This recent excellent post by Chevrutablogger got me thinking about kashrut. Like understanding which trains were IND and which IRT, I can't recall when I first became aware of the difference between meat, dairy, and pareve. I just always knew. Keeping kosher as a child was like breathing, something I never consciously learned but realized was essential. We weren't terribly strict; we didn't have two sets of dishes or even one set of glass ones, another custom. Ours were pink, contemporary china, and any mention of those other practices was disdained as archaic. Yet my mother still soaked and salted meat (although never lit Shabbat candles), and my father prayed three times a day (but worked on Saturdays), walking a careful and sometimes unsteady line between tradition and modernity.
I remember acutely the few times I slipped. Once, after singing a concert at fancy-shmancy club, I was served a delicious soup I only only later learned was lobster bisque. I was mortified to admit it was the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted. When I was 7 and visiting a friend after school, her mother gave me a bologna sandwich with a glass of milk. I knew I shouldn't eat it, but wasn't sure why. I did anyway, told no one, and forgot about it for years—until, one day, I recalled the moment and felt guilty. For a few months in college, I ate pizza with pepperoni because I thought pepperoni was a kind of vegetable (a green pepper that wasn't green). Yes, I wan't too swift back then. I stopped as soon as I figured out the truth, but did enjoy those months--as well as the ones when I ate chicken tettrazinni, not comprehending that the cheese-like substance surrounding the chicken was, in fact, cheese. I was an unaware eater, to say the least.
After my parents divorced, my mother relished BLTs in diners. (Never cheeseburgers or shrimp, however; that would be truly unthinkable. Bacon looked close enough to pastrami to seem OK.). I think it was her way of celebrating emancipation, and the fact that she never again had to serve my father borscht or kishkas. I'd order a tuna fish sandwich and she never suggested I do otherwise, understanding even before I did that kashrut represented a time in my childhood when things were good and stable.
I think I still keep kosher for that reason more than any other. It connects me not only to my heritage and religion, but also to memories of being nourished unconditionally by the food of safety and love. Following the minhag of my parents, I'm not the strictest observer of kashrut. I mostly, but not always, avoid meat in restaurants; chicken never seems like meat. I do look for OUs and Ks on food packaging, most of the time. Aside from those few moments above, I've never knowingly eaten shellfish, pork, or milk and meat together, even during the years when I barely set foot in a synagogue, and have not the slightest desire to do so. I rarely yearn for forbidden fine cuisine. Keeping (sort of) kosher still feels like breathing, unconscious and necessary. At times I wish it didn't, and perhaps one day will move kashrut to the realm of a more mindful choice regarding God and heritage, as it should be.