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.
Even in times when the book can’t be straightforward (as in the case of the half-horse, half-fish hippocampus — “the fish-tailed part is good, the horse-part, not so much”) it’s still pretty straightforward, going through the checklist in a way that has an element of routine, but is still lively and quirky and funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud so. The conversations, though short, are wildly amusing, and you actually start rooting for Evil Monkey (Jeff’s alias) to poke holes in Ann’s flawless logic. Even though, of course, that would mean fewer kosher demons and dragons and Sea-Monkeys (yes, Sea-Monkeys) in the universe.
The authors dialog with each other in a way that it’s not a stretch to describe as Talmudesque, squabbling over details and minutiae of each entry:
EVIL MONKEY: What if a dragon asks politely to be eaten?
ANN: Jews don’t take suggestions from non-kosher food.
EVIL MONKEY: Does that mean you take suggestions from kosher food?!
Ann and Jeff’s commentary is the bread and butter of the book, and endlessly entertaining. There’s a certain ghettoizing quality to it, for lack of a better way to say it — you either get it or you don’t. And chances are, if you didn’t grow up reading either Norby the Robot or A Jewish Child’s Bible Stories, chances are, you won’t — but that doesn’t mean you still won’t be able to get into the easy, amiable war of words between the two self-styled kosher certifiers.
Another win for the book is in its extras. The press promos came with collectible recipe cards, one for Grilled Mongolian Death Worm Maki (serves 6) and one for Slow-Cooked Behemoth (serves 40,000). If they don’t come with the book, well, try to find some way to get them — I can’t wait to smuggle these into my mother’s recipe box. Equally as astounding is the epilogue, in which Ann interviews reality-TV star and baker Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes, a huge science-fiction geek himself. It’s seriously astounding to read the lengths to which he discusses how to prepare Tribbles (“like popcorn shrimp”) and what to serve Wookiee with (“fava beans and a nice Chianti”). He’s unexpectedly conversant in the subject material, and unexpectedly thorough. When asked whether a Wookiee — yes, like Chewbacca — is kosher, he replied:
ANN: [D]o you think Wookies are kosher?
DUFF: Yes, I think that. let’s try to keep one foot in the realm of fantasy and one foot in reality. Kind of a comparison. A Highland cow — a Scotland cow — like a yak, bison. Just really hairy and furry. The hair of that thing hangs off like a Wookiee’s hair. I would say that, sans sciatic nerve, Wookiee is probably kosher. Wookiees are reall tough, and I don’t think I’d want to be the one to take one down. The difficulties in just butchering a Wookiee might render it treyf but I’m gonna say give the perfect circumstances — you got a really good butcher — I am going to say go for the Wookiee. If you are going to serve Wookiee, the best way to remove the remaining blood is to soak it because you won’t have to oversalt it. Those things are really tough, so you’ll want to cook it for a very long time. Just ’cause they’re Wookiees. Beefcakes.
I don’t eat animals, but if I did, I’m pretty sure my mouth would be watering right now. Which makes me feel both deeply ashamed of myself…and deeply intrigued.
Pronounced: guh-MAHR-uh, Origin: Aramaic, a compendium of rabbinic writings and discussions from the first few centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud comprises Gemara and the Mishnah, a code of law on which the Gemara elaborates.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.