UPDATE, July 20, 2018, 4:09 p.m.,EST: This story has been updated to reflect the current staff at JIFA and a more current purveyor of heritage birds.
Several years back, Orthodox rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz went vegetarian, a public protest against the modern practices of kashruth (also known as keeping kosher). In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Yanklowitz pulled no punches: “It pains me to say this, but given what I have learned in recent years, I cannot pretend anymore that kosher meat, poultry and dairy is any healthier or [more] ethical than nonkosher food.”
When it comes to meat, the term kosher—a Yiddish word derived from the Hebrew kasher, usually translated as “proper” or “lawful”—may broadcast a message of goodness and purity. It’s a system of dietary principles, after all, one that outlines what observant Jews can and can’t eat. But while the rules go into great detail about processing and consumption, which animals may be eaten (or not), and how they must be butchered and served, they don’t address modern concerns about husbandry practices or animal welfare. Despite the meticulous care that goes into kosher slaughter, there is no provision in kashruth for treating the animals well during life. Virtually all kosher meat is factory farmed—a realization that, for Yanklowitz, was the beginning of a spiritual crisis.
This may not be common knowledge, especially among non-Jews. According to Larry Bain, whose San Francisco food cart sells hot dogs made from locally raised grass-fed beef, many customers think the term signals respect for “the environment, humane animal practices and the health and well-being of the consumer.”
“‘Are your hot dogs kosher?’ is a question asked many times at our cart,” he says. “The question is rarely asked by folks who are Jewish and following the prescribed dietary laws of kashruth, but by folks who believe that kosher is a guarantee of quality.”
Our fuzzy misconceptions have ancient roots. The introduction of kosher slaughter laws was initially seen as something of a “best practices” for Jewish backyard butchers. Famed animal welfare expert Temple Grandin writes that the code “represented major advancements in the respect for animals and their proper handling in ancient times.” For instance, kosher law prevented tearing limbs from live animals, or slaughtering a mother and child animal on the same day. These days, though, some see a wide gulf between the values kosher meat could represent—and what it actually is.
The meal shared traits with other pop-up dinner events I’ve attended: a pre-meal signature cocktail (served al fresco on the swank rooftop); lively, family-style banquet tables; a chef who hyped each course before serving; and menu items like “pickled heirloom radish” and “wild ramp potato kugel bites.” It was a Shabbat dinner, “kosher-style” but not strictly kosher (read: no rabbinical supervision). And the chicken, of course, was the belle of the ball.
There were six breeds on offer, including Bard Rock, Jersey Giant and New Hampshire; each bird was about five and a half pounds. It was served two ways—in a rich, turmeric-spiced bone broth (“Honestly the best chicken soup I’ve ever had,” said Our Name Is Farm chef Liz Vaknin, who prepared the night’s offerings), and roasted in a harissa marinade, punched up with preserved lemons in the Moroccan style.
I sat with Sarah Chandler, (now former) chief compassion officer at JIFA, the group that was instrumental in securing these globetrotting chickens (raised in Kansas, slaughtered in Pennsylvania). Chandler brought a sheaf of laminated chickens-on-the-farm pictures to show around; unlike the photos shown tableside in Portlandia, these pictures were meant to disparage. They were shots of typical Cornish cross chickens (the breed overwhelmingly served to American consumers), not the stately beasts we were wolfing down. “You are eating something much better tonight,” Chandler assured me.
For some dinner attendees—especially those who don’t keep kosher—learning about our chickens’ origins might have seemed de rigueur, maybe worthy of a quick social media brag. After all, pastoral mystique has seeped into much of our heavily marketed dining culture. So these were rare-breed chickens, pristinely raised on an ethical little farm? Cool, pass the Pinot.
But observant diners saw how revolutionary these birds could be—especially for those who feel conflicted about choosing kosher vs. ethical meat. Rabbi Bronwen Mullin, of the conservative Town and Village synagogue in lower Manhattan, says younger members of her congregation have shown increasing interest in their food’s origins. And while finding produce that’s both kosher and organic is no longer such a big challenge, she says chicken is a different story. “Kosher and sustainable are no longer mutually exclusive,” she says, “except with meat.”
