The Food Movement, Culture, and Religion

A Tale of Pigs, Christians, Jews, and Politics

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Jonathan Schorsch
  • London, UK: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , January
     2018.
     121 pages.
     $39.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319717050.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Food Movement, Culture, and Religion: A Tale of Pigs, Christians, Jews, and Politics, Jonathan Schorsch doesn’t “give a fig if some Jews choose not to keep kosher” (88). However, he is concerned that some Jewish leaders in the food movement fetishize pork and disseminate information about kashrutthat he argues is potentially damaging to Judaism and to the food movement’s goals (3). Schorsch focuses his attention on Michael Pollan, whom he selected because he is a “sophisticated journalist” and “one of the leading public intellectuals of the food movement” (2). Pollan is also Jewish. Schorsch argues throughout the book that Pollan misinterprets the laws of kashrut and promotes an ahistorical understanding of omnivory that fails to take Jewish history and foodways seriously. Schorsch aims to use the example of Jewish foodways to broaden the conversation within the food movement to include a discussion about what is lost when cultural and culinary difference are ignored in deference to universalism. 

The book is divided into short thematic chapters that together comprise a slim but densely packed volume.  After he lays out his argument in the first chapter, Schorsch turns his attention to the history of Jews, Christians, and pigs in the second chapter. He argues that Jews have long been the subject of exclusion, oppression, and sometimes violence based on their refusal to consume pork, and that this history is not acknowledged by contemporary Jewish foodies who publicly profess their love for it. He cites the contemporary example of an interview Marine Le Pen gave in France, in which she suggests that school lunches should not be altered to cater to religious dietary restrictions; this shows that those who don’t eat pork are understood to be manifesting “religion,” while those who insist others eat pork are not understood to be doing the same (13). In the third chapter, Schorsch moves into a discussion about Pollan and other Jewish foodies and what he suggests is their “noticeably negative” (19) attitude towards Judaism. He notes that Pollan “seems to have a real beef against Judaism as a religious system,” and argues that this is because Pollan’s understanding of kashrut is “simplistic and inaccurate” (25). In the fourth chapter, Schorsch digs deeper, and contends that Pollan is predisposed to misunderstandings of Judaism because he is driven by “modernist, materialist, and rationalist” (29) views compounded by a dedication to neoliberalism that has him prioritizing individual choice over “culture and cultural traditions” (29). 

Schorsch uses the fifth and sixth chapters to provide a corrective understanding of Jewish foodways and Jewish dietary laws. He argues that Jewish tradition contains an ancient “cosmological culture” (35) similar to the traditional foodways that Pollan and others idealize. Schorsch describes biblical and early rabbinic practices such as expressing gratitude for meals, allowing land to rest, and redistributing produce to the poor and powerless (49), which Pollan admires in other traditions but doesn’t see within his own. In his discussion of kashrut, Schorsch clarifies that the laws do much more than simply distinguish Jews from their neighbors. He engages a variety of scholars, including Paul Rozin, who Pollan cites frequently, to show that that, instead of dividing people, the dietary laws often facilitate alignment in the lives of individuals and bolster their relationship with the divine (58).  Schorsch also explains that Pollan’s understanding of the dietary laws as “unbending” (62) is inaccurate, because rabbis have always modified Jewish law in relation to their context. 

Chapter seven serves as the lynchpin of Schorsch’s argument and sets out his most compelling intervention. He offers a historical overview demonstrating that while some Christians did observe varied food rules throughout history, they also “idealized” and “often sacralized omnivory,” which he describes as “the idea that no animal or ingredient was inherently impure or problematic to eat” (79). He shows that this Christian tendency to “exclude and denigrate” (79) those who don’t eat everything has carried over into the modern context. So, Pollan and others are operating based on the assumptions of a normative Christian framework that they don’t appear to recognize or understand, and are perpetuating age-old xenophobic ideas, knowingly or not, in their call for universalism and omnivory.

This book is a vital contribution to a growing body of critical literature that seeks to create space within the food movement for diverse voices and perspectives. Religious food activism most often occupies the fringes of the movement, and Schorsch himself briefly engages this tendency when he offers a description of Jews who engage in the movement as Jews “generating their own version of the food movement” (50), as though they are on the fringes by choice and not by default or design. Relatedly, there are Jewish voices in the mainstream food movement who do take culture and tradition seriously. Michael Twitty, recent winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Book of the Year for his book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, comes to mind as a prominent Jewish figure in the food movement whose work offers a different and more positive engagement with cultural foodways than the examples offered by Schorsch. What Schorsch doesprovide is keen insight into the structures that are relegating religious foodies to the fringes, and an understanding that cultural and religious traditions are not at odds with the goals of the food movement. Schorsch ends by expressing his hope that a “powerful partnership” (97) could emerge if food movement leaders begin to take cultural traditions seriously. That lies out of Schorsch’s control, but The Food Movement, Culture, and Religion offers a clear path for altering the food movement to be more inclusive of Jewish and all cultural foodways. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adrienne Krone is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Life at Allegheny College.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Schorsch is Professor of Jewish Religious and Intellectual History at the Universität Potsdam and founder of the Jewish Activism Summer School, Germany.

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