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The Kashrut of Fake Pork

New plant-based products aren’t technically treyf. But that doesn’t mean kosher-keeping Jews are ready to try them.

by
Leah Koenig
October 13, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Plant-based food companies have long made it possible for kosher-keepers to get a taste of nonkosher foods—or at least fairly convincing replicas of them, from vegan cheeseburgers to veggie Buffalo wings dipped in ranch dressing. Now, the field is expanding to include perhaps the most forbidden of forbidden foods: pork. A handful of pioneering plant-based pork products have been around for at least a couple of decades, like Smart Dogs and the Morningstar Farms’ veggie bacon strips my husband’s kosher-keeping family ate on Sunday mornings. But in the last few years, the swine-free floodgates have opened.

Today, there are “pigless” pork rinds that promise all the crunch and flavor of the real thing, and seitan-based, hickory-smoked pulled pork. Shark Tank-approved health food company JADA recently launched a meatless ground pork mix that home cooks combine with water and oil and then form into things like meatballs, sausage links, or cutlets. Plant-based industry leader Impossible Foods also just introduced Impossible Pork, which browns just like ground pork for stir fries, can be used to fill dumplings or fry into burgers and, according to a blind taste test of 200 consumers in Hong Kong, was preferred to “real” ground pork, 54% to 46%.

So, do these new porcine simulacrums actually taste like pork? I couldn’t tell you—for two reasons. The first is, I can count on one hand the number of times I have eaten actual pork. I did not grow up in a kosher household (my childhood dinner table was host to plenty of crab and shrimp, and meaty lasagnas), but my mom drew the line at serving ham or bacon in the house. I remember having pork chops with mint jelly at a friend’s home in junior high, and finding the combination absurd. I definitely ordered (and loved) spare ribs at Chinese restaurants on more than one occasion as a child. More recently I remember learning after the fact that a delicious puff pastry I ate in Austria was enriched with “schmaltz,” but not the chicken version I was used to.

Other than those exceptions, I have virtually no taste reference for pig-based flavors. That brings me to reason two: I have a gut-level revulsion to pork in any form including sizzling bacon, meaty pork chops, and (perhaps most strongly) spiral-cut ham. After a decade spent as a vegetarian, followed by another decade running a kosher household with my own family, pork—faux or otherwise—does not appeal.

I am not alone in my aversions. Jeff Yoskowitz, food entrepreneur and founder of The Gefilteria, told me, “I have absolutely no interest in trying these products.” Yoskowitz remembers a certain thrill that came with trying fake bacon as a child. “Bacon seemed all-American, and to abstain from it felt like I was un-American,” he said. Today his perspective has shifted. “There are so many amazing flavors and dishes in Jewish traditions from around the world ... and once I began seeking out those experiences I lost all interest in wanting to be ‘American.’”

Pork, which is an inherently treyf meat (as opposed to chicken and beef, which need to be slaughtered in accordance to kosher law, but are not entirely unkosher unto themselves), also holds a higher level of taboo for Jews. Yoskowitz said there is a reason for that. “In Europe, Jewish abstention from pork led to many antisemitic incidents and othered Jews from European society for millennia,” he said. From the Spanish Inquisition, where Jews were forced to eat pork-based charcuterie to prove they weren’t Jews (with death as the punishment), to the obscenely antisemitic Judensau art from medieval Germany, to Jews being called pigs at many points throughout history, pork is far more symbolic than other meats. “Choosing to eat pork is laden with the weight of history,” Yoskowitz said. It stands to reason, then, that vegan pork might carry enough of that inherited trauma to make it unappetizing.

From the perspective of kosher law, there is nothing technically wrong with swine-free pork. And there may even be a lot right. Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, vegan, and founder of the Jewishly rooted animal advocacy organization Shamayim, said he is “personally grossed out by food that looks or smells like nonkosher items.” Still, he said, he welcomes products like vegan pork for people who do not share his visceral reaction. “Factory farming is one of the greatest evils of our time and our holy kashrut system has sadly assimilated into the deleterious norms of this industry,” he said. “Any kosher plant-based alternatives to those cruelties should be fully welcomed, whether they are ‘pork,’ ‘shellfish,’ ‘cheeseburgers,’ or whatever.”

Pork—faux or otherwise—does not appeal.

Rabbi Ari Hart, who leads a modern Orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois, commented: “Judaism is not an ascetic tradition. It honors taking pleasure in the physical world, within proper ethical, ritual, and spiritual parameters. If eating kosher ‘pork’ brings people delight in their bodies, wonder at the capabilities of science, and greater sensitivity toward animal life and the environment, I’m all for it.” Hart said that he personally is a fan of vegan bacon, but that he is not curious to try the newer vegan pork products.

The Orthodox Union took a different stance, deciding not to grant kosher certification to Impossible Pork as long as it had the word “pork” in the product name. (The organization’s seal does appear on other products that mimic treyf foods, including mock crab.) Rabbi Menachem Genack, who is CEO of the OU’s kosher division, said the decision was made to avoid consumer confusion and provocation. “We still get deluged with calls,” he said in a recent JTA article about the OU’s decision to certify a “bacon” that was meat, but not pork-based.

Jews are not the only community grappling with the recent proliferation of plant-based pork. Recently, Slate staff writer Aymann Ismail wrote an article about how Impossible Pork and similar products are “testing his faith” as a Muslim by offering a tempting loophole against Islam’s prohibition against pork, but not exactly fulfilling the spirit of the law. “Our community is bound by rules meant to keep us from what hurts us,” he wrote. “But doesn’t Impossible Pork ragu sound damn delicious? Besides, God is merciful.”

Certainly there are kosher-keeping and vegetarian Jews who agree with Ismail—both in God’s divine generosity of spirit, and vegan pork’s potential deliciousness. For now, however, I am content to grill up a hamburger patty (either beef or vegetarian), and leave the vegan pork for others to enjoy.

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