One frosty winter evening, I was sitting at my neighborhood ramen place, solo amongst the throngs at the counter, about to dig into a big bowl of noodles and broth. A soft egg was floating along the top, the whites barely able to contain the yolk, which was just asking to be set free with a wooden chopstick, and I could smell the smoky sweetness of the shredded duck meat. I was so hungry.
And just as I was about to do a full frontal dive into the rich broth, the bowl was swiped right out from under my porcelain spoon. The server gave me a mildly reproachful look.
“Eric,” he said, “you forgot to tell me you don’t eat pork. Luckily, Tommy noticed before you took your first bite.” The server nodded his head toward the end of the counter, and there was the chef/owner, smiling at me.
“We got you covered, bro,” he called down. “Just make sure you remind the servers, next time.”
My fresh, non-porky bowl of goodness came moments later, and I dug into it, my forehead immediately shining with perspiration.
I don’t eat pig. I haven’t since I was 13.
We were living in LA, and had gone through a sort of Jewish renaissance after moving there. Although we were always raised conservative (which is often seen as the level of observance between reform and orthodox, though the landscape has changed significantly since those days), our family was uneven in our religious practice — we’d always go to services on the High Holidays, would keep Passover, and the girls and I attended Hebrew school from early on — but we didn’t always remember to light the candles on the sabbath, and my dad loved pork chops and ribs.
But once we moved to Chatsworth, and joined a synagogue there, we were adopted by several families. We found our daily lives enveloped in the warmth of the congregation. My mom went to adult education classes. She eventually had a bat mitzvah. My sisters and I went to Hebrew school two nights per week.
And suddenly, Friday nights became sacrosanct for the family — Shabbat dinner was a special time of prayers, readings, and song (and laughter, because that’s the kind of family we were). As a teen in later years, being forced to eat dinner at home on Fridays was annoying. But in those days, they were the best night of the week.
I trained for months to be ready for my own bar mitzvah, and that practice brought the importance of my religion and culture into my consciousness in a profound way.
When my middle sister won a drawing during a Jewish festival, the rabbi from Chabad (an orthodox organization) came by the house to bring her prize (anyone remember the Merlin handheld game?). He sat with the family for an afternoon, and the two of us bonded immediately. Rabbi Chaim invited me to spend a Shabbat at the yeshiva where he lived and taught.
My parents were ambivalent about this idea (to say the least), because they believed the organization could be cult-like in its practices (note: my mom is now longtime Facebook friends with the rabbi). But they let me go.
I was bussed into downtown LA during 7th grade, so Rabbi Chaim picked me up after school one Friday in a fan full of yeshiva students. I’d stowed an overnight bag in my locker that day, and was thrilled at the idea of spending a weekend away from home. We stopped at a grocery store, so the boys could buy something special for the sabbath (they mostly chose shiny red apples and California oranges), and then we went to the mikvah (the Jewish ritual bathhouse), which was a very foreign and strange experience for me.
I slept in the dorms that night, and then went to breakfast and services and Torah study with the other boys the next day. After sunset, the rabbi took us all go-carting. He had me call my mother from a payphone when we were done.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Mom, it was awesome,” I answered. “I love it here.”
“Did you take everything with a grain of salt, as I asked?” Like I said, she and my dad were worried I’d be brainwashed.
“No,” I said, in all of my 13-year-old wisdom. “You have it all wrong.”
“Please put Chaim on the phone,” Mom said.
Still, my parents allowed me to continue to spend the occasional weekend with Chaim and the yeshiva boys (damn - that would make a good young adult novel!), in spite of their misgivings. Maybe they saw that my passion for my religion wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, or maybe they just didn’t want to fight it, thinking they could always reason with me when they needed to. They didn’t love when I started wearing a yarmulke and tzi-tzit to school, but they must have known I’d sort myself out before long.
