Dear McArdle: Are kosher foods held to a higher standard than non-kosher fare?
In a metaphysical sense? I’m not equipped to say. But here on earth it certainly is. When I was a lad, I encountered the word “kosher” in association with two products only: pickles and hot dogs. The dills were clearly superior, but the franks were indistinguishable from the non-kosher variety. Today, there are more than 135,000 kosher products in American grocery aisles; the industry grew by 64% between 2005 and 2008 alone.
Shrewd operators have noticed there is profit to be skimmed like schmaltz from the kosher market. In April, Sankaty Advisors, an arm of private equity behemoth Bain Capital, purchased Manischewitz Co., America’s dominant matzo manufacturer, with an eye to marketing more kosher foods to non-Jews. It’s true that many of us already consider a kosher seal to be a sign of superior quality. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of consumers purchase kosher products based on “food quality,” while only one in five buy for religious reasons.
“It’s a pretty powerful certification to be kosher, because it means you are holding your product to a very high standard,” Manischewitz’s interim CEO told the New York Times. Following kosher guidelines can absolutely lead to a boost in quality. For example, makers of pre-packaged salads must be exceptionally careful to ensure their products do not contain any errant insects, which are not considered kosher. Further, conforming to the rules can inspire additional quality control. Preparing for rabbinical inspection, “forces companies to do a better job of organizing their operations,” says Joe Regenstein, head of Cornell University’s Kosher and Halal Food Initiative.
But consumers should be wary of treating a kosher label as a guarantee of superiority. Despite the complex rules, there are plenty of factors that affect food quality that aren’t addressed by kosher laws—like whether an animal ate organic feed or a steady diet of garbage before it was butchered. Further, there is no single approving agency and more than 500 trademarked “kosher” symbols used by different regulating bodies around the world, each with slightly different standards. So, like anything else, the labels must be taken with a grain of salt—kosher or otherwise.
Dear McArdle: I keep seeing my boss naked at the gym. Will it ever stop being awkward?
Perhaps you should inquire with his wife. (Oh-ho!) Myself? I asked Bruce Arthur, lead sports columnist for the Toronto Star. A chronicler of competitive athletics, Arthur professionally avoids glimpsing genitalia in locker rooms on a regular basis. “It’s harder than it sounds, because that’s not how we’re necessarily programmed to look at other people,” he tells me. “We take in so much information, so fast—the person’s hair, face, eyes, clothes, body type—and if you do that when people might be partly naked, bam, there’s the boss’s penis. You can’t assume the towel will be there, either.” But he asserts that simply maintaining eye contact isn’t enough. The next step—and he maintains this is key—is to “keep those eyes moving, so that even if you accidentally see something you can run away from it, in a manner of speaking.” So keep your gaze high but not rock steady. Or as my columnist friend reminded me: “Eyes up here, mister.”
Dear McArdle: Some jerk keeps leaving his dirty coffee cups in the sink. How do I make him stop?
Don’t waste your time trying to teach manners to adults. You’ll only end up looking childish. Like the boss’s privates, a better strategy is to simply avert your eyes.