The Thanksgiving turkey crosses cultural barriers

halal turkey

Marwa Market on Telegraph Avenue specializes in halal meats, including turkey. Halal refers to the process of killing animals and preparing the meat in accordance with Islamic law. (Photo by Laith Agha).

Six-foot high stacks of basmati rice bags, shelves of colorful packets of spices, and bulk bins of honey-sweetened candies pack the aisles at Marwa Market on the corner of 30th street and Telegraph Avenue. Owner Temur Khwaja greets each customer, announced by an electronic ping at the front doors, with a handshake and a smile before resuming his work. Khwaja, a native of Afghanistan, seems to do a little bit of everything in the store – restocking shelves for a moment before darting behind the meat counter to help cut up whole lamb for the Islamic holiday of Eid, which earlier this month marked the end of the fasting period of Ramadan.

“During Eid it is all about the lamb, but now we’re ready for the turkey,” Khwaja said, pointing to a small freezer of birds near the front of the store. “Thanksgiving is not a Muslim holiday, but all religions say thanks to God. We always get a few orders for halal turkeys.”

All the products sold in the market are halal, the Arabic word for “lawful,” meaning, food products must follow Islam’s rules for preparation and content. Some foods are prohibited outright, or haram, such as alcohol and pork products. The meat that is permitted, such as lamb, turkey, and chicken, must be raised humanely; cannot be sick, pregnant or nursing when killed; and must be blessed by a mentally healthy Muslim before slaughter.

For devout Muslims, keeping halal is a matter of faith. But Khwaja says that, especially around the holidays, even non-Muslims are buying halal meats in an effort to eat healthier and buy humanely-treated animal products. “Halal has an appeal to non-Muslims because the killing is done quickly, and with respect to the animal,” said Khwaja. “Our halal turkeys don’t have hormones or antibiotics, so for some people it’s kind of like the new ‘organic.’”

As of Tuesday, Khwaja said he had sold about a dozen halal turkeys for Thanksgiving, including a few orders where he will cook the bird for customers to pick-up on Thursday morning. He estimated that about a third of these birds were for non-Muslims.

Religious crossover with food is normal, Khwaja said, adding that Muslims are permitted to eat non-