Oct 5, 2009

The Ultimate Kosher Culture Shock

Last year, Tuvia had mentioned something called "The Big E" to me when I asked him whether states out this way rock State Fairs like we do in the Midwest. We missed it last year because we were newly dating and our schedules weren't meshing, so we'd vowed to go this year to the gigantic fair that honors all of the states out here -- Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. I was stoked that we got tickets and managed to find a small window of time to go this past week. But boy oh boy was I in for a serious shock.

We arrived at The Big E fairgrounds with dozens and dozens of other cars, people schlepping on food, and RVs pulling in for the long-haul. We parked, walked through piles of mud, handed them our tickets (which they digitally scanned, which I thought was odd considering fairs in my mind are old-school), and went on our way. We wove our way through sheds and jacuzzis for sale, landing out near the Midway and near what would be something I wasn't prepared for: Fair Food.

When I was a kid, we once drove to the fairgrounds in Missouri, driving around for hours trying to find an empty hotel room, just to see some butter sculpture of Garth Brooks. We ate fried food, funnel cakes, gigantic turkey legs, and every fried goodie in between. You see, the Midwestern way when it comes to fairs is to consume as much as you can that is either fried or on a stick, or better yet -- both! You drink soda or hot chocolate or a big slushie, chow down on a deep-fried Twinkie, and marvel at gigantic vegetation or animals.

As we walked around the fair, I was reminded at how un-Midwestern it was. Yes, they had all the food trappings (the fried dough could be smelled from every corner of this place), but to see the gigantic animals you had to pay a buck. It was disappointing. But the buildings all housed the basic goods -- ShamWOW!s, choppers and knives, various pet goods, and the obligatory "Pray with Us" booth and the "Abortion is Wrong" booth with a gigantic fetus plastered on the booth wall.

As we walked around, I was feeling starved. All I wanted to do was buy some fried pickles (a classic Southern Missouri/Northern Arkansas treat), grab a basket of cheese fries, and top it off with some funnel cake. But I couldn't. I couldn't even approach the stands. I couldn't even consider it.

I'm kosher.

So imagine my delight when, after entering the craft corner, Tuvia shouted "Chavi! Look! Kosher!" Yes, there we were, in front of a candied nut booth that sported a local hechsher. Nuts. This is what I can eat at a fried, fatty-filled fair? Nuts? Cinnamon candied nuts? That's it? Okay, that's a lie. Tuvia managed to grab a coffee (a locally hechshered brand, mind you) while I had some chai (also kosher). We thought about purchasing a pretzel, since the brand that's plastered all over the heating elements is one that's kosher. But who's to say that the pretzels IN there are kosher?

As we walked through the state houses, we discovered Ben and Jerry's and a local dessert ice place, as well as a placed that was dishing out baked potatoes (with OU-certified Cabot [barf] sour cream), but by then we were worn out. Tired from all the food we couldn't eat. Or maybe it was just me. Tuvia's a Jersey boy. I'm a born-and-bred Midwestern with a palate for fried cheese and treats on sticks.

I know that it's just food, but food is how we socialize, it's how we relate to one another, the world around us. And being there, on gigantic fairgrounds spewing food that we couldn't eat, was depressing. It was a culture shock. The reality of my situation really hit me then.

Since early June, I've only eaten non-kosher once (it was a Jones for some TGIFridays). It's not so bad, but it is hard. I like to eat out. After all, my Yelp profile is full of eateries in Chicago and Washington DC and even here in Connecticut. Unfortunately, in Connecticut, the closest kosher restaurants are in Waterbury and that's just deli and pizza. If you want something real -- sushi, burgers, barbecue, steak -- you have to schlep to Monsey or Boston or New York.

I haven't had a cheeseburger in probably five years. That goes the same for shrimp and pork. If I consumed pork or shellfish since then, it was by no knowledge of my own. It took me a while to warm up to the idea of no meat and cheese. Don't get me wrong -- I've been doing no beef/dairy for years. But the chicken/cheese took me a while to really figure out. Keeping kosher dishes and containers and pots and pans and stuff hasn't been so bad. It's been staying healthy and kosher that's been the biggest problem for me. But I'm working on it. I'm back on my Morningstar Burger bent. Amen for Morningstar.

How do we do it? How do Jews in the boonies (not that Hartford is boonies, but I can't even go to the deli and get a sandwich for Pete's sake) manage without kosher restaurants? We all get tired of cooking, especially when it's the same stuff over and over again. Even trying new dishes can burn you out. I just know that when Tuvia and I are in Israel in two months that coming back will be difficult, if not impossible. Having kosher food at your fingertips -- even having that cultural mindset of kashrut -- will blow our collective minds into submission to those pushing aliyah.

But one thing's for sure: I can never go to the fair again.

Until, of course, they offer something kosher and delicious. How hard would it be to put up a kosher booth? After all, The Big E states are full of Jews -- Connecticut and Massachusetts especially. Do Jews not go to the fair? Maybe I'll start my own fair. Or maybe that's what the Purim fair is for. Who knows.

Either way, this Kosher Cornhusker can't go home again. At least, not with a corn dog in one hand and fried cheese on a stick in the other.


Levra said...

If you want to go to a fair, or other places, not selling kosher food doesn't have to spoil your enjoyment. It just may take a different mindset and different expectations.

You can be creative, like bringing food with you or eating before you go. May not be as easy or what you prefer, but it can work.

Enjoy the non-food aspects and gradually (when you've done it enough times) the food parts may seem less important.

Anonymous said...

