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Word of the week: kosher

Kosher foods are those that conform to Jewish law (kashrut, Jewish dietary law). For any adults reading these lines the word kosher could probably be counted as Universal Knowledge. Twenty years ago I used the word to mean safe (legit, on-the-level), in the way that Arthur Daley in “Minder” might describe a business transaction. Before that, while still at school, I learnt a lot about kosher food from a Jewish friend who became much more observant after a visit to Israel.

We already knew that things like pork and shellfish could never be kosher, and that there were rules about having red meat and dairy products together: it’s a no-no. You can’t have a glass of milk or a piece of cheese with your steak, so any cheeseburger is, by definition, non-kosher, no matter where the meat is sourced. He went to a lot more detail, checking whether his favourite snacks were also kosher. Back then, it turned out, neither Mars bars nor Polo mints were. The trays that Mars bars were placed on during their manufacture were greased with pig fat. The device that created the hole in Polo mints was also greased with pig fat. He started eating Trebor mints instead (they were kosher) and gave up eating Mars bars.

This knowledge has led me to small moral dilemmas with friends and work colleagues in the decades since then. In the early years of the last decade (which I am happy to call the noughties) a Muslim work colleague ate Mars bars most days. We discussed Halal food regularly after the nearby sandwich bar (called “Stuffins”) changed ownership and served only Halal food. The breakfast baps no longer contained bacon. The sausages were made of Halal beef. He praised the quality of the chicken, told me that you could really taste the difference. I asked him if he had checked whether Mars bars were acceptable as Halal (he was eating one at the time), and told him about my school-friend giving them up because of the pig fat on the trays. He hadn’t checked, he carried on eating, and I left it to him.

Someone I knew in the 1980s, who was vegetarian, was a big fan of a brand of Huntley & Palmer luxury biscuits. I made the mistake of checking the ingredients, found that they contained animal fat and realized that I had to make a decision: tell him, thereby depriving him of one of his favourite snacks, or not tell him, and know that despite his vegetarian principles he was still eating animal products. After some thought I decided not to tell him: I didn’t know him that well, and in anything that you care about you should always do your own research.

Speaking of research, until drafting that previous paragraph I hadn’t checked for over ten years whether Mars products are acceptable for anyone on a kosher or halal diet. It turns out that they now are, according to various news items and consumer group websites. This list of halal and non-halal chocolate bars doesn’t specify that Mars bars are halal but lists plenty of other Mars products that are (Milky Way, Snickers, Twix). This article in the Jewish Chronicle, from June 2009, announces the change to kosher-friendly chocolate.

Digging into this subject further reveals that an issue that affected my school-friend over 30 years ago still exists. Some items are declared kosher by the authorities in London but not by the Manchester Beis Din. Back then he chose to follow the advice from Manchester. This article (“Mars Bars – Kosher in London, Not Kosher in Manchester”) shows that it’s still relevant now.

As I have mentioned in these posts many times before, my wife is Jewish and I am Catholic. Her family do not currently follow a strict kosher regime. We were at her parents two nights ago for a very enjoyable Passover meal. Everything that we ate could have been kosher (no prawns, no pork, no snails) but might not have satisfied the authorities in Manchester in the way it was prepared. Generally my dietary habits come closer to the kosher way than my wife’s: I avoid shell-fish and pork most of the time. For me it’s mainly an issue of safety: a dodgy prawn or a badly cooked piece of pork is more likely to give me food poisoning than most of the other things in my diet. If you want to go as far back as possible and check the source for all of this, Leviticus Chapter 11 is the place. I have just taken a look and found that rabbit and ostrich are also specified as unclean. That’s news to me, but I wouldn’t have to change my dinner plans even if I did follow a kosher diet.

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