by Sala Levin
No expression is more emblematic of the balancing act between Jewish tradition and American assimilation than “kosher-style.” Though mutable, kosher-style typically denotes “a certain type of cooking or preparation that’s reminiscent of Eastern European Jewish dishes but made without kosher ingredients” or the kosher supervision process, says Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University. “It wants to both be Jewish but it wants to be less expensive and doesn’t want all the rigmarole of the supervision.”
When it appeared in the 1920s, kosher-style satisfied the yen of assimilating Jews to feel that they were eating in a Jewish style without necessarily following Jewish dietary restrictions. “To use another food analogy, it’s like wanting to have your cake and eat it, too,” says Diner. For American Jews, it was “good enough that it was redolent of immigrant-era food.” It is a uniquely American innovation, although the idea has roots in the 19th-century German practice of fressfroemigkeit (“eating religion”), which referred to Jews who displayed their religious affiliation only by partaking in traditional foods on holidays.
While there are many American Jews who practice fressfroemigkeit, kosher-style is a much broader term. It can encompass any food that, in theory, could be kosher, whether that means chicken noodle soup or pareve meals such as fish or vegetarian dishes, even if not kosher by Jewish legal standards. Critics point out that the term is “oxymoronic,” says Diner; it merely creates the illusion of kashrut. “Kosher isn’t a style of cuisine; it’s a style of slaughter or supervision.” Under Jewish law, corned beef can be as kosher as sushi, foie gras or kung pao chicken—or as treif.
In post-World War II New York, Baltimore, Chicago and other cities with large Jewish populations, kosher-style was primarily used to describe restaurants that served salami, corned beef, pastrami—deli foods. These establishments functioned as “safe places for Jews to bring their non-Jewish friends,” says Sue Fishkoff, author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority. Jews could eat food they liked and “be proud to show off to outsiders.” Kosher eateries of the period were “hole-in-the-wall affairs in Jewish neighborhoods,” says Fishkoff, but kosher-style diners were more stylish. As some do today, these restaurants sometimes even served outright treif dishes such as pork chops or cheeseburgers.
The concept of kosher-style food also made it easier for Jewish families to tinker with the strict rules of kashrut at home, freeing them to pick and choose. Households, for example, could forego kosher meat because of the expense or inconvenience, but avoid ostentatiously treif foods such as shrimp or pork chops. And the term also inspired food companies, small and large, to market products as kosher-style, in particular pickles, and not always with kosher supervision. On grocery store shelves, kosher-style became indistinguishable from Jewish-style or “New York-style,” code for Jewish. Confusion arising from kosher versus kosher-style prompted some states to issue consumer-protection legislation barring use of the words “kosher-style” on food labels without proper notification that the food in question is not, in fact, kosher.
Today, one of the most common places to bump into kosher-style food is at weddings, b’nai mitvah, galas and fundraisers. A kosher-style meal can entail a vegetarian spread, a main course of the omnipresent salmon, or meat served without dairy products—depending on the venue. Charles Levine, president of Baltimore’s Charles Levine Caterers, says that for most Reform synagogues in Baltimore, “kosher-style just means no shellfish and no pork; you can mix meat and cheese.” At other synagogues, “you can’t serve a cheeseburger” or caterers are allowed to serve only dairy products. Creative caterers long ago learned to reinvent non-kosher dishes with kosher ingredients, says Levine: “You take rockfish from the [Chesapeake] Bay, and it tastes like crab imperial.”
With the tremendous growth of the kosher food industry—and its expansion into the organic, local, vegan and gluten-free arenas—kosher-style now seems less meaningful than it once was. “As kosher has become more fashionable, kosher-style as a concept has fallen out of favor,” says Fishkoff.
Still, there is plenty of nostalgia for traditional foods and kosher-style eateries such as delis. “There’s a yearning for those kinds of places,” says Diner. “There are very few kosher delis any longer. We have high-end kosher steakhouses, and that’s just not the same thing.”