The Personal Essay: The kosher ham incident



The Personal Essay: The kosher ham incident

OCTOBER 19, 2017 – It came in on a motorcycle.

“There is no such thing as a kosher ham!” thundered my grandfather, stabbing each syllable in the evening air with his lit cigar. Around him, our usually talkative relatives were stunned into silence in the chilly October breeze, rugged up in shawls and sweaters as they shivered ever so slightly, perched on summer’s dusty wicker furniture in the outdoor screen house.

Half an hour earlier, a different kind of thunder had split the silent suburban complacency when Izzy turned up announced on a chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected beast of a motorcycle, bearing a mysterious package the size of his head, wrapped in plain white paper and tied with string.

Izzy was a bit of a bête noire in the extended family circle (and I was soon to inherit his uncoveted title). As far as relations go, I‘m not sure if he was a second cousin twice removed, or something even more distant. He wasn’t popular, that’s for sure (apparently, there had been an unfortunate vodka-related bar mitzvah incident), and his connection to our immediate family was tenuous at best.

But still, he emerged, from time to time, and I was fascinated. His was the face of rebellion; his swagger, rock ‘n’ roll made manifest. He looked and sounded like Bob Dylan to me. And on this cool October evening, Izzy had turned up with an ultra-cool package, which he ceremonially presented to my grandfather.

”Nu?” quietly question-muttered my grandmother, under her breath. (I, too, had thought any package should be presented to her first, for inspection – as Izzy’s tenuous connection to our clan came from her more distant side of the family.) My grandfather gingerly peeled back the layers of the increasingly-greasy butcher’s paper. He didn’t trust Izzy. Nobody did.

“Vas iz das?” he demanded of Izzy. Upon hearing that it was a kosher ham, the exclaiming and the cigar-stabbing commenced; “Oy gevalt!” came the indignant bellow.

As with many annual family gatherings, I really didn’t have a clue as to why all the old folks would sit around on the screen porch in the cold weather. I thought perhaps they just wanted to give the summer wicker furniture one final round of use before Dora and Oma would wrap it up in well-worn canvas covers, and drag it into the garage for the winter.

On chilly October evenings, sure enough, my grandparents would get a steady stream of visitors for about a week, always after the big night of the kugel of our dreams. Folks from the old neighborhood, and even a few strangers (to me) from the Old Country, would all turn up at sunset. Many would come with fruit baskets; some, too, with palm leaves and lemons. Dora would bring in some branches from the backyard.

I just didn’t get it. I thought it was some weird European pre-Halloween party. The food was good, though, and I enjoyed many of Dora’s greatest culinary hits during those hot dinners on the cold porch. So I was especially thrilled to taste this new offering of Izzy’s: the kosher ham. But nobody put it out on the table.

My grandmother finally gestured theatrically to Izzy, picking up the package as she passed by my grandfather’s wicker porch chair. Unbidden, but wildly curious, I followed Dora, my grandmother, and Izzy into the much-warmer yellow kitchen, where the brisket was bubbling away, and a big pan of Dora’s homemade sauerkraut was warming up in the cast-iron fry pan.

“Izzy,” my grandmother fired off, obviously the first in an intended salvo of pointed questions. “What did you bring here?” I could tell a barrage of questions starting with “WHY?” was soon to follow.

“Relax, Oma,” Izzy jousted back. “Keep your shirt on. It’s kosher.” Dora shook her bird-like head, discouragingly. (Dora understood more English than she could speak.) “How can this be kosher?” demanded my grandmother. “Izzy, you don’t know from kosher.”

“I know a pig from a sheep,” started Izzy. He was mildly annoyed. “This is a mutton ham. Sheep meat. Butchered kosher. Brined and smoked by my friend the kosher butcher. Tastes great. I really thought I was doing you all a favor, bringing it – not starting an international incident!”

My grandmother audibly inhaled, then nodded meaningfully at Dora, who immediately started to thinly carve the meat on her battered chopping block. She arranged the smoky pink slices, fan-like, on a silver platter with the hot sauerkraut in a blue ceramic bowl next to it, and a small ramekin of hot German mustard in the middle of the platter. Fresh-baked pumpernickel appeared in a bread-basket. Initial muffled yelling in Yiddish could be heard from the elders huddled on the cold porch, which subsided to a quiet rumble, then silence, as Dora murmured the all-clear, and the eating began.

Izzy obviously didn’t feel like sticking around, his intended good deed soured by deflection. He was roundly snubbed, as only my clannish family knew how to snub. He didn’t partake of the meal. “I got places to be,” he told me, the two of us by then alone in the kitchen with the scattered remains of his carved kosher ham.

He fumbled, then pulled something out of his leather backpack as he started out the kitchen door, headed to his motorcycle. Turning toward me, he fixed me sharply with his defiant gaze. “Here, kid, this is from my buddy Abbie.”

Handing me a paperback book, I read the title as he continued into the night. “Steal This Book,” I said aloud. Izzy’s revved-up revolutionary engine echoed into the darkness, and I opened the book, and began to read.

Tspora Roth writes about food and family. Email her at

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