Slaughtering a Turkey, Considering Kashrut

June 14, 2010
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Tali Biale

Let me say this straight-out: I don’t keep kosher. I never have and, truthfully, I don’t ever intend to. My family is culturally very Jewish, but when it comes to following specific rituals and laws, our penchant for skepticism and rebellion tends to win out. Why, then, would I write an article about the very laws I like to ignore? Primarily, my deep commitment to and love of food. Food has taken me to Bologna, Italy, a place where food is more a way of life than a simple source of nutrition; through the hot, sweaty kitchen of one of New York’s best-known restaurants; and, most recently, to a small farm in rural Vermont, where I shoveled manure, threw hay bales, and chased sheep into their pasture in exchange for a chance to eat food right out of the ground. If food could motivate such travels, surely it could bring me to contemplate a set of laws so integral to my religion. I wanted to understand these laws and see if, kashrut cynic that I am, even I could discern in their midst some life lessons.

Last Thanksgiving, I made a choice that evoked endless questions and discussions, garnering equal amounts of heartfelt praise and sincere disgust: I slaughtered my own turkey. When November rolled around, I decided to head north from New York to the farm in Vermont where I had lived the previous year to help with the slaughter of 26 home-grown turkeys. I knew I wanted to serve one of those turkeys at my Thanksgiving dinner, supporting my farmer friends and feeding my guests the most natural, organic, free-ranging turkey I could find. Originally intending to buy the bird already beheaded, defeathered, and ready to roast, ultimately I decided to take more responsibility for the turkey’s demise.  I had spent the better part of my summer and fall raising this bird; I felt I should see the animal through both its life and death. Just as I had ensured that it lived a good life, I wanted to give it a quick and humane end, acknowledging everything required for this bird to become dinner.

The rabbis created the laws of kashrut because they understood that the questions of what and how we eat are fundamentally linked to the notion of who we are. By setting up dietary boundaries, kashrut formed Jews’ collective identity, strictly separating them from their surroundings and reminding them to treat every meal as sacred. That Thanksgiving turkey, and the meal surrounding it, became the most sacred meal I have ever eaten. It was a clear acknowledgement of who I am and what matters most to me — cooking food that I know for people I love.

In an age when Jews feel relatively secure in our communal identity, I grew up thinking that kashrut just didn’t fit into my life. Although I don’t intend my kitchen to follow the laws of kashrut and I do not separate milk and meat, I have found that the lessons we absorb from kashrut are now, perhaps more than ever, of paramount importance. When so much of our food is prepackaged and bears little resemblance to its origins (before its detour through a lab or factory), we would do well to remember that food is sacred and eating is undeniably an act of self-expression and self-identification. Kashrut asks us to take a step closer to our food: to know where it came from and how it made its way onto our plates, and to acknowledge the process of eating. Viewed in this way, maybe I’m not that far from keeping kosher after all.

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Tali Biale keeps one foot firmly rooted in New York while the other dangles somewhere in rural New England. In the city, she teaches cooking to children in Harlem, practices yoga in Brooklyn, and cooks for her friends. In the country, she convinces farmers to feed her and let her work for them for free.

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