If you watch shoppers in supermarkets, you will see them carefully studying the labels on products they are not acquainted with. Are they checking if the baked beans contain pork, perhaps, or the cookies lard? No. Today most people read labels to stay healthy! Once upon a time, however, the main label scrutinizers were Jews. Few products in the 1950s had a hechsher on the label. The observant consumer therefore carefully studied the ingredients. If the product said contained gelatin or lard, it was of course treif. But with labeling rules lax, if a miniscule amount of lard was in the product, the manufacturer did not have to list it. Or the manufacturer may have greased the pans with animal fat. There was no way to tell.
The growth of nutrition knowledge along with consumer consciousness and health concerns have led to more stringent government regulation of food labeling. Laws now specify that food companies provide information about calories, fat, protein, fiber, salt, and carbohydrates, and more. In addition, they are required to state the presence of major allergens, such as wheat, milk, nuts, and soy. Products may be further labeled as gluten-free, non-GMO, organic, natural (whatever that means), and free of dairy, nuts, and artificial colors – among other information. And, most meaningful for us, of course, many products carry a hechsher, a symbol attesting to their kosher status.
We’ve Come a Long Way
Back in the ’50s, some products were considered kosher by default, and this information was spread by word of mouth. Certain candies were known to be kosher, and they were the ones approved for the canteens of our schools and camps. Drakes Cakes were somewhat of a rollercoaster ride, as one week we heard they were okay, and then a few weeks later they were not okay. Certain vegetarian and dairy restaurants in New York were frequented by many frum Jews, and while not under an official hechsher, they were possibly (hopefully?) inspected by rabbis, who gave a thumbs-up.
In Shearith Israel, M&Ms, which had no hechsher in those days, were given out regularly. Cohen’s coddies were sold in many kosher stores, and while they had no official hechsher, were accepted by most frum people. After all, the Baltimore coddies were a substitute for Maryland crab cakes, and the primary ingredient was potato. Indeed, there was hardly a trace of actual cod fish in the ingredients. Certain sodas were used, so I assume the rabbis checked the plants.
In this world of kashrus chaos, we did the best we could, according to the standards of the time. If a product was unknown, people did their own research, often writing to the company (no internet in those days!) to learn whether it was made in a plant where no dairy or treif substances were used. When it came to restaurants and eateries, some places in Baltimore with no hashgacha were frequented by everyone, based strictly on the reputation of the owners.
These ad hoc arrangements were certainly not a scientific or exact approach to kashrus. But 60 years ago things were not organized on a national scale. Rather, individual rabbanim controlled kashrus in each community, and you relied on a rabbi you trusted. Today, we rely totally on the major kosher agencies, such as the Star-K, OU, OK, Chof-K, and CRC, whose symbols grace the label and represent the product’s kashrus standard. (These major agencies are all reliable, though they do differ in some areas, such as tuna standards, chalav Yisrael policy, and shechita practices.) Technology and food legislation has further improved kashrus standards in many ways. For instance, the larger agencies have thousands of ingredients, flavorings, and spices from all over the world in their databases. (There are also over 1,100 other registered hechsherim available in America, but their trustworthiness is not a given.)
Restaurants, too, display the kashrus symbols we have come to trust. Meat restaurants usually have a mashgiach temidi, a supervisor always present in the restaurant during operations. Other eateries, bakeries and cafés have a mashgiach yotzeh venichnas, coming in and out, making unannounced inspecting of the ingredients and processing of the kitchen and delivery operations. The certifying agency will determine the proper level of supervision for each operation. Standards also vary in different countries. Here in the U.S., all restaurants use only mevushal wines, while in Eretz Yisrael and Europe, restaurants use non-mevushal wines. In those restaurants the mashgiach will open and pour the wine.
Kashrus Tales of Yesteryear
Just as some hechshers today are not universally accepted, controversial products existed when I was growing up as well. There were famous disagreements about shechita standards, the overseeing of shochtim, cheese issues, and even a question about swordfish. One hotel in the Borscht Belt, Grossinger’s, posted swordfish on its menu, and the kashrus world went berserk. Fins this fish clearly had, but its scales seemed to fall off once it was removed from the water. The final psak made the hotel discontinue serving swordfish. Some hotels had a hechsher but allowed check-out on Shabbos. Most frum people, therefore, did not trust the hechsher at all. Other people only went to those hotels during the week.
A question came up about whether hard processed cheeses were kosher or not. One very famous and extremely reliable rav, during a shiur at Yeshiva University in the 1940s, startled the kashrus world with his clear opinion that hard cheeses could be considered kosher. Of course, he based his opinion on halachic fundamentals. But, for the most part, the Torah world rejected that opinion, and only cheeses made with kosher enzymes were allowed. The problem was the rennet, a substance derived from the lining of the fourth stomach of newly-born calves that is used to curdle milk. Similarly, today there are disputes about the kosher status of whey.
In all such dilemmas, the major kashrus agencies today will generally come to an agreement, and most people will follow the standards set by these agencies and not the opinion of individual rabbis.
