Kosher USA follows the journey of kosher food through the modern industrial food system and recounts how iconic products such as Coca-Cola and Jell-O became kosher, the debates among rabbis over the incorporation of modern science into Jewish law.
Roger Horowitz has written about food for more than 30 years, but his latest book is also an homage to his family.
Horowitz, who grew up in a kosher home in New York City, said his uncle, Stu Schwartz, inspired him to write Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food.
“It’s a thrill to have the book published,” Horowitz told the Jewish Exponent. “I feel I’ve answered the challenge that Stu gave to me a long time ago.”
Horowitz, 58, of Landenberg, is a food historian and director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library at the University of Delaware.
He previously wrote Negro and White, Unite and Fight: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–1990 and Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation.
Kosher USA follows the journey of kosher food through the modern industrial food system.
It recounts how iconic products such as Coca-Cola and Jell-O became kosher, the debates among rabbis over the incorporation of modern science into Jewish law.
It tells how Manischewitz wine became the first kosher product to win over non-Jewish consumers and the techniques used by Orthodox rabbinical organizations to embed kosher requirements into food manufacturing.
Horowitz’s path to writing the book began at a family party in Manhattan in 2005, where he gave a copy of his then-recent book, Putting the Meat on the American Table, to his uncle.
A few weeks later, Schwartz called his sister, Louise Horowitz, and asked why her son didn’t write about kosher food. She passed along the idea, but the uncle died in 2006 before they could speak.
“Stu kind of reminded me, ‘You know you have a Jewish background, you have the knowledge, shouldn’t you apply it?’” Horowitz recalled.
While Horowitz has no Jewish studies training, his expertise with food and his mother’s ability as a lawyer to help him research helped make the process enjoyable. In addition to speaking to his father, David, and his mom, he frequented the New York Public Library and the Center for Jewish History in New York City.
The process was going well, but hit a roadblock when his parents died within a month of each other in December 2010 and January 2011. That slowed the book’s completion.
Before their deaths, however, he learned a great deal about his family.
In the 1950s, his parents and grandparents were breaking the fast after Yom Kippur — and things did not go smoothly.
Louise Horowitz’s parents, Bernie and Charlie Schwartz, were Conservative, and his paternal grandparents, Abe and Florence Horowitz, were Orthodox.
The Schwartzes brought a sturgeon to the meal, which sparked a debate over whether it was kosher.
“The book became much more involved with my family than I originally thought,” he said.
He recalled how Florence Horowitz would take his mother to shop for meat and insist on seeing the kosher marks before she bought it.
She did not trust the butchers, and it drove Louise Horowitz crazy.
The non-family stories are equally interesting.
For example, one of the first foods to become kosher was Coca-Cola, Horowitz said. Rabbi Tuvia (Tobias) Geffen, who served as the chief rabbi of Atlanta from 1910 to 1970, was instrumental in making that happen.
Geffen discovered that the soda contained glycerin, while the ingredients were processed with grain alcohol, neither of which is kosher.
So, after consulting with chemists, they found a way to make glycerin from cottonseed oil and have the alcohol distilled from molasses.
By the 1980s and 1990s, kosher food became popular throughout the country.
People were ordering it everywhere because of concerns about bacteria in their food and the Jack in the Box scandal; 732 people were infected with E. coli in 1993 from undercooked hamburger patties.
“People started buying kosher food because they think it’s better,” Horowitz said.
He explained that the biggest surprise he found was the cross-culture impact of Manischewitz wine.
He said that in 1950, 80 percent of its clientele was not Jewish, but African American.
“That’s not something that I expected,” he said.
With the book now complete, Horowitz believes his family would be pleased.
“There’s some kind of a very good feeling you get when you don’t just publish something that is smart and interesting, but a book which is meaningful that allows me to take my family and give them a place in history,” he said. “When I wrote about them, I had to think what would they think about what I wrote.”