The Kosher Conundrum: When Another Diet Clashes with Gluten-Free
By Andrea Neusner, Delight Contributor
They say you are what you eat, but we all know you are also what you don’t eat. For example, vegetarians don’t eat meat. Observant Jews don’t eat pork or shellfish. And people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance don’t eat gluten. But when you are more than one of those things—a kosher-keeping celiac—your food choices shrink enormously. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, that was my problem. I saw a future for myself, a kosher-keeping Jew and healthy mom living with celiac disease, wasting away on a diet of “no thank you” and water.
The word “kosher” literally means “proper” or “fit” to eat. But making something kosher is far more complex than getting a rabbi to bless the food (a common misapprehension). There are kosher laws regarding the fit-ness of different animals—pork and shellfish being the most well known offenders. There are also kosher laws regarding the way animals must be raised and slaughtered. There are kosher laws forbidding the mixing of meat and dairy products together, which means that in a kosher kitchen, cooks use separate “milk” and “meat” utensils, dishes, and pots and pans.
But unlike following a gluten-free diet, keeping kosher isn’t exactly a one-size-fits-all system. Many kosher Jews bend the rules, one way or another. There is often the same number of different ways of keeping kosher as there are Jews in the room. There might even be more than one way of keeping kosher for every person. After all, there is how kosher we are at home. How kosher we are when we eat out. How kosher we are when nobody’s looking. How kosher we are in front of our in-laws!
I have cycled through many stages of keeping kosher. I grew up in a kosher home but we ate “kosher style” out of the house, meaning no mixing milk with meat, no shellfish, and no pork products. In college, I was an omnivore in the most literal sense. I tried everything. When I got married, I established a kosher home. Later, I decided to stop eating all non-kosher meat out, and also eliminated shellfish and pork. No mixing meat and dairy products, even when no one was looking. Eating out for me was pizza or pasta, tuna salad sandwiches, and maybe an occasional piece of fish.
Keeping kosher taught me to be mindful of everything I eat and to be grateful for those foods that are “fit” for me. It meant thinking of food as more than fuel but as a blessing. It meant thinking of my identity every time I sat down to eat. Modern American life can be an endless gluttonous feast, and being kosher reminded me that just because cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizza are available around the clock, eating without thinking is not fit or proper. It was a three-times-a-day (or let’s face it, usually more) check-in with myself as well as an affirmation of my identity.
And so, when I got the diagnosis of celiac disease in my thirties, I was ready for more of the same. Not only was I used to thinking about what I ate, but I was used to reading labels and checking ingredients.
One of the tips I got was to have two sets of dishes, one for gluten-containing foods and one for gluten-free foods. That’s great advice for most, but I already had two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy. I had no desire (or cabinet space) for four sets. I wasn’t going to give up having a kosher home—my husband and I were still committed to raising our children in a kosher home and we wanted our friends and relatives who keep kosher to continue to be able to eat in our house. So in the house, we kept things as before, while adding some new “rules” to keep out kitchen safe for gluten-free eaters: no double-dipping, hand-washing after any gluten contact, no cross-contamination, and so on.
However, I still had the problem of what to do outside of the house. I struggled with wanting to do the right thing. The trouble was figuring out what that might be. Almost all of my fallback options on restaurant menus were now prohibited. I talked to my rabbi, hoping there was some sort of Jewish law permitting the eating of non-kosher food because of allergy or illness. There was not. I talked to orthodox Jews with celiac disease, seeking advice—and perhaps a miracle diet. Turns out they didn’t eat out much. And while my kosher-keeping husband and I have managed to share some delicious kosher-friendly, gluten-free meals in restaurants, those experiences are rare. We are the highest-maintenance of diners. Sometimes, the angst isn’t worth it.
In the end, I had to make a choice. I could not imagine myself living the rest of my life eating only at home, without restaurants. I could not possibly loosen up on my gluten-free rules—they were absolutely necessary for maintaining my newly good health. In trying to balance my two competing food identities, one had to win. And so I decided that outside of my house, I would not limit myself to kosher food only. I will order beef, chicken and other items not produced by kosher standards, and the entire time, I worry less about my soul and just pray that my restaurant meal isn’t going to make me sick.
I still am grateful for my kosher-keeping upbringing. It was an excellent preparation for what it means to be gluten-free. I still must pause and consider every time I eat whether or not the food on my plate is fit for me. It has taught me to be grateful for every specially made gluten-free meal. It has taught me that food is more than how we fuel ourselves. In the end, however, I had to listen to more than my soul’s wishes. I had to listen to my gut.