Dairy meals, dairy restaurants, and dairy dreams

Trip Start May 19, 2009
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Trip End Jun 16, 2009


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Flag of Israel  , Yerushalayim,
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I've been here two weeks now and I'm finally getting a handle on what the word "dairy" means. It isn't what you think.

For instance, we were invited to a "dairy meal" at a friend of Rich's for Shavuot (I'll explain that in a minute). I assumed that this meant we would be having cheese platters and maybe some yogurt or ice cream. Rich doesn't do dairy (in the American sense), so I was surprised when he said it would be all right with him.

We went. We had dairy. And yet we didn't have anything that would bother a person with lactose intolerance. How can that be? Well... dairy is the opposite of meat in the kosher world. Kind of like dry is the opposite of sweet with wine or salt is the opposite of sweet with snacks. This is sort of a rabbit's hole, so you'll just have to dive down it with me for this post.

In the kosher world, from what I can tell, there are four types of foods: meat, dairy, neutral, and banned. Let's start with the easiest one first: banned. Observant Jews do not eat shellfish or pork; I'm sure there's a longer list, but that's enough for starters. In practical terms, this means it's very difficult to find a shrimp cocktail or bacon in Jerusalem (no longer impossible, but still difficult). The next easiest to understand: meat. This is almost what you would expect-chicken, beef, lamb-but it doesn't really cover what can be served in a meat restaurant. I'll come back to that. Dairy in itself is pretty simple: milk, cheese, yogurt, etc. But what is a dairy meal or a dairy restaurant? That's where the neutral foods come in.

Pop quiz: fish. Is it meat or dairy?

Eggs-meat or dairy?

The answer, clearly, is neither. Both fish and eggs are neutral. As are veggies and fruit. The important thing here is that observant Jews can never eat meat and dairy in the same meal. They can either eat meat or dairy, but never both at the same time. (There are completely obscure and unfathomable rules for how one is supposed to determine what type of meal one is able to eat at any given time of day, but I won't even try to explain those. For a very funny explanation of all things Orthodox, try Shalom Auslander's book Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir.)

So when we were invited to a "dairy meal", we weren't served a vegetarian bovine extravaganza. We were served cold salmon, several kinds of bread, tomato/cucumber salad, eggplant lasagna, apricots, and so much other food that we couldn't finish it. Yet, I don't think any actual dairy products emerged from the kitchen the entire evening.

Why, you might ask, did a good host invite my dairy-hating boyfriend to a dairy meal in the first place? Well, you eat a dairy meal for Shavuot. This is the festival of weeks (they translate it to Pentecost for English speakers, but I can't remember what Pentecost is, so I'm not sure it's a good translation). It's essentially based on a prescription in the Bible/Talmud that says you wait until Holiday X, then when the first head of barley is presented to the king, from that day, you count 49 days, and then on the 50th day you have a holiday. I'm not making this up. Since 49 days is 7 weeks, and there are 7 days in a week, etc., this is called the festival of weeks. There's more to it, of course, but for typical American tourist purposes, it means that you eat a Dairy meal with friends, then you get stuck in the middle of nowhere because it's suddenly a holiday and no Jewish taxi drivers are working, so you call an Arab taxi company, and then nothing is open the next day (because Jewish days start at sundown and carry over to the next sundown). No coffee shop, no newspaper stand, nothing, expect a gas station an hour from your hotel, where you find out that one restaurant on another street 15 minutes away is possibly open.

This brings us out of the rabbit hole and back to dairy restaurants. It took me 3-4 restaurant menus like this to start catching on, and I'm not sure I ever would have without the dairy meal from our fabulous fabulous hosts for Shavuot (really, they were completely charming, sweet, and helpful-remarkable hosts). Let me see if I can duplicate a dairy menu for you: Salad, Pasta, Fish, more salad, more pasta, more fish... wait a minute, there's no "chicken breast" option for this Caesar salad, no protein on the menu at all except for fish.

The flip side of this is that something called Meat Burger isn't really stating the obvious, i.e., that a burger is made of meat. Rather, it's telling you that this is a "meat" restaurant instead of a "dairy" restaurant. Good luck finding a cheeseburger here! However, you can get a hamburger with a ton of topping choices, including things like tahini and hummus.

Now that I've cracked the code, I feel more prepared for the next 2 weeks in Israel. I just need to double-check the menu before I enter a restaurant. If I'm in the mood for pasta with chicken, then I need to find a Meat Italian restaurant instead of a Dairy Italian restaurant. Got it?
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Postscript
It turns out that hotel lobbies can be 'dairy' as well. We had some leftover meat things (pad thai, meat from skewers, etc.) and were told that we would have to eat it outside as the lobby was dairy.

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