Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Survival Kit: Living Without Kosher Restaurants

I'm a student, and I'm not particularly fond of cooking. (Though I'm a great chef's assistant!) And the closest kosher restaurant is 2 hours away. How on earth do I survive??

It's not for the faint of heart.

The answer is pretty straightforward. I cook at home, I eat at the homes of others, B"H for the growing kosher frozen foods market, and I take advantage of traveling! My cooking skills have improved exponentially despite my best efforts not to cook. Thankfully, even though I may not like cooking, apparently I'm not too bad at it. Even better, between 1/2 to 2/3 of the items in your local, run-of-the-mill grocery store are kosher. (Check with your rabbi as to which hechshers are recommended.) Yes, most of those are the name brands, and you will pay a little extra. (Going kosher is expensive. Didn't anyone tell you that?) If you have trouble getting anything, it will be kosher meats, cheeses, and wines. Nowadays, you can order all these items in bulk online. Several communities use services like the KC Kosher Coop to order in bulk as a community and have the items delivered every month or two.

Granted, it can be kinda boring to eat at home all the time. You will inevitably make the same 5-9 dishes. On the other hand, you'll be forced to be creative. Thanks to Leah Sarah, I now make awesome enchiladas! And to dispel any myths, I did not lose weight from not being able to eat out. Apparently you can get fat at home just as easily as in a restaurant :)

The worst? Figuring out you mistook something for a hechsher and the food you just went to the pantry for isn't actually kosher. (Especially when you're new, remember to double check!) Being aware of the mitzvah of not benefiting from mixtures of meat and milk, most nonkosher foods can be given away. Heaven knows my co-workers have inherited SO much food from me during the last year!

Here are some suggestions for your sanity (some of these are untested by me):

  • Figure out if you can eat/drink something from somewhere. I spend a ridiculous amount of reward points at Starbucks. It's just nice to have someone make something for you. Don't underestimate that psychological benefit.
  • Make friends with the good cooks in the community. If you're desperate, take whatever cooks you can get.
  • Try gardening. You'll have more ownership over the meals you prepare.
  • Claim you're going on a diet. Then you can justify a "raw foods diet" because you're too lazy to make anything but salads.
  • Cook in large batches (only slightly harder than cooking an individual meal) and freeze the rest in meal-sized portions so that you can defrost enough for one meal at a time. This is ideal with enchiladas, soup, breakfast burritos, quiche, stew, lasagna, and most any other kind of food.
  • If you're new to kashrut, consider having a meat-only or dairy-only kitchen for a while. I still have a mostly-dairy kitchen, and I added meat things as I decided I needed them. However, almost all of my meat supplies are still disposable. Hello, my name is Kochava, and I'm a fleishig phobe. (I hate being fleishig!)
  • Host meals or dinner parties. This way, you feel less like a hermit among your nonobservant/non-Jewish friends, and you have an excuse to get creative and surprise yourself! If you're a conversion candidate, be very careful here
  • Don't feel tied to a cookbook if you don't like them. I bought 15 kosher cookbooks for a quarter each, and I've used them twice. A) There are incredible recipe resources online. (The Food Network website is my favorite!), B) You probably know cooks who can give you suggestions. (Hi, Dad!), and C) you might be able to create a dish all by yourself! It's really not that hard.
  • Have a stash of ready-made frozen food and other ready-to-eat foods. You'll be less tempted to go for easy treif. Students, this goes triple for you.
  • Deal with any eating-out-of-boredom issues. This is particularly a problem with students. I'm sure you could survive fine without dealing with this issue, but it will be easier if you can break the habit/compulsion.
  • Take advantage of trips to larger Jewish communities. Pig out. You'll be glad you did.
  • Remember to treat yourself with foods you love. Continue to eat Mexican food or whatever. And buy/make a special dessert every so often! Going kosher doesn't have to be as ugly as a crash diet. 
  • You don't have to have gefilte fish in your kitchen if you don't want it there. Insert whatever other stereotypically "Jewish" food you hate. Except matzah. I don't like matzah, yet there it is, staring at me from the cupboard. ::Shudder::

B'hatzlacha and bon appetite! Feel free to share your own suggestions/horror stories in the comments!


  1. One good suggestion as well, especially if your Rabbi won't hold by certain hechsherim of prepared frozen foods is to make your own! Making soup for Shabbos? Make a whole ton and freeze it into individual plastic bags. Same goes for enchiladas, breakfast burritos, quiche, stew, lasagna, and 10,000 other foods you can think of! Even though it's still not eating out, it really helps with that "I am so tired I can't think, but need food in me" times :)

  2. Although kosher coop is a good idea, the KC guys will only sell and ship for a minimal order of thousands of dollars (I don't recall the exact sum). So, you must all ready have a group of families who keep kosher and are willing to purchase together.

    Ours, for instance, is a very small 'kosher keeping' community. We can't make the minimum order. So, we have a large freezer in the beit midrash and order meat in, that others in the community may then buy.

    Our nearest kosher restaurant is about 6-7 hours driving in either direction. When my wife and I go to Denver, we end up having breakfast, lunch, and dinner out just for the novelty. And all Denver has to offer is pizza and a kosher deli (which also serves breakfast).

    Another consequence of all this is the burden of entertaining. A really small observant Jewish community not only lacks restaurants; it lacks homes that keep kosher. In such a community, with maybe only 3-4 households that keep strictly kosher, the community burden falls on these few people all year long for everything? Event in the little synagogue? All the cooking gets done in one or two homes? Out-of-towners need a place for Shabbat? Always the same one or two homes. Someone in hospital needs kosher food? Inviting people home for a Shabbat or holyday meal? Passover seder? It all falls on the same one or two homes - all year long.

