One of the most appealing things about my line of work is that, now and again, I have the opportunity to revisit something I’ve read, written or talked about. The other day, an invitation from the department of Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati to deliver a public lecture about food provided me with the chance to do just that: to take another look at the sources and to rethink the implications of one of the better-known meals in Jewish history. No, I am not referring to the Last Supper, but to the so-called “trefa banquet,” which took place in Cincinnati in July 1883 to celebrate the ordination of America’s very first class of Reform rabbis.
Well before foodies had their day in the sun, much ink was spilled over its bill of fare. Celebrants barely had time to digest their dinner before its contents became public knowledge, generating the verbal equivalent of fisticuffs. This banquet, it was said at the time, was an “outrage,” an “indignity,” “a piece of audacious effrontery,” “vexatious,” and, in the cruelest cut of all, even “un-American.”
What occasioned such fighting words was the menu, a mere 4.5 inches of badly written French. Never before and probably not since has a printed menu kicked up such a fuss. From little neck clams on the half shell and frogs’ legs swimming in cream sauce to a surfeit of dishes that freely mixed meat and milk, nothing about it was kosher. To the traditionalists within the American Jewish community who had travelled to Cincinnati in a show of solidarity, this was an unpardonable affront, the culinary equivalent of a slap in the face, a deliberate dethroning of Mosaic law.
Others construed the display of non-kosher delicacies at a Jewish communal event more as a faux pas, a breach in etiquette, than as a religious rebuke. “If it would be wanting in breeding and hospitality for a host to place before a guest such viands he knows are disliked, how much greater then the insult for Jews to offer to Jews, to ministers, a banquet… where articles of food positively forbidden were at the table,” declared one observer who styled himself “Old Fogy.”
As harsh words thickened the air, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who had convened the shindig, was called on to explain what he knew and when he knew it. In response, he first temporized, blaming the whole thing on the caterer, Gustav Lindemann. The caterer’s marching orders were to prepare a kosher meal, Rabbi Wise related, adding quickly, “We don’t know why he diversified his menu with multipeds and bivalves,” a highfalutin reference, if ever there was one, to clams, “soft shell crabs a l’Amerique” and “salade of shrimp.”