I find myself in a supermarket in Bologna, and I’m excited to see it sells guanciale. I feel I should take advantage of its casual presence. In London, I would have to haul my lazy bones to a specialist deli and fork out close to a tenner to obtain guanciale. But here, this cured pig cheek lies as common as milk or eggs or butter, for three humble euros. If I am in Italy for anything, it is this; to experience the most remarkable eating traditions protected as quotidian, essential, cheap. I stand in the meat aisle turning the pink and white mass in my hands, my warm fingers melting the fat under the plastic.
The moment seems particularly opportune for another reason. Guanciale is central to a traditional carbonara. Carbonara, an emulsion of fat and cheese and starch and water, is magic. It carelessly boasts calories, richness, and all the kinds of deliciousness young women are taught, for the sake of their figures, to fear. It’s sexy. It’s dangerous. In the darkest corners of my heart I have always wanted to cook it, get to know it, and this might be my only chance. After university, I moved back in with my parents, and my parents are kosher. But I’m not. Obviously.
My distancing from kashrut was about more than the lure of treif. It’s not that one day I cracked and lost 21 years of resolve, coming to my senses halfway through a BLT, fingers tainted with forbidden grease. Bacon is not so good that it could shake the religious practices I had consolidated over my entire life. Far more delicious, far more tempting, to me was the promise of fitting in, of being easy and uncomplicated.
Dietary laws are, often quite wonderfully, a social glue. I remember a chaotic holiday we took with two other Jewish families when I was a child, the fourteen of us exchanging knowing smiles as we let the restaurant know that anything with pork or shellfish is, quite literally, off the table. Together we would laugh at the confusion of the Spanish waiter, or at what a difficult table we must be. Kashrut served me well, then. When such awkward collisions with the secular world occurred it only made me feel closer to my family and friends who shared the experience with me. Even in a holiday town in Spain, kashrut allowed me to feel held by the people I came from.
The problem is when you go at it alone. As I grew up and my circle of non-Jewish friends expanded, I found that there were other communities I wanted to inhabit just as entirely. My pulse would quicken on telling boyfriends’ mothers I couldn’t eat the chicken stew they spent all afternoon preparing, because of the fatal addition of chorizo. I would feel my face get hot when somebody would order calamari for the table and ask why I wasn’t hungry. My mother made sense of our kashrut by saying it was a reminder that we were Jewish, and I thought that the tightness in my chest on such testing occasions meant that the reminder was working. In those moments, there would be no one to laugh with, and I wouldn’t feel grounded by Jewishness, but isolated by it. There is a simple joy in being handed a plate of food and letting it just be food, rather than the trigger for an awkward conversation bumbling with polite apology.
That simple joy was especially appealing to me, because for much of my life it was elusive. As a teenage girl who wanted to be anywhere but in her own imperfect body, I would tell myself that I could be better, look better, if only I was more disciplined about what I ate. Foods became loaded, healthy or unhealthy, good and bad. Kosher literally means, in Hebrew, fit; and is interpreted to mean fit to eat. As a teenager I expanded this far beyond the religious distinctions, adding my own rules as to what foods were fit or unfit, consumed with guilt when I inevitably slipped and ate something I had deemed bad.
One of the most important ideas I came across at University, where I studied Theology, was the idea that lived experience was a religious authority in and of itself, to be read in conversation with divine texts. My lived experience as a woman was crying out to me to stop moralising the food I chose to put into my body. I spent years believing my guilt around eating pasta was deserved due to the fact carbs really did have the potential to make me fat. Just as the tightness in my chest meant I was feeling my reminder of Jewish identity, the guilt was reminding me to avoid these unhealthy, unfit foods. It wasn’t always obvious to me that such anxiety was not a requisite of womanhood, or of Judaism.
Not everyone feels this anxiety around food and worth and social community. I am jealous of my dad, whose connection to kashrut is much more simple. Like so many other Jews, my dad will still proudly declaim to the waiter that he can’t have the pancetta special and will feel assured, steadied by this fact. For him, keeping kosher is a value he holds dear, and not just another point of social connection. It’s a fact of life, free of worry and full of meaning, which he affirms at every turn.
In university I slowly worked through the guilt I felt at not wanting to insist on kashrut in social contexts where it kept me excluded, or singled me out as the bearer of values that made me different. I realized that while exercises of self discipline can be hugely meaningful for some, restrictive eating is too entwined with self punishment, and in turn, self loathing, for it to reap any benefit for me. This realization has made me understand Judaism not just as a list of rules one follows to varying degrees of success, but a compilation of experiences that I can choose to share with others when I feel like it. Willingly, and often ignoring all social cues to stop, I’ll provide a detailed chronology of my primary school Purim costumes to a room of gentiles, gnawing on a prawn tail as I do so. My Judaism is still part of me, still fused into my DNA and forever mingling with my worldview, regardless of what I eat.
The guanciale swings in my shopping bag as I take it home. In the kitchen, I run my knife under the skin, peeling it from the wobbly white. I dice it and place it over a low flame, the fat slowly rendering, the meat tighter, darker as it crisps. It comes together with spaghetti and eggs and cheese. I eat. My phone buzzes to life. “Shabbat shalom near and far xxx” says Mum on the family Whatsapp group. Mouthful of carbonara, I type my reply, “Good Shabbos as they say in Italia, love you xxx”.