The paradox of the website Pork Memoirs is that Jeffrey Yoskowitz, its creator and driving force, keeps kosher. It is this revelation that allows a skeptic to first understand that his blog, a collective storytelling site that publishes personal essays about the ultimate trayf meat, is without the insouciance a reader might at first assume. Each week Yoskowitz posts a new story to the site, some from friends, some, he says, from “absolute strangers,” all eager to tell stories about pork.
Though drawn heavily from Jewish themes and settings, the stories are not all tales of rebellion against a verboten dietary item or a cultural taboo. There are love stories and stories about heartbreak and transgression. In one memoir, a woman encounters an ultra-Orthodox man walking plaintively down Tel Aviv’s popular Shenkin Street on the Sabbath, searching for a restaurant that serves pork. In another, a man looks back at himself as a young boy in a Newark, N.J., hospital, fending off a nurse determined to feed him a ham sandwich.
There are stories of deception and self-deception as well as tales of unlikely kindness and cruelty. Like Chinese food on Christmas, the tales bear elements of Jewish identification and affirmation. They take place in Israel and America, but also in Mali, Spain, and the Russian Far East, where tolerance and religious pluralism rank low in priority. And, strange as it may seem, the range of the narratives together create a decidedly Jewish universe.
For Yoskowitz, a freelance journalist who recently spent a year researching Israel’s pork industry for a book he’s writing, the complex relationship between pork and different people of all backgrounds—pork being a forbidden fruit in many religious and cultural circles—makes for compelling insights about humanity.
“Food is a powerful metaphor. For many authors, bacon represents the comfort of home, even if it is microwaved or served raw, or precisely because it is microwaved or raw. For others, it’s a means of holding onto identity and culture, be it religious or moral,” says Yoskowitz, who launched his site in January. “We are what we eat, of course, but with pork, for Jews, Muslims, and even vegetarians, we are also defined by what we don’t eat.”
The 27-year-old Yoskowitz, who currently lives in Brooklyn, was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in New Jersey. His upbringing was heavily influenced by the specter of the Holocaust in his family history; the experience of his grandparents, who were slave laborers in Siberia and refused to eat pork, reinforced his own decision to keep kosher. After the war, his grandfather worked as a ham boner in a pork-provisions factory in Boston, Yoskowitz says, but he continued to abstain from eating the meat. “He used to accept hams as gifts for Thanksgiving and Christmas and just give them away to his neighbors,” he says. “I was always proud of him for that.”
In addition to being a writer and a foodie, Yoskowitz is also a farmer, pickler, and what he calls a “Semitic swinologist.” Such scholarship angles focus on the ways that pork intersects with culture, religion, and politics. Yoskowitz believes that Muslims and Jews should find more common cause because of their religious dietary provisions. He also finds the parallels between anti-beef laws in India and anti-pork laws of the Middle East endlessly compelling.
In Israel, Yoskowitz found that consuming pork came to stand for something important and distinct in the lives of secular Jews, Russian immigrants, and foreign workers in a Jewish State. Elsewhere in the world, eating pork can represent assimilation, seclusion, and the range of emotions in between. Pork Memoirs came about after conversations about his research on the pork industry yielded a supply of narratives from others.
“Every story somehow moved me, and I started to realize that for those who love pork or hate it, those who abstain from it or indulge in it, this meat stirs emotions unlike any other meat,” he says. “I said to myself that when the time was right, I would find a way to share these stories that are precious insights into our culture that we don’t always hear, or at least don’t see together in one place as an investigation into how the pig influences culture and shapes identity.”
The stories on his site move beyond the meat itself. One piece, written by Ange Tran, a former waitress, describes the camaraderie of truckers eating pork-laden Sizzlin’ Skillets at Denny’s. In the story, Tran has the kitchen substitute ground beef in the dish in order to allow a Muslim trucker admittance to the early morning ritual. Another memoir by Alix Wall, perhaps the most poignant of the collection so far, tells the story of her mother, a hidden child in wartime Poland, whose rescuer fed her raw bacon to survive. Wall concludes that occasionally eating pork is a tribute to her mother as well as to her mother’s rescuer.
While pork continues to polarize, the conflict offers up compelling personal stories. From reading the site, it’s easy to imagine that if Yoskowitz did one day decide to follow the lead of many of his contributors and take the plunge into eating pork, it might be a thoughtful enough maneuver to retain its Jewish kernel.
“As popular as the pig may be in Brooklyn nowadays, I don’t foresee myself crossing that line just yet,” Yoskowitz says. “But I do order a tempeh bacon sandwich every week from a local sandwich shop that definitely satisfies some kind of urge.”