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Veggie burgers, smart dogs, tofurkey, and all the other meatless wonders on menus and in markets are no longer novelties. But not all New Yorkers are aware of the Kosher heritage of those unconvincing patties and loaves.
In New York Places and Pleasures, published in 1959, Kate Simon described an early ancestor of today's elaborate imitations. "To suggest a core of solidity in their meals, for those who need it, and to prove a vegetarian point, there are 'steaks' of nuts and health foods, shaped into unreasonable facsimiles."
Her discovery had been made at one of many downtown dairy restaurants, most of which no longer exist (B&H is an excellent one that's been around since 1942). Kosher law requires that meat and dairy be kept entirely separate, and meals belong exclusively to one category or another. Dairy restaurants are completely meat free, though fish is included in the dairy category.
In the '50s, These places were considered hip by non-Kosher New YorkersBohemians hung out in the cafesés eating the very modern health food. We may not think of a connection between vegans and Kosher Jews, but the overlap of these groups has only increased since then. Kosher brands offer a number of products beloved by not just Jews but vegetarians and especially vegans, whose diets are further restricted. Wise vegans look for the "parve" label on packaged foods, which indicates that there is no meat or dairy used, which for Jews means the item can be eaten with either meat or dairy.
Many of us who attended liberal arts schools or live in Park Slope associate products like Tofutti Cuties with hippy co-ops, which we can only assume is a random bonus for the Tofutti company, whose principal concern is Kosher Jews. While vegans have long depended on parve foods to keep from starving, those who keep Kosher are beginning to benefit from the vegan cuisine as well. Since there are no foods to keep separate from one another, vegan restaurants can easily obtain a Kosher certification (this means having a Rabbi oversee the food preparation). On September 15, Angelica's Herbs, an East Village institute which has always been a jungle of herbs and essential oils, was rearranged to become Angelica's Healthful Herbs and Foods, a vegan, organic, and Kosher eatery with the herbs confined to one neat area in the back.
Owners Paul Broaddus and Chantal Arnaud are not Kosher Jews. Their food is certified Kosher for the egalitarian (or business) reason that, as Broaddus put it, "If we're not Kosher, an entire group of New Yorkers is excluded, and we did not want that." Since the certificate must be posted on the door, people who keep kosher have noticed it and come in, and Muslims who follow a Halal diet look for the same sign. The Kosher population in New York has fallen to record lows (about 12 percent versus 25 percent a half century ago) but the number of people who eat kosher without being Kosher seems to be increasing.
Paradoxically, the biggest challenge for Arnaud and Broaddus is to get vegans to eat lighter, not to convince meat or dairy eaters to try vegan food. Vegans have grown attached to packaged and processed meat substitutes. "If someone were to really avoid the dense vegetable foods (grains, beans, seeds, and nuts) they would quickly feel a lot better," Broaddus said, adding that vegans tend to be worried about animal cruelty and environmental problems, but are not particularly health conscious. "You can be vegan and eat anywhere from a very healthy diet to a very unhealthy one."
The novelty at Angelica's is the simplicity of Arnaud's cooking. She uses mostly vegetables flavored with herbs and spices. The most contrived item is a sausage made from sunflower seeds and cilantro, and topped with jalapeno sauce. It's not so much a gimmick but a playful presentation, an unconscious homage to an earlier Kosher tradition.