The wine in Rachel Solnick's cup was kosher, produced in accordance with strictures grounded in the Old Testament.
The daughter of a Jewish father and a Chinese-American mother, the 20-something Houston woman likes to consider herself a "Jewish ambassador" to her friends. But as she sipped and mingled at a recent mixer at a Rice University-area synagogue - one of a series of events marking Houston's Kosher Month - a dark thought bubbled through her mind: bacon.
"I love bacon!" she said, confessing that she got excited when she learned of a local grocery's "Bacon Fest," featuring more than 30 varieties of the forbidden meat. Lobster, too, can lead her astray. But even when she succumbs to temptation, Solnick knows there's a nobler dietary path - one that she rigorously follows on religious holidays and when hosting friends to dinner.
Once in danger of disappearing in America, ancient Jewish foodways are making a dramatic comeback as Jewish "millennials" and their parents seek renewed spirituality or - in some cases - a healthier way of eating.
By 2014, when a national magazine heralded the trend in an article titled "Kosher Meets Hipster," kosher food sales in the United States topped $5.5 billion, growing by 12 percent annually since 2010. Nationally, more than one-fourth of Jews ages 18 to 49 kept kosher in their homes, a Pew Research Center study found in 2013. In Houston, where kosher restaurants purvey everything from vegan to Indian cuisine, more than three-fourths of people queried in a recent poll reported routinely buying kosher meat.
"Why kosher?" said Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, director of TORCH, a Houston Jewish educational outreach group. "From a spiritual perspective, because God said so."
'A disciplined life'
The return to kosher has been most pronounced among young families rearing children, he said. Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff of Chabad of Uptown, a ministry catering to young professionals, added that many Jews in that age group were swept up in a late-20th century resurgence of spirituality.
"There was an appreciation of taking on a little more responsibility, for leading a disciplined life. That has meaning for Jews," he said.
More broadly, Wolbe said, kosher's appeal lies in its wholesomeness.
"You are what you eat," he said. "If there are impurities, they go into our bodies. Kosher animals only eat fresh vegetation." By comparison, non-kosher pigs, he said, "eat every kind of garbage in the world, even their young."
Elise Passy, community coordinator for Big Tent Judaism, said many non-Jews and Jews who only marginally are connected with their faith are drawn to a kosher diet out of curiosity.
"I think a lot of the younger generation are 'foodies,' " she said. "They have an interest in the ethics and culture surrounding their food. … Keeping kosher is a way to connect with many religions and cultures."
Muslim and some Christian food traditions mirror the kosher laws.
Leading up to Passover, which begins April 3, TORCH, Houston Kashruth Association and Big Tent Judaism are hosting wine tastings, recipe exchanges and food demonstrations at venues in the greater Houston area. Among them will be a series of "Passover in the Matzah Aisle" sessions at area Whole Foods stores.
Menachem Lubinksy, editor of the Brooklyn-based publication Kosher Today, said kosher foodstuffs are available on the shelves of an estimated 17,000 American supermarkets. Products range from traditional meat, fish and baked goods to recently introduced Smucker's blended-fruit pouches, Pillsbury's Melts S'mores ready-to-bake cookies and beet-flavored Terra Vegetable Chips.
"Randalls and Beldens (with kosher meat and baked goods) have made a lot of effort to stock kosher items," said Alex Pfeffer, executive director of Houston Kashruth Association, which inspects and certifies kosher products of more than 90 food producers in Texas and Louisiana. "Even in North Dakota, where there are maybe 17 Jews, you can walk into any Wal-Mart and find kosher bread, milk and fruits and vegetables."
Not always traditional
Kosher foodstuffs sometimes are confused with traditional Jewish cuisines, he said, which can be made with our without kosher products.
Kosher items include the flesh of split-hooved animals that chew cud, fish with scales and fins, birds other than birds of prey and fruits and vegetables. Bugs, however, are not kosher, and produce that provides a ready haven for insects - strawberries, lettuce, broccoli - must be carefully washed before certification. Meat from ritually slaughtered animals - a stab to the throat is required - must be salted and washed to remove blood. Eggs must be screened for blood spots, which, if present, make them ineligible for certification.
Kosher requirements extend to food consumption and preparation. As milk and meat are not to be eaten together, separate cooking pots must be kept for their preparation.
Production of wine, historically used in pagan observances, must be overseen by kosher inspectors; beer, unless flavored with non-traditional ingredients, inherently is kosher.
The roots of the tradition are found in admonitions of the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, and for centuries those rules were inherent in the practice of Judaism.
Things began to change, though, when, in July 1883, the first graduating class of Reform rabbis was feted with a dinner featuring clams, soft-shell crabs, shrimp and other comestibles forbidden by the dietary laws. In their survey of American Jews, Pew Research Center pollsters found only 7 percent of Reform and less than one-third of conservative congregation members kept kosher in their homes. Only ultra-Orthodox believers, making up a tiny percentage of the American Jewish population, still universally observed the tradition at home.
Solnick, 27, said her years at her parents' home were "kosher with exceptions."
"There were trips to Chinese restaurants, with pork and lobster," she said. "Initially, those were the exceptions."
Another guest at the kosher wine tasting, Imanuel Fayne, 29, recalled his own guilty pleasure with non-kosher cuisine. "I was working at a data entry job," he said. "There weren't kosher restaurants on every corner. They were hard to find. I ate a lot of Jack in the Box, junk food."
Now, he said, he has resolved to pursue a kosher diet.
"I decided it would be nice if I really could be healthier," he said.
Jason Goldstein, 29, owner of the city's newest kosher restaurant, Genesis Steakhouse and Wine Bar, on the city's southwest side, said even ultra-Orthodox Jews stray from the kosher path.
"I was raised ultra-Orthodox," he said, "and here is my take: I would say that easily 60 or 70 percent of kids raised ultra-Orthodox will at some point, usually in their teens or early 20s, get into not keeping kosher."
But Goldstein, son of veteran kosher caterer Susan Goldstein, said many eventually come back to the fold.
"Younger people," he said, "want to be part of something larger than themselves."