By Sol Weiner
Kosher hamburgers are only as Southern as you want them to be.
For years, my mom has eaten exactly one hamburger a year. The burger, procured from the Tiferet Israel Kosher Chili Cookoff, is nothing special: a once-frozen Glatt Kosher patty, thrown on a long grill with hundreds of others, the grill marks pre-burnt into its body. The usual accoutrement are all there – lettuce, tomato,pickles, and onion, hastily stacked between two spongy white buns.
The Kosher Chili Cookoff, our synagogue’s annual fundraiser, is a celebration of our Texas Jewish community. When it began in 1993, it was small. Now every synagogue and Jewish non-profit in Dallas sets up early in the morning and cooks chili on that Sunday in March. In Dallas, it stands as its own Jewish holiday: instead of chopped liver, we eat chili dogs; instead of Kiddush wine, we drink Shiner and Lone Star Beer. The Rabbis dance with cowboy hats and bottles of Tequila.
Growing up, my family kept our own version of a Kosher home. We followed the law closely enough that we would not eat un-Kosher meat. Kosher meat is not cheap, and the Cookoff was my one chance a year to eat as much as I wanted. For that one day, we were all part of our red meat-loving Texas culture, which also placed us, even if marginally, in the larger framework of the South. Most of the year my Kosher diet embarrassed me because it meant that we were different, possibly even unrooted. If we couldn’t eat barbecue at Sonny Bryan’s or Gulf Coast shrimp, how Texan were we really? That one day in March, though, We could be Jewish, Southern, and Texan, and do it on our terms.
My parents haven’t always kept Kosher. Neither had the stereotypical Jewish mother who forced plate after plate of whitefish salad in front of them; both of my grandmothers came to Judaism upon courtship and marriage. Not being able to eat treyf myself, I lived vicariously through their stories of childhoods spent eating bacon and barbecue and shrimp. Seeing my mom eat that annual hamburger was a spectacle – when I watched her eat it, even without the thick layer of melted cheese, I imagined her as a kid in San Antonio eating cheeseburgers from the Whataburger.
When my older sister was born, our parents drifted to a Jewishness they had not known in their childhoods. My mom tells me that having children forced her to think of what she would pass on to us. She wanted to give us tradition, a lineage, so they began keeping Kosher. Growing up, our lives were enmeshed with the goings-on at our very traditional synagogue. My parents were very involved, and the Cookoff was central to that experience.
One year, Mom told us she wasn’t going. I think I may have been fourteen or fifteen. She was tired, she said, and the crowds were exhausting. I was thoroughly surprised – I couldn’t remember a Cookoff my mom didn’t attend. “Could you bring me back a hamburger, though?” she asked. I took the order. “You want a hamburger?” I responded. “The hamburgers aren’t that good.”
Next year it happened again, then again. It became a ritual of its own.“Can you bring me a hamburger?” she would ask as I was on my way out of the house to the Cookoff. In time, I would learn what was keeping her away from the Shul: a falling out between her and her best friend. Eventually, Dad quit volunteering too, and then stopped attending all together. Being involved was no longer a pleasure; it had become a stress.
I never considered the possibility of removing the burger from what I considered its unnatural environment: the synagogue parking lot. Was that even allowed? If I could remove the burger from that setting and take it somewhere else, was it a different hamburger? Then I wondered, where did it even come from in the first place? And why does my mom keep eating it?
The route my mom’s burger takes each year to Texas is, in many ways, the story of my own family’s coming together on Southern ground: migration and rootedness, cultural sharing and cultural appropriation, Jews and Chicanos and Southerners making something new out of something old.
The burger starts as one of many cattle in a feedlot in Iowa, or Texas, or maybe Argentina. Wherever it starts, it won’t stay there long; it must travel the country for proper seasoning. This cow, the source of the meat, hardly resembles the limp hamburger it will soon be. It guffaws and snorts and kicks up dirt. It looks mostly the same as all the others.
This particular cow ends up at the Agri Star Plant, the massive Kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Its owners slaughter nearly 250 head of cattle a day. Even before they are formed into patties, these burgers already have a distinctive Texanness about them – when the plant could no longer find undocumented laborers, they bused in workers from homeless shelters in Texas.
The meat is quickly broken down, then hanged and cooled for the better part of a day. Ground beef is formed into patties by a machine that spits meat into uniform circles and flash freezes them. The next day, a trucker drives the burgers from Iowa to the distribution center in Brooklyn or Miami. It’s a long trip on a route that ensures that the burger is sufficiently Jewish. It sits just long enough to accumulate value, demand, and an unmistakable yiddishkeit. That same day, somebody from the Tiferet Israel Brotherhood in Dallas orders 1,000 hamburgers; another trucker drives it from one of the warehouses directly to the side door of the Tiferet Israel meat kitchen.
The burgers sit in the meat kitchen walk-in freezer for a week, conversing with frozen chicken parts and large, unwieldy briskets. After picking up a Texas twang, the burgers are brought out the first Sunday in March to the parking lot in their television-sized boxes. David Hart, president of the Brotherhood, is wearing an apron that says “SHALOM, Y”ALL,” and as an early afternoon bead of sweat drops down the bridge of his nose to his mustache, he picks up a pack, tears the plastic open at the seams, and throws them on the grill.
He hands me a burger in a plain white box. I look inside to make sure my order is correct, and I stare at it like my former teachers in the crowd stare at me, sizing me up and judging my potential and registering disappointment. The patty is warm, but the lettuce and tomato and bun are cold. It smells like wet smoke. It is mostly uninspiring, but this burger isn’t for me. Out of obligation and ritual continuity, I carry it home to my mother.
When the burger crosses the threshold of our doorway, through the mudroom and up three stairs into the kitchen, the burger finally and fully realizes what it was meant to be: a Jewish communion wafer, but instead of consuming the body of Christ we are forced to contend with our own indigestible identities. We are not allowed to sacrifice animals at the Temple altar anymore, because there is no Temple. This will have to do.
In travel, things pick up meanings and collect places like suitcases full of souvenirs. Ingestion, though, is a total commitment to what that thing stands for. We bring the food toward our mouths, and it crosses a barrier from the outside world to the Self, becoming a part of us. We take what we need from it, as well as some things we probably don’t, and make waste of what’s left. If the item itself is conflicted and ambiguous, we will know it in our guts.
When my mom picks up the burger, she brings it to her mouth but hesitates – a detour in an otherwise straight shot. She knows I’m watching.“I don’t like meat so much anymore,” she tells me. “It makes me sad to think about the cows.” I suspect that the burger leaves the same taste in her mouth as does a lost friendship, a severed tie, or nostalgia for an un-Kosher childhood – a simpler time. What could be more Jewish and Texan than the physical and spiritual indigestion that comes from eating food that, regardless of its complicated past, we will eat nonetheless? If anybody makes sense of themselves through eating, it is the children of the Jewish Diaspora who ended up in the South.
It is not necessary to remove dust and debris from animal prior to slaughter. This pre-seasoning is the secret to its terroir.
-1 Cow, slaughtered mostly in the proper Kosher manner, with all proper blessings
-1/4 pound of ground beef
-A very fine layer of desire (twenty-four hours in a meat locker should do)
-No cheese (this is important)
-No more than two or three drops of the cook’s sweat. Any more than that is too much salt.
A perfect burger will be cooked well-done, and one should be able to taste a combination of charcoal smoke and freezer burn (an acquired taste, to be sure).