Kosher laws have always straddled a fine line in the popular consciousness, a melding of practical food safety concerns and Jewish spiritual practice. But when you parse it all out, there is a seeming arbitrariness to many of the rules, disconnected from health or environment or animal welfare. Why is camel or rabbit meat non-kosher, while goat and cow are fine? Why is there a prohibition on consuming meat and dairy together?
The truth is, keeping kosher is a religious practice first and foremost; the sometimes inscrutable rules do not coincide with a practical, earthly purpose. “Kosher is a godly diet,” says Mordechai Lightstone, a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, “and it is problematic to equate it with human ethical concerns.” To put a finer point on it, take this excerpt from an introductory guide to kashrut practice: “The short answer to why Jews observe these laws is: because the Torah says so…. We show our obedience to G-d by following these laws even though we do not know the reason.”
Still, as Mullin indicates, some modern kosher-keeping consumers would like better meat options. But complicated logistics and high costs mean that kosher heritage meat is still largely unavailable. Kosher slaughter requires a specially trained shochet; no stunning animals before slaughter (a controversial aspect in its own right); and a variety of other specifics, like removing specific fats, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves. Chandler says it’s very tricky to find a slaughterhouse that can meet these needs, and the ones that do charge handsomely.
Add these considerations to the already steep costs of humane husbandry and small-scale slaughter, and most consumers will be priced out. To wit, online retailer Kol Foods is selling kosher heritage birds from the same batch as the OneTable dinner. The price? Almost $35 for a 4.5-lb bird. “A lot of people might think I’m a vegetarian if they observed my eating patterns,” says Rabbi Mullin. “Truth is, I can rarely afford to eat good kosher meat!”
Chandler, who is both a vegan and an observant reform Jew, doesn’t see the high price as necessarily a bad thing. In her former role at JIFA (a subsidiary of the anti-CAFO group Farm Forward), the goal was to encourage less meat consumption overall. Buying a kosher-slaughtered Jersey Giant might set you back plenty, but you’ve made a purchase you can stand behind. Chandler says observant Jews “are already predisposed to strongly monitor responsibly sourced food.”
Still, at the current price point, Chandler does not envision too many home shoppers will be willing to pony up. Likely purchasers would be synagogues, summer camps, and university Hillel Houses—and even then only for special occasions. JIFA’s goal, as it stands, is to get more farms raising heritage birds for kosher slaughter, eventually driving costs down (at least somewhat).
One other hurdle to widespread adoption of kosher heritage chickens is quite simple—these birds are different than most consumers are used to, in taste, shape, and size. When Vaknin signed on as chef and co-organizer of the OneTable event, she thought it wouldn’t be too different from cooking regular chicken. She had a lot to learn. “They’re insane!” Vaknin laughs. “Everything was different, not just feather color. The physical build and the bone structure were shocking. There were leaner, longer, thinner breasts, long legs like turkey drumsticks…plus the challenges of it being a leaner bird.”
Vaknin, a culinary school graduate, says she can break down a typical chicken in 30 seconds. But after her customary tools failed to break through the heritage-breed bones, she ended up sending the chickens to a trained butcher. And besides all that, the taste was different. “It’s more gamey, no I don’t want to say gamey,” Vaknin says. “It’s just more robust, a bigger flavor. This isn’t a disappointing thing. You can tell it’s a really good product, it’s just different. Even the breast tastes like dark meat.”
For some, the heightened flavor profile may be an exciting new discovery, or a welcome throwback to when chicken tasted like chicken. Others might find it takes getting used to. (Just because a chef serves you artisanal mac and cheese doesn’t mean you aren’t still attached to Kraft.) And when the new product costs $35 a pop, well, that could be a hard sell.
It’s early, though, and Chandler bubbles with optimism for the future of heritage kosher chicken. She says 17 Jewish educational farms across the country have started raising heritage-breed chicks. JIFA is also in talks with large-scale Jewish institutions to provide them heritage chicken for special events. Change is often slow and incremental, but Chandler feels there is a strong overlap between devout Jews and ethical meat consumers.
Surely Yanklowitz would agree. “I pray for the day when the kosher meat and dairy industries respect the sentience of the animal,” he wrote, “and venerate the divine in creation.” That day may be one step closer.