The just-released Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals aims to do for kosher food what Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials did for animal guides, and what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did for…well, the galaxy — it aims to apply real-world logic to the most unreal, to create an objective guide to the most non-objective things our creative imagination can conceive of.
And the thing is: it really does the job.
Ann and Jeff Vandermeer are both science fiction writers, both married (to each other, not coincidentally), and both armed with a smattering of Jewish knowledge and Jewish texts. In 2007, on a whim, they knocked out a blog post arguing which imaginary animals are kosher. Some of the animals came from different cultural mythologies — there’s Bigfoot, chupacabras, and the abumi-guchi, a furry creature in Japanese mythology that’s essentially an animated, live horse stirrup. (Yes, a horse stirrup.)
Mermaids, the Vandermeers decide, are not kosher. Likewise, the jackalope of midwest American folklore. The collection of animals that the Vandermeers summon isn’t exhaustive, but it’s entertaining, and the hard-line pencil illustrations really make you feel like you’re reading one of those medieval demon reference guides that the gang always seems to reference on Buffy. (And, by the way, how do they always look through the right book? Even when they’re on the wrong page, they’re never like, “Oh, it’s in Volume MLXII, not Volume MLXIII.” It’s always a few flips away. Sorry. Tangent.)
The book is good fun, even if it manages to be less than authoritative. Rather than reaching into the back pockets of halakhah and bringing out obscure-but-cool Gemara stories, the same half-dozen qualities tend to be reused — fins? scales? chews its cud? cloven hooves?
Occasionally, there’ll be a hiccup in the book’s logic, such as when the Behemoth, the massive End-of-Times wild animal that the Jews will eat, is depicted as a monstrous elephant. While the authors note that the Behemoth has been believed to be any one of several animals, I’ve only ever heard it referred to in Jewish texts as a cow or a bull (the name “behamit” itself, in Hebrew, refers to a cow). And, while the Gemara says that, in the World to Come, all the righteous people will sit down and eat the (cooked) Behemoth, well, elephants are pretty much universally known to be unkosher. All told, any quabbles with actual kashrut are minor, and pale beside the virtual orgy of hyper-experimental Jewish law logic that the Kosher Guide provides.