    So, a restaurant is not only a relief or fun place to occasionally go; nowadays it is a sign that a Jewish community has a certain critical mass of observant people who create the demand. We have done just fine without a kosher restaurant for many years. It isn't a condition for keeping kosher or being generally observant. But it does help create a sense of community and growth, rather than a few struggling individual households.

  3. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    I am reminded of the single shtetl girl's lament, "A tischeleh. A benkeleh. Oy, a balebustela zich tzu zein!" ("A little table. A little chair. Oh to be a balebusta of one's own!")
    Aside from the contrast to that room of her own Virginia Woolf always wanted, (a nice girl, but she couldn't make a kugel), this rings familiar to me. One of the big steps in feeling I was Really Jewish was keeping my own kitchen and standing guard over my sink and stove. I am among the least domestic of women, but I have uncovered a Polish/Moroccan streak that drives me to feed my guests, especially when they happen to be single.

    Fleishiks, or rather, keeping a segregated kitchen, isn't such a big deal, Kochava. Everyone has the occasional Lost Pot Syndrome, but most minor violations can be taken care of with minimal loss. If you ever study the halachot "inside", you will be shocked at how much most of us start out confusing kashrut with cooties.
    You will need a rabbi to coax you into accepting that many situations end up being kosher anyway, because you won't believe it at first. And you won't have the disadvantage of "This-is-what-we-always-did-at-home Syndrome", or "My Mother, The Gadol HaDor".

    Taharat hamishpacha is at least as complicated and daunting, and I never heard of any BT couples deciding to live celibate rather than deal with the confusions.

  4. "Curmudgeonly" adds:

    You don't like gefilte fish? How could anyone like gefilte fish? It's much less appalling than grits.

  5. Leah Sarah: Added :)

    And Curmudgeonly: I don't like grits either! I'm a terrible Southerner. Though I'd take grits first.

  6. Now for a slightly more detailed response!

    Curmudgeonly, it's not that I'm afraid of having meat things in the kitchen. I just hate being fleishig because I love dairy! I only wait 3 hours and that is still too long.

    Rabbi Scher, you're very right. That's incredibly difficult (and expensive for each of you!). As a rabbi, I can understand why you're there, but what about the others? What keeps them there when it could be easier elsewhere? My original community (at the time) didn't even have frozen meat available, but we had a restaurant. In retrospect, it was very weird.

  7. I'm not here to be 'rabbi'. That happened by itself. We came here for my wife's work. The young family who are the major movers behind our beit midrash came here for the husband's work. All connected to 'The Labs', aka LANL. That's how it often happens. I don't know if there will ever be a significant observant community here; but I could see a few other families coming out here for the Labs.

    Years ago, when I taught in Houston, the community was just beginning its serious upswing. A fair number of people at the Young Israel came there because of the Medical Center (including MD Anderson, of course), NASA, and the geology research/oil industries. A few came for the universities. Later it all developed into a significant observant community. That was possible partly because all the 'big city' infrastructure was more easily developed. In little towns like ours, developing an observant community and resources is more of an ongoing challenge.

  8. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    Grits get a "no" vote from me. I only like cereals you can put milk and sugar on.

    By the way, 2 corrections in my typong "...a balebustelah BEI zich tzu zein"

    "How could anyone NOT like gefilte fish?" I like gefilte fsh and I can not lie. Especially with chrayn. That goes double for the jelly. I have to admit that this was the one Jewish food my father was afraid to try. This is a man who would eat ANYTHING. My mother was always afraid to send him to do grocery shopping alone because he kept coming back with frightening-looking stuff.

    Eating fleishik is a great way to avoid sweets because all the best-tasting stuff is milchik. This makes it much easier to stand up to temptation; in fact, if you're fleishik, it might as well be a piece of styrofoam soaked in motor oil.

    My kids had this phobia for years (fear of being fleishik, not fear of eating styrofoam soaked in motor oil.) As if someone was going to come through their window at 3AM and offer ice cream in the middle of the night. Go figure.

  9. Another nay for the grits.

    I'm vegetarian, so starting and keeping a dairy-kosher kitchen couldn't have been easier (well, as these things go). The last two years, I've picked up a pan for pesach (first a wok and then a grill pan) and integrated them into my kitchen afterward. They WERE pareve, for bringing food over to friends' for meat meals, but I inevitably end up frying homemade paneer on the wok, and making panini sandwiches on the grill. Maybe it's just because I don't have to watch the milk-meat-pareve distinction on a day-to-day basis, but it's really easy to make a quick but, AFAIK unrepairable mistake. At least with me it's just resulted in more dairy dishes.

    P.S. I've found vegetarian cookbooks to be awesome for keeping kosher. And there's one for every style of food!

    P.P.S. "Aromas of Aleppo" was a gift from a secular jewish friend. It's a beautiful syrian jewish cookbook with no milk-meat combinations, and vegetarian modifications for a few things for dairy meals. I can't recommend enough.

    P.P.P.S. I've heard celiac cookbooks have a good portion of pesach-friendly recipes, especially if you're sephardi. Has anyone tried one out?

  10. Hi there,

    I've just begun the magical conversion process and there are no kosher restaurants in my hometown. The only kosher food shop is closing down...

    Anyway, so I can buy online but I face a specific issue. I live with a non-Jew who has no intention of adopting any religion whatsoever. SHe has been very supportive and there is no issue with me cooking kosher food for myself using only kosher equipment, however, she will bring treif into the house. I don't have to eat it, obviously, but it's still in our kitchen.

    Is this a problem, even if I only eat kosher food?

    Thanks guys :)