My favorite kashrus story of the 1950s and ’60s, which I have told often, is about pickled onions. A large jar containing pickled onions sat on the counters of most of the kosher stores in town. They had no hechsher, but the ingredients were fine, so kosher delis and grocery stores sold them by the piece. I loved them and would often buy the delicious delicacy for five cents.
Years later, I was introduced to the president of that company and asked him how he made a living from just the two pickled products (onions and tomatoes) that they produced. He reassured me he was doing just fine because he had a third item. The bestselling item was pickled pigs’ feet. What a shocker!
All kosher stores also carried so-called kosher marshmallows with a hechsher. The problem was that the rabbi who gave the hechsher was no longer alive. Disagreements and opinions by various rabbanim on the kosher status of bone substances like gelatin were a well-known controversy from the 1940s through the 1970s. It died down as other substances, like fish-bone gelatin and other gelatin replacements, were introduced.
Bugs? They didn’t exist in those days! At least we never considered them a problem. We did wash produce and fruit carefully but I do not remember the issue ever coming up back then.
Before Glatt Became Popular
In the 1950s, when it came to meat, you trusted the shochet. His reputation was the most important factor in kosher meat and poultry. Much of the meat was sold un-kashered. If meat is not soaked and salted and properly koshered within three days of shechita, it needs to be washed thoroughly, so the blood cannot congeal. If the meat was not koshered or not continually rinsed and washed every three days, it would become treif. The meat handling was often quite poor, and the proper washing standards were not always adhered to. As a teenager, I was once asked on a Yom Tov to wash down meat that was in a freezer still un-kashered. I can promise you I really did not have a clue what I was doing. I just remember using a spray wand and pump to wash down the meat, as I was instructed. So it became apparent to me that the kashrus standards were sometimes quite lax and probably unreliable.
Today, all meats sold in our kosher stores are kashered before leaving the slaughterhouse. This possibly excludes liver, which has to be kashered in a very special way to get the blood completely out of the meat. One needs to know all the halachos before attempting that koshering process and should check with her rav before attempting it. I remember my mother koshering liver on a drip pan as she koshered it in our home.
In Baltimore, before the advent of the Star-K, we had an unusual situation. The City government employed a kosher inspector. The basis of his job was the City’s consumer protection law that made it illegal to advertise a product or establishment as kosher if it was not. Mr. Lichtenstein, who lived on Clover Road, would visit stores to observe their operations, and while he did not give a hechsher, he would inspect the stores to make sure no obviously treife products were being used.
Passover in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s
Pesach practices were different from what was done all year round – much stricter. Only certified products, produced by heimishe food companies, such as Festive, Rokeach, Manischewitz, Streit’s, Horowitz and Margareten, Lieber, Mrs. Adler, and Season, were used. For cosmetic products like toothpaste and mouthwash, only the heimishe brands Erba, Freeda, and Adwe were permitted. Shmura matza was used just for the sedarim, and there were few processed packaged Passover items. Without the convenience of grocery, refrigerated, and frozen offerings, housewives made many things from scratch, including mayonnaise. Even today, when we have an abundance of items with a hechsher, many women still like to keep Pesach the old way.
When it comes to kashrus, Pesach continues to be in a class by itself. During the year, there are just over one million kashrus-observing consumers and other Jewish persons who purchase kosher products. But over five million people purchase kosher lePesach food items. That is why a good 60 percent of all kosher sales take place each year during the eight weeks before Pesach.
Here in Baltimore, we owe a special hakaras hatov to the Star-K for setting a high standard in kashrus. The Star-K is more than a local kashrus agency; it has become an important and world-renowned player in the kashrus world. With offices in China and many other countries, the Star-K dispatches mashgichim (kosher supervisors) all over the globe and certifies many products and ingredients. They work together with the OU, the world’s best known and largest kosher certifier, as well as the Chof-K, OK Labs, the CRC, and the many other reliable kashrus agencies to ensure that thousands of food companies carry kosher certification. The kashrus industry has a huge network of dedicated kashrus experts, worldwide. It employs many thousands and provides parnassa for many families.
The rise of the kashrus agencies, with their high standards, has meant that kosher food with a hechsher comprises 40 to 45 percent of the dry grocery products on the shelves of major chains, such as Giant, Safeway, Shoprite, and Wegman’s. Not only that, but you can find kosher food in practically every spot in the United States. Chalav Yisrael, pas Yisrael, glatt meats, and yashan are readily available in most major Jewish Orthodox communities.
Locally, completely kosher supermarkets, like Seven-Mile Market and the soon-to-be-opened Season’s, make the kosher buying experience very easy for the consumer. (Seven Mile is one of the world’s largest kosher food markets.) The local Giant, Shop-Rite, Sav-a-Lot, and Shoppers are well stocked with dry grocery and frozen foods. Pareve foods are plentiful, too, and the consumer has many choices in every food category. In general, keeping kosher today is really quite easy.
The bottom line is that we should be very happy with how far the kosher category has evolved and with the abundant product selection available. We owe a great hakaras hatov to the kashrus organizations and to their many thousands of dedicated mashgichim and support employees for making kashrus reliable and convenient for us all.