On the Jewish food scene: Neither meat nor milk, sort of

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“What’s this par-va thing,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. That question came from the mother of a non-Jewish friend. She’d just learned she was allergic to milk and her doctor told her to look for the kosher symbol with the word pareve next to it. Although this was long before I was a rabbi, I still knew enough to explain that, if a product was pareve, that guaranteed it contained no dairy or dairy byproducts.

If she had asked me the question today, I might have gone on into more detail since the idea of pareve is an interesting one (although I might have given my usual promise to stop talking when I saw her eyes glaze over). The basic idea is that a pareve food contains no meat or dairy products. That means fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts are pareve. They can be eaten with meat meals and dairy ones. However, while grains themselves are pareve, that doesn’t mean that everything made for them is. As any person who has been on a medically restricted diet soon learns, it’s all the ingredients that count, not just the type of food. So, breads can be pareve or breads can contain milk. In fact, any cooked or prepared food may contain some ingredients you would least expect. (If you don’t believe me, just watch a few episodes of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “They put that in there? I can’t eat that!”)

There was one pareve food I left out of my list above and that’s because it’s the one most difficult to explain: fish is pareve. Yes, technically, fish is neither meat nor milk, and can be eaten with both meat and milk meals (although some folks feel so uncomfortable about that they serve fish as a separate course on its own dishes). That means the divide between meat and milk is not one between living animals and plants. In fact, in biblical times, fowl (chicken, geese, etc.) were considered pareve. The division seems to be between animals whose mothers feed their newborn babies milk, and those who do not. Chickens and other fowl lay eggs and have no milk to give. For a variety of reasons (which I won’t go into here because your eyes would glaze over), fowl came to be considered meat, but fish still did not receive that designation. 

If I had to guess why I became so interested in Jewish food studies (most of my research papers in rabbinical school had something to do with food), it’s probably because of the many medical diets I’ve been on. Those who’ve shared meals with me recently would probably be surprised about how picky an eater I was as a kid. My mom once quipped that I was the only person she knew who could look at a restaurant menu and find nothing to eat. If the food wasn’t made exactly the way I ate it at home, then I wasn’t interested. When I was a kid, I even wished we could just get our food as a pill. Ah, the phrase “the foolishness of the young” comes to mind when I think about that. But all my health problems taught me one thing: no food – no matter how much I liked it – was worth getting sick over.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to pinpoint what causes problems – just ask all the people who try to figure out if a food triggers their migraines. 

Food – and eating – can affect us psychologically, not just physically. However, that’s a topic for another day. I’m just glad that the little kid who showed little to no interest in food now enjoys the wide variety. I’m try to remind myself when I’m not thrilled with a meal that I should be grateful that I have food – even lousy food – to eat. So, whether you prefer meat, dairy or that “par-va thing,” enjoy your meal. As the Israelis say, “Beteavon” (bon appetite)!”