Last night, Era and I had the magnificent opportunity to explore some of God’s magnificent creatures, including seeing and learning about animals we never new existed… and then eating them. In fact, by the time we were halfway through this magnificent 18-course, 6-hour dinner, it felt like we were ordering take-out from the Bronx Zoo.
The purpose of the Mesora Dinner, conceived of and run by Doctors (and rabbis) Ari Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan, is to correct, solidify and transmit the proper mesora on the kashrut of various animals (and plants) that we do – or do not – eat. As you are well aware, many of the animals we eat are acceptable solely because we have a tradition that these are kosher. Of course, the nature of transmission is such that it can be subject to error or loss as language differences and the movement of Jewish communities cause it to be forgotten or miscommunicated. The creation of a mass-consumption food industry has only added to the loss of our tradition. A village shochet 150 years ago might have experience with all sorts of forest fowl and birds that the village hunters went out and captured from the wild. A modern shochet has no such opportunity — his total experience will consist of ducks, chickens, turkeys and geese — and so the tradition of kashrut of other birds will be lost.
Aris Zivotofsky and Greenspan seek to remedy this by documenting (video and written) the testimonies of older shochetim regarding the kashrut of various animals in order to preserve this mesora, investigating claims of kashrut/non-kashrut regarding other animals, and promulgating the knowledge through lectures, publications, and — the mesora dinner, where each animal was displayed (live or preserved) in whole form before being served. Each course was accompanied by a short lecture by a rabbi or researcher. The dinner was held at the Eucalyptus restaurant just across from the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, with several hundred individuals seated in the restaurant’s large courtyard enjoying the cuisine and Jerusalem’s evening breezes. The participants were Israelis, Anglo-Israelis, Americans on vacation, Jewish intellectuals, rabbis, culinary adventurers. Most were Mizrahi but there were some yeshivish and even hareidi participants as well.
So without further ado, the menu, together with halachic notes.
1. Bread and Injera with a Za’atar and Almond spread
Injera is a traditional Ethiopian bread made from a grain called Teff, highly nutritious but gluten-free. The question is not whether this is kosher, but what the proper bracha is. If teff is included in one of the rabbinic 5 species of grain, the bracha would be mizonot or hamotzi; otherwise it would be shehakol. The problem is that the Ethiopian community (that derives from First Temple times) has no tradition of blessings whatsoever. So while teff is a traditional food, they can’t tell you what bracha to say. This problem was solved by the Yemenite community. They too, used to eat Teff — but it was not culturally important enough to cause the import of the grain to Israel. With the arrival of the Ethiopian community, Teff began to be commercially imported — and the Yemenites were able to identify it’s appropriate bracha — shehakol.
2. “Shiluach haKan” Soup: Sparrow, Dove, and Pigeon Soup with Straw Noodles and Fleishig Eggs
The sparrow is the wild bird for which we have the broadest tradition — we have hundreds of textual references from communities throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Near East testifying to its kashrut. But without visual identification, the verbal textual references are worthless — and in today’s world, who eats (or shechts), sparrow?
While most eggs are pareve, if removed from the bird prior to the complete development of the egg, the egg is considered a part of the bird and therefore fleishig.
3. Quail stuffed with Boiled Grain
For birds (for which there are no Biblically-mandated signs of kashrut), we cannot broaden the permissible sphere of animals by analogy or comparison — only the specific species that were known can be eaten (there are some curious exceptions). Thus, the European Quail is kosher, but many other very similar species have no tradition of permissibility.
4. Figs stuffed with Slivers of Wild Chicken Breast with Rice in a Sweet-and-Sour Tamarind Sauce
These were simply delicious.
5. Pheasant and Guineafowl in Flaky Dough
With cinnamon. Also delicious.
6. “From Turkey to Kush:” Inverted Pan of Wild Turkey Slivers, Vegetables, Rice and Saffron
The most problematic of all birds from a kashrut perspective, since turkey is a New World bird and therefore could have no mesora of kashrut. This seems to be one area in which practice determined halacha: the birds were imported to Europe from the Americas in the early 1500’s and quickly became accepted eating among Jewish communities throughout Europe and Asia. Only later once turkey was already an almost universally accepted kosher food item was the question of its status debated among poskim, many of whom needed halachic acrobatics to defend the common practice. Today, Israelis eat more turkey per capita than any other nationality in the world.
