We are not strictly kosher, but we do try to keep to some semblance of the laws. For example, we don’t bring any non-kosher meat into our house and avoid eating meat at all that isn’t kosher. We never eat meat from a non-kosher animal. We never eat non-kosher seafood. But, we do buy things that don’t have a heksher (a mark designating the food as kosher), and we do eat out in restaurants, but we stick to vegetarian/dairy. The goal is to continue moving toward being more kosher, so that at least in our house we only have truly kosher food, but we’re not there yet.
The other day, we had dinner at Souplantation. For the benefit of those who may not know, Souplantation is a buffet-style restaurant that is basically a huge salad bar. They also have several different kinds of soups, some pastas, and a few other hot things such as pizza and baked potatoes. It’s all-you-can-eat, and there’s a lot for us to choose from there, which is why we like to eat there. They clearly mark all items as “Vegetarian” or “Non-vegetarian,” which is very helpful when it comes to foods like cream of mushroom soup, that may or may not be vegetarian depending on the stock they use.
Anyway, back to the other day when we had dinner there. My husband chose a soup that was clearly marked Vegetarian. As he got toward the bottom, he felt like he was tasting beef, and, sure enough, he found bits of ground beef in his soup. Those were not supposed to be there, and if he had known it was there before he started eating, he would have thrown it away. So, he told the manager about it, and the manager was very apologetic and gave us free cookies, which, well, who could argue with cookies? He said that the soup was absolutely supposed to be vegetarian, and it looked like some of the chili that was in the next tureen over probably spilled into this one. They tossed the whole pot of soup! The manager thanked my husband for pointing it out so they could take care of it.
This, then, is the problem with eating out. If you’re ethically/morally vegetarian but not bound by any sort of law, then a problem like that would merely leave a bad taste in your mouth (literally), but you didn’t eat the meat on purpose, so you’ll just know to be careful. But, when you keep kosher, this is exactly the reason you don’t eat in a non-kosher restaurant, even if you only eat vegetarian. You never know what has touched what. For example, you can’t guarantee that only vegetarian soups have ever been cooked or ladled using those particular tureens and utensils. There’s plenty of crossover. According to the laws of kashrut, you can’t eat food that was cooked in a utensil that has been used for treif (non-kosher food). So, vegetarian or not, it’s not actually “kosher” to eat it.
I say this only to point out some of the more “hidden” problems of keeping kosher in a non-Jewish world. The short answer is, of course, to simply not eat in non-kosher restaurants, which is really what we’re supposed to do. We make compromises so that we can be more comfortable living amongst our non-Jewish friends, but it is incidents like these that make us remember why keeping kosher is so much more complicated than just “don’t eat pig.” The “extra” laws are there for a reason. You never know when you’re going to get tripped up like that.
I was telling a Catholic friend about the incident, and he asked if we keep kosher. It was hard for me to say yes, because we don’t really keep kosher, but we still try to make some kind of separation between our eating habits and those of our non-Jewish neighbors. We try to acknowledge that we do have this massive body of laws that we’re sort of only doing some of, but I think it’s a step in the right direction that we can admit that we’re not doing it quite right.
I do think that making some kind of nod toward being different is better than totally ignoring the issue. Even if it makes me look hypocritical, I still think it’s meaningful to do something over nothing.