Utopia Bagels in Queens is known for its bacon-flecked egg bagel. In Manhattan, the restaurant JoeDoe boasts a sandwich called the “Conflicted Jew”—a concoction made with a bacon, challah, and chopped liver. During Hanukkah, the website YumSugar suggested frying latkes in bacon fat. And, last year Top Chef winner Ilan Hall opened his Los Angeles restaurant, The Gorbals, and made a splash with bacon-wrapped matzo balls, pork belly braised in Manischewitz, and Israeli couscous pudding with bacon brittle.
“Pork has become very much in vogue,” says food writer Ed Levine. “It tastes good. People can cook with it easily; you can make pork chops or roasts, or you can cook with bacon—and bacon makes everything taste better. You can’t do the same thing with chicken.” But for Jewish chefs and foodies, such an indulgence is more complicated. Though the rules of kashrut forbid pork consumption, the advent of a bacon-cream cheese shmear, to choose instead of lox spread, suggests that adherence to anti-pork restriction is hardly what it used to be.
We’re living in an era of “post-modern food,” says Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University and the author of Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. The trayf-meets-traditional combinations are just another example of a phenomenon that includes “jalapeno-Jack rugelach, chocolate chip bagels and, frankly, Tandoori salmon,” she says. “Show me a salmon that went anywhere near India.”
From top: the BBQ Jew logo, the Jubon’s logo, bacon mints, and bacon-print shoes
The particular mix of Jewish cuisine and pork is “part of the increasingly porous world we live in,” Diner says. “The idea is that things don’t have to be in fixed boxes: X is Jewish so it can’t have pork; Y is Italian so it can’t have pineapple and tuna. All of these are now open to the creativity and predilections of whomever wants to make or consume them.”
Not everybody does. For Gil Marks, a kosher-observant rabbi, chef, and cookbook writer, “the thought of a bacon bagel sort of turns the stomach,” he says. “Not just from the religious perspective—though there is that—but from a sociological perspective. It’s like an American eating a horse.”
Nonetheless, Marks, at work on an encyclopedia of Jewish food due out this summer, sees a bright side to the heretical trend. “You always retain your roots, to a certain extent, no matter how hard we try to reject them,” he says. “No matter how assimilated you are, certain things draw you back—like comfort food and nostalgia for childhood; when you were sick you got homemade chicken soup with matzo balls. By adapting these foods, you’re embracing them in a certain way, without totally embracing them.”
And to many Jews, the allure of pork is simply irresistible. “It’s the ultimate taboo,” says Dan Levine, who as “Porky LeSwine” is the co-founder of BbqJew.com, dedicated to news about North Carolina pork barbecue, a topic which enjoys religious-like devotion. “Where we live, pork is in so many dishes,” says the Chapel Hill resident. “It’s a flavoring ingredient in everything from vegetables to cornbread.”
The “ultimate taboo” also makes a great marketing tool. “It gives us a bit of identity and sets us apart in the barbecue world,” says David Rosen, a co-founder of Jubon’s, a competitive barbecue-making enterprise with a name that plays on the words “Jew” and “Ubon’s,” the Yazoo City, Mississippi, barbecue restaurant that mentored the team. The team mascot is a yarmulke-wearing pig, and its slogan is, “At least the salt is kosher.” “It’s a little controversial, but so what?” Rosen says. “We’re not out to offend.”
This movement evolved thanks, in part, to the increased prominence of celebrity chefs, says Heather Lauer, author of Bacon: A Love Story: A Salty Survey of Everybody’s Favorite Meat. “Now we’re watching more cooking shows and doing more cooking at home,” she says. “Bacon is a secret weapon in the kitchen.” The Internet, too, plays a role in selling artisinal pork producers as well as purveyors of products like bacon mints and bacon-print shoes.
Others are less tolerant of the combination. “It’s sacrilege, in my opinion, and disrespectful of the tradition,” says David Sax, the author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. “Jewish food was defined by the fact that it was made in this way, and didn’t have these certain products.” And this month, Hall says, he got his first piece of “hate mail” from someone who called his creations “a cheap thrill.”
But such rebukes have failed to slow this trend. Jubon’s is winning accolades at barbecue contests across the country for their slow-cooked pork ribs, and a retired Israeli cardiologist named Eli Landau is self-publishing an entire cookbook devoted to pork, allegedly Israel’s first.
Jews eating pork, as Hasia Diner points out, is simply a fact of modern life. Moreover, there’s nothing particularly “traditional” about, say, cinnamon raisin bagels, either. “There are people who believe there is a clear boundary between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic,’ ” she says. “But what we think is authentic was once brand new. Culture is always being reinvented, and every time it has a certain contentiousness to it.”
Lisa Keys is a freelance journalist in New York City.