7. A Pond full of Waterfowl: Duck, Goose, Moulard and Muscovy Ducks in a Honey and Ginger Sauce
It’s the muscovy duck that’s highly controversial, due to its ban in America by the ascerbic Rabbi Bernard Illowy in the mid 1800’s. As such, it is still not recognized as kosher in the States today, but in Israel, no such ban ever existed. Rabbi Illowy was a caustic personality, once remarking that despite the presence of more than 200 Jewish communities in America in his time, there were only four ordained rabbis in the whole country (including himself); and of those four, the other three were students of Bilaam ha-Rasha.
At this point, the chef of the restaurant – Moshe Basson – took the stage to significant applause. With a ponytail and no kippa, he then stunned the crowd by giving a discourse on the Biblical and Talmudic lore of certain herbs, including extensive quotes, botanical information, and novel interpretations of pesukim from the Torah!
8. Cow Udders and Lungs in a light Saffron Infusion
Cow udders are inherently suffused with milk, and as such, need to be prepared in a specific way to prevent their being milk and meat. Even so, the texture is so soft as to be unlike any other meat.
9. Barb and a little Gefilte Fish with Chrain
The barb is a family of freshwater carp, and the particular species here, the Barbus grypus, hails from the Tigris-Euphrates basin. The Talmud calls it shibbuta, and claims it tastes like pork. We all ate it and nodded — but really, who’s to say? Note that the Tigris-Euphrates basin encompasses Iraq, Iran, and Turkey — not easy places for a nice Jewish home-boy to import kosher food from (Turkey is complicated by the fact that in the some areas, the fish is considered sacred — now go try to hook a string of them for a kashrut dinner.) Among the heroic efforts that the team of Aris utilized to ascertain and obtain the fish: use of a U.S. military chaplain (rabbi) during Desert Storm, obtaining specimens from Iran for export to “Europe;” and the assistance of the Turkish Ambassador.
10. Swordfish, Kingklip, and Blue Marlin
Rav Avraham David Moskowitz – an overtly charedi rabbi – stood up to address the issue of the kashrut of the blue marlin, and began by reminding the audience that the Talmud portrays God as rebuking Israel not only for permitting that which God forbids, but also for forbidding that which God has permitted. During the course of his address it became evident that not only did he have a masterful grasp of the halacha, but he could easily discourse with any icthyologist on fish taxonomy and morphology, and he was in contact with scientists in the field.
The blue marlin (served to us in a delightful ceviche) was commonly considered to be kosher. This was threatened when the Orthodox Union drafted a broadly inclusive list of kosher and non-kosher fish species. The list was so broad it encompassed species that the rabbis had heard of but were not familiar with, so they turned to Dr. James Atz, Curator of Icthyology at the American Museum of Natural History to prepare the list. In what some later claimed was an error, Atz included the blue marlin in the list of non-kosher fishes.
Now, blue marlin was commonly sold in many fish stores in hareidi neighborhoods under the street name “white tuna.” So the promulgation of the OU list really didn’t have any impact, because the people buying the “white tuna” had no idea it was technically blue marlin, and the people who put blue marlin on the list had no idea it was commonly bought and eaten as “white tuna.” For years, then, the lists with the banned blue marlin and the displays of white tuna lived side by side in harmony in many kosher fish stores, until someone in Israel put two and two (or white and blue, as it were) together, and the battle began.
At any rate, the blue marlin does indeed have scales, and I’m pleased to report that it thrives quite nicely when marinated, chopped, and served in chilled shotglasses.
The swordfish presents another interesting case history. Widely listed in halachic literature going back to the 1600’s as kosher (and identified by R. Stensaltz as a kosher fish listed in Masechet Avoda Zara), this was banned by the OU after examination by Rav Tendler determined that the fish appeared not to have scales.
Extensive research by Aris Zivitofsky and Greenspan (among others) that the swordfish goes through several stages of maturation, and in the earlier stages does indeed have scales (which qualifies it as kosher), and in mid-maturation range retains scales in the ventral area. Rav Unterman and the rabbanut harashit of Israel maintain that swordfish is kosher, whereas Rav Tendler holds firm to his assessment, and claims that the scales do not qualify as scales for halachic purposes.
We had a small specimen, baked whole and then cut and distributed to the various tables, that did not approach the 4-ft., 200-pd. average for these fish — but it was still durn impressive.
Kingklip is an eel commonly eaten by the Jewish communities of South Africa. Its status is disputed due to the nature of its scales. All authorities agree, however, that if it is kosher it would be nice to have some dredged in bread crumbs and fried.
11. “Bikurim” Beer
We cleansed palates with beer with notes of pomegranate and figs before moving from deep-sea denizens to bovids. This was accompanied by some discussion of whether drinking beer of gentiles was under a similar ban to drinking wine eating food of gentiles.
12. Roasted Skewers of Lamb and Goat over Matzo and Marror
In a fascinating but somewhat technical discussion, we found out that sap in plants of the chicory family impacts a receptor on the tongue which can actually taste bitterness, but heat from horseradish is transmitted via the sense of smell back to the palate.
13. Egg Salad: Baskets of White, Brown, Green, Spotted (Quail), and Oversized (Turkey) Eggs, accompanied by Betzei Shor
Ze matador, he not always ween!
14. Veal Kabobs in Okra Sauce
Made of filet mignon, prompting a discussion of nikur, the procedure for removing the forbidden nerves from the hindquarters of the animal. This labor-intensive process is no longer practiced in the U.S., where the entire hindquarters is sent out to the non-kosher market.
15. “Wild Ox” Carpaccio: Marinated Water Buffalo on a bed of Lentil Stew
At this point, Chef Moshe Basson pointed out to us something disturbing. When many of us think of the red bean stew of the Bible, we imagine the deep red kidney beans. But lentils, though they start out rust orange, actually turn a palid green during the cooking process. So what does it mean when Ya’akov cooked lentils and Esav implored him for “this red, red stew” — it would have been green, not red!! Basson pointed out that use of the word “na” (please) seems out of character for the dramatic, impulsive Esav. Then Basson explained that na in this instance should not be understood as “please,” but rather “raw.” Esav imagines himself to be so famished that he demands the lentils from Ya’akov in an undercooked state, when they are still quite red!! (“Give it to me raw, even while it is still very red….”)
16. Red Deer and Spotted Deer
Spit-roasted whole, it’s the Red Deer that actually causes the trouble here. Rashi is on the record asserting that any bovid without teeth in its upper jaw is kosher. While some authorities believe that Rashi meant to suggest that – if one is unsure of whether an animal chews its cud – a lack of upper teeth is a guarantee of its kashrut; but presence of those teeth do not rob the animal of a kosher status if it has the Biblically mandated signs, other authorities believe that teeth in the upper jaw render an animal non-kosher. The Red Deer does have teeth in the upper jaw, and many authorities deem it non-kosher and claim that you cannot eat it. From a practical perspective that’s not really a problem, seeing as how we didn’t leave any over for you.
17. Dual-Plated Green Salad
Dual plated, since one plate on each table was for show, having been planted with a sizable grasshopper. The senior certifying rav for Tnuva products gave a fascinating discussion. He opened by suggesting that the course was quite apropos for a mesora dinner seeking to preserve the mesora. Given the way certifying authorities are proceeding these days, in several years we will likely lose the mesora that leafy greens are allowed to be eaten at all. He then churned out a veritable laundry list of reasons why the near-hysterical emphasis on checking for insects with microscopes, chemical solutions and geiger counters is overkill.
18. Stir-fried Desert Locust
The Torah lists four types of kosher grasshoppers. We no longer have the mesora as to which species these are — but the Yemenite Jews did preserve the mesora for one species, God bless ’em. They walked us through the identifying signs, and the proper method for consumption after removing the wings, legs, and the head (with a half-twist). There’s a definite market for grasshopper bibs, I believe. It was crunchy, somewhat juicy, and tasted mostly of the soy sauce it was fried in.
19. Frozen Garden of Eden: Malabi Cream with Almond Milk and Hibiscus Flower Reduction
Anyhow, we had a wonderful time and I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom and leave you with one final thought for the Holy Day:
What’s in your cholent?