And it was true. After awhile, I realized that level of practice and observance wasn’t sustainable for me, as a young teenager. I didn’t really feel like wearing a yarmulke around, and I wasn’t always excited to go to services. But I knew at the same time that I wanted to find something that would always remind me of my heritage and beliefs. Something that would keep me intentional every day, but that was still sustainable in the longer term.
So I decided to stop eating pork, and I told my parents.
“You know you won’t be able to eat BLTs anymore, right?” my father asked me.
“Yep,” I said. “I know. But I think I can do it.”
“And no more pepperoni pizza, either,” my mother added.
“Pepperoni is made from pork?” I asked in despair.
But, somehow, I managed to give it all up—pepperoni and BLTs, ribs and pork chops. My family had already stopped bringing pork into the house, and we’d begun reading ingredients on food labels, looking for lard and animal fat (which put Twinkies and Hostess Fruit Pies off limits for years). So it wasn’t always easy, but wasn’t always terrible, either.
A couple years later, feeling somewhat hypocritical when people would ask why I didn’t eat pig, but did eat shellfish, I asked a rabbi about my decision. He told me that pork had larger associations with Judaism—that it was used as a tool for desecration of the great temple by Jewish traitors. That it was a symbol of betrayal. He told me that my choice had symbolic weight, and that any decision to be more intentional about my behavior was a worthy one.
And that’s my explanation to this day. I do eat shellfish. And I don’t eat pork.
Last week, I was at a benefit for the family of a local cook at one of my favorite restaurants. It was one of those deals where you make a donation and get free food and drink for the evening (tipping is essential, of course).
When the first server walked by me with a tray full of delectables, I reached for one while asking, “Do any of these have pork in them?”
He grimaced. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They all do.”
“No worries,” I responded, “I’ll happily drink my dinner tonight.”
The next server came by with a different tray of food, and the scene repeated itself.
And then the first server walked up to me again, and said, “Hey, this is our ceviche — no pork! You should take two!” Not long after that the second server came with yummy chickpea croquettes (one of my favorite things on the menu), and encouraged me to dig in, as well. For the rest of the night, both gents made sure I was full of ceviche and croquettes. And though that wasn’t enough food to keep me from getting sloshy, it sure was delicious, and I was gratified by the way they remembered to take good care of me.
With pork belly and bacon playing such a big role in today’s cuisine, often as a shortcut or a crutch for adding flavor to a dish, I'm always asking. I know my dining companions don’t love that, and the servers occasionally need to head back to the kitchen before they can answer my question. It’s not a major hardship, but it’s also not frictionless. Even fish dishes can have some sort of piggy product in them. This adds a layer to dates, too, of course, because it opens up a whole new conversation about who I am and what’s important to me.
But the act of asking, and of being careful about what I order (I do love to eat, after all), often leads to me retelling the story of why I stopped eating pork, and why I continue to do so. It acts as a reminder to myself that I made a conscious decision as a kid, and gives me a chance to think about, honor, and respect that decision, even when it’s incredibly difficult (or disappointing).
I eat less meat than I used to, after pressure from my baby sister (who worries about my health after Dad refused to stop eating meat when he first got cancer), and because I’m becoming more and more concerned about the environmental impact of livestock grown for our consumption. Maybe it’s easier for me to do that because I’m already conscious about what I put in my mouth. Or maybe it’s just that alternative options, like crazy delicious fish and veggie dishes, are more available now. Either way, the fact that I have been careful about what I eat after that time with the rabbi is still meaningful to me.
Simone gets it, too — she knows my story, and she was raised pork-free. At some point, she’ll decide if that decision is right for her, but I have a feeling that her spiritual connection to our heritage will inform her choices. That’s all I can do as a parent, of course — provide her with experiences and education and trust that she’ll choose a meaningful path.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep eating ramen, even if I drool over the porky broth that my friends order, and I’m going to chow on pan-roasted striped bass. I can get a pizza delivered and cover it with turkey pepperoni, and I can do some serious damage at the all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ without going near the pig products.
Sure, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but I still feel good about it.
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