Starting as a niche segment of the American food industry, kosher food has become ubiquitous, with more than 70,000 products certified as kosher and close to 15 billion dollar business in annual sales. How kosher food became such a major segment of the marketplace is the subject of Roger Horowitz's engaging book Kosher USA. Horowitz explores how an ancient set of rituals governing food consumption among Jews was transformed by modern science through the fascinating story of how everyday foodstuffs like Coca-Cola (which contains glycerin), Jell-O (which contains gelatin), and Oreos (which originally contained lard) succeeded in becoming kosher, frequently over the vociferous objections of Orthodox rabbis for whom ingredients derived from non-kosher animals were patently unacceptable.
Just as departments and interdisciplinary programs in Food Studies have sprouted up in colleges and universities throughout the country, the study of Jewish food has mushroomed. Hasia Diner's seminal Hungering for America (2008) spawned a spate of academic books on the history of particular Jewish foods, including Maria Balinska's The Bagel (2009), Laura Silver's Knish (2014), and my own Pastrami on Rye (2015). Gefilte fish, pickles, and rugelach await their chroniclers. At the same time, economic history has been its own gold mine for Jewish studies, with many exemplary works, such as Adam Mendelsohn's award-winning book on the rise of the clothing business, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire (2014), and Rebecca Kobrin's edited volume Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism (2012). Horowitz's timely book straddles these trends; it is situated at the junction of gastronomic and economic history.
An independent scholar who directs the Hagley Library of Economic History, Horowitz's two prior books focused on the American meat packing industry, Negro and White: Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–1990 (1997) and Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (2005). With Kosher USA, Horowitz again looks at meat, but this time in a kosher framework, and he also examines many other types of kosher food.
The author frames each chapter with anecdotes from his own life and then weaves personal reminiscences throughout the narrative. For example, the book memorably opens with the relatives from the father's side of his family refusing to eat the sturgeon (which they deem to be [End Page 314] non-kosher because of its deeply entrenched scales) that is being served for a Yom Kippur break-fast by his maternal grandparents, triggering an epic battle that became part of family lore. The author's family members become characters in the story just as much as the rabbis, scientists, food manufacturers, and others for whom whether or not a specific food is ultimately authorized as kosher has significant ramifications for how they conduct their businesses or their lives.
Horowitz demonstrates that these stakes were great, not just for companies that wanted to sell to kosher consumers, but for those consumers themselves, as the kosher food market began to go mainstream after World War II. He quotes numerous letters from Jewish supermarket shoppers to rabbis, asking if foods that they can feed to their own families are the same foods that their neighbors and friends are buying. The answer, unfortunately, was usually no; it often took decades for the rabbis' controversies over these foods to get settled. Horowitz also looks at non-Jewish customers for kosher products, specifically African-Americans, who, in the 1950s, before Hebrew National's "We Answer to a Higher Authority" and Levy's Rye Bread, "You Don't Have to Jewish to Love Levy's" advertising campaigns that aggressively targeted non-Jews, became the nation's biggest consumers of Manichewitz sweet kosher wine.
It is when Horowitz traces the history of kosher meat that his narrative is the most compelling. The kosher slaughter industry was huge, especially in New York, during the first two decades of the twentieth century. While Horowitz does not cite...