would become of the girl I’d known who was a foodie, a funky fashionista, an indie-rock lover, and a TV addict.
On a moshav in southern Israel, the women behind Matamey Cochin keep alive the flavors of an ancient Jewish community