Slaves and the Kosher Laws

Minnie, Marse Henry’s cook and housekeeper, had never tended to Jews before. Marse Henry sent her to Aunt Susy on the Mannheim place, owned by the only other Jews in the county, to learn about the kosher laws. She wondered what the kosher laws were, and what happened to you if you broke them.

Aunt Susy was brown with a yellow cast to her skin, part white somewhere. She was of medium height and even though she wasn’t fat, she was padded, like many cooks who ate what they cooked, even if they weren’t supposed to.

Aunt Susy said, “You never worked for Jews before.”

“No,” Minnie said.

“So you never heard about the kosher laws before.”

“I never met a Jew before Marse Henry.”

Aunt Susy said, “Jews are particular about their food. It ain’t just preference, for fussing. It’s part of their religion.”

“No pig meat,” Minnie said. “No ham and no bacon. No lard.” She was proud that she knew that much.

Aunt Susy said, “That’s just part of it.”

“There’s more?”

“By the kosher laws, you can’t have milk and meat at the same table. If you serving a chicken, or a turkey, or a roast, you can’t cook anything with butter, or milk, or cream. You can’t make a cake for dessert, if it has butter or milk in it.”

Last night, Minnie had cooked Marse Henry’s chicken in butter. Upset, she asked, “What do you use for grease?”

“Cottonseed oil,” Aunt Susy said. “Didn’t Marse Mannheim send it over in a drum?”

“Is that what it’s for? We thought it was to oil up the cotton press.”

Aunt Susy laughed. “In a pinch, I bet you could,” she said.

Needled, Minnie asked, “Why do Jews have all them laws about food?”

Aunt Susy said, “Don’t know. Why do people have laws about anything? Started doing it a long time ago, got used to doing it.”

“What happens if you break the kosher laws? Do you go to hell?”

“I don’t think that Jews believe in hell. But if you break the kosher laws, and other Jews find out, they’ll talk about you, and shame you for not doing right.”

Minnie said, “Like being in disgrace in Savannah? For gambling away your place, or having a baby eight months after the wedding? People talk and shame each other for that, too.”

“Pretty much.”

Minnie said, “If no one knows, and no one can talk, is it still wrong?”

Aunt Susy said, “Ain’t it wrong to have an eight-month baby, even if no one knows? You know, and you feel shame, even if no one talks about it.”

“Mighty funny religion. What else do Jews believe in?”

“Never sat down to think about it. Could you ask your Massa? He should know.”

Minnie nodded. Aunt Susy asked, “What is he like? Is he a good Massa?”

Minnie said, “Never saw a Massa like him before. I wondered if it was from being a Jew.”