By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Pig products are a major ingredient in many traditional Mexican dishes. Tlayudas and frijoles refritos are made with lard, as are many other popular dishes. Pozole is usually made with pork. Charros often have diced bacon. And then of course there are many recipes calling for jamon (ham). But observant Jews and Muslims and other people originally from the Middle East are prohibited from eating pork products.
Why the prohibition? And, does the prohibition mean forgoing traditional tastes of Mexico?
The pig prohibition is erroneously thought by many people to be based on wholesome dietary practices. It is true that pig products are notorious for harboring harmful parasites such as trichinosis worms, which when eaten in undercooked pork invade the intestines and produce frankly disgusting symptoms. But the ingestion of other forms of meat and fish also can lead to parasitic infections and equally invidious results. And there is no evidence that when the pig prohibition was promulgated over three thousand years ago, anyone was aware of the relationship between pigs and parasites.
The most fundamental reason offered for the prohibition is the holiness code written in the Hebrew scriptures and later adopted by the Muslims. To be holy, the Bible recounts, one must only eat ritually clean food and forgo ritually impure food. Meat must come just from mammals that have split hooves and chew their cud, such as steer, deer, goats, and sheep. The pig is one of the few animals specifically listed in the Hebrew bible as ritually impure since, although it has split hooves, it does not chew its cud. Even touching a pig carcass is described as defiling.
Anthropological and archeological evidence suggests that this holiness code played a major role in promoting group identity and retarding assimilation of Jews into surrounding cultures. Pig bones have been found among artifacts left by three dominant cultures that surrounded Jews and Israelites in past millennia: The Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Philistines. When the Babylonians invaded Israel, they selected the best and the brightest people from Judea for forced assimilation. However, as described in the Book of Daniel, among those who were exiled to Babylonia, the ones that clung to the holiness code and refused to eat “impure” food remained separate and held on to their Jewish identity.
Recent analysis suggests that although the holiness code may have been central to Jewish and Muslim rejection of pigs as a source of meat, economics is more likely to explain the reason other Middle Eastern groups virtually gave up pork in favor of chickens. Pigs require more water than chickens – and water is a scarce resource in that area. Also, for groups that are nomadic or semi-nomadic, chickens are much easier to transport than big porkers.
Today, in Mexico City (and places around the world), pig prohibition still functions to reinforce group identity among Jews. To be sure that food bought in markets or restaurants is ritually pure and does not contain any pork or other food designated as impure, many Jews frequent specific markets and restaurants that are certified as kosher by Mexican rabbis. Kosher meat markets in Mexico City do a lively business shipping approved food to other parts of the country where kosher meat markets do not exist. Many other Jews are relaxed about where they buy their food but still avoid eating pork.
Even people whose religion does not prohibit particular foods may have a favorable attitude toward products with a kosher label, considering them safe, or flavorful, or good for a healthy diet. When they select kosher foods in their favorite supermarket, they may not even realize that pork will definitely not be included in those items. Major supermarkets in Mexico, including Soriana and Chedraui, feature some kosher products, and in selected neighborhoods they even have entire kosher sections.
Avoiding pork definitely does not preclude enjoying tasty traditional Mexican dishes. Recipes that include pork as an ingredient can often be made successfully by substituting chicken meat. A nonJewish Oaxacan friend graciously prepares pozole for us with chicken and assures us that it tastes just like the original.
Recipes that include lard as an ingredient can work by substituting vegetable oils. Many health-conscious Mexicanos are already avoiding lard to help keep their arteries from clogging. Some Mexican Jews who are more concerned about maintaining a kosher kitchen than about avoiding heart attacks substitute schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) for lard. Those of us who grew up spreading schmaltz on toast or matzoh find that substituting schmaltz for lard adds a delicious flavor to tlayudas and refried beans.
And those who have a favorite recipe for beans that includes bacon will find that beef bacon or turkey bacon will be a very acceptable substitute for pork bacon.