You'll find the middle ground that you're comfortable with. To go from eating non-kosher meat to eating only in kosher restaurants is a big leap. After you convert you might decide to eat out selectively as some of the long-timers do. Which we do precisely because we remember a time when observant Jews did eat out selectively before kashrut went crazy about 30 years ago, and because we want to live in the larger world.

Anonymous said...

After having experienced the same issues and experiencing the same frustrations, I hit on the idea of buying an inexpensive propane portable barbecue. With that in my trunk, I just toss frozen steaks in the car and go. There are usually farm stands selling fresh corn that can go on the grill along with the meat. A box of plasic utensils, steak knives, spices, etc completes the outfit.
In most cases, there are special tents set up for eating, and I have never experienced any trouble using this set-up.
Previously, I had tried the self-heating meals, but they were too chemical-tasting, and sandwiches which didn't fill the need for a hot meal.
Yossi Ginzberg

pam said...

Hey Chavi! As you know, my daughter Chloe is allergic to peanuts. Our rule for Chloe is that unless we can check the label on a food she can't eat it - so normally fair food is out. Chloe absolutely loves going to fairs of any kind - she loves the rides, the crowds, and all the excitement. She also loves food. Our solution? We pack a bag full of treats that we know are safe for her to eat. Whenever we pass a tempting food booth we dig into our foodbag for a trusty alternative.

Chloe's allergy can be very scary - we always have to carry an epi-pen and we have to watch out for well meaning strangers (such as dunkin donut workers who love to offer her a munchkin). But luckily, Chloe has been very mature for her 4 years - when someone offers her a treat, she knows that she can't have it but that I'll give her something as soon as we get home to make up for it.

Halloween is coming and she's looking forward to trick or treating. We take the candy she gets and disperse it where Neil works and refill her bag with candy we buy ourselves.

My point? There are solutions to these types of food problems. I've often been out to the fairs, zoos, or amusement parks and thought why can't they just have one peanut free booth for kids like Chloe? So I can certainly identify with your situation. But until that happens we just have to be creative so that we can continue to enjoy going to places that don't cater to our needs. It may be a pain but it's certainly worth it in our case to keep Chloe safe.

KosherMidwesterner said...

I am from Missouri and we definitely don't have restaurants to eat at. But I've grown used to that, and it really has just made me that much better a cook in the home. If i go to a fair and see these delicious foods, I either tell myself, thank G-d i cant eat that bc imagine how fat I would be getting, or I go home, Google a recipe for it and make it (if its not too hard). Do you know how easy Funnel cakes are to make!? They are very good and very kosher accessible. They are also very unhealthy, so its better that i cant just whip out my money and buy some. Convincing yourself you dont actually want it eventually works. Good luck! :)

Chaviva said...

You all have given me outstanding advice, really. But I think the point here is being missed.

No matter how much I prepare -- bringing my own food or eating enough to puke before I go, or even making my own fried twinkies at home -- it doesn't equate to the sensation of that experience of being at a fair, partaking in the fair goods, being a part of that crowd.

I think Pam might understand it best -- she knows what it's like to go to a fair or zoo or carnival and partake in that atmosphere and the goods it has to offer, but Chloe probably never will. She's sort of lucky in that way.

Having grown up with that experience, I know what it's like, and I know how much it hurts me in a sort of ... memorial sense ... to not be able to have those experiences anymore. It probably sounds stupid. I don't miss shellfish or cheeseburgers. But I almost cry thinking that I can never venture into Arkansas to the AQ Chicken House for fried pickles. That place is a memory for me.

Maybe my health is better for it, probably my wallet, too. But when you have a scent-filled, sensory-driven memory that is so potent that you can feel it throughout your body, and knowing that you'll never know that sensation again? It hurts. It hurts the heart.

Dunking Rachel said...


I think I understand your lament...

I often think about my more conservatively orthodox neighbors...I think sometimes, especially the more traditional folks, are lucky...they have fewer choices...my life is full of choices...difficult choices...My husband and I are conservative...I tend to skew more traditional than some....but when we are sitting home on a Saturday with no visitors and no where to visit...boy oh boy that day gets long...then there is the food! I think if I lived in Jerusalem or even in a hard core area of the 5 towns (NY) I wouldn't feel so askew....
Not feeling like I fit in...

there is a street fair in town...in the past that would be a food bonanza...zeppoles, sausage and peppers, the smells remind me of my youth...but this choice of mine changed everything...I have tasted all the “forbidden” things...and to be blunt...although I do not eat it now, I used to love bacon....fired clams, mussels in white sauce....there is something that can feel isolating, separating about the food choice...that is why sometimes I fantasize that one of those more insular communities would be easier... when we were in Israel...the food thing was great!

But I live in the world...the world of choices..the world of shell fish and gefilte fish ....I made the choice to be a Jew...in the new life it is sometimes hard to be around the old life...not that I am tempted..it is just hard.....any choice, even a spiritual/positive one has a dimension of loss....change has implicit and explicit loss...and the fair.....is a living breathing mirror on how so much has changed....


PS I am a lot older than you...I converted at the age of 48......

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

I can't afford to eat out in NY but when I am in Los Angeles, I engorge myself. They have so many options on one big strip that you don't even notice that keeping kosher is an issue. Theme parks and international travel are hard. I was never a "pack a snack" kind of girl but when you're kosher, you have to be. It's a little daunting--especially, the international travel. Most of my friends pack a giant suitcase full of food. I'm grateful that for my husband, the FFB rabbinical school, this is all old hat and he's showing me the ropes of dealing with this kind of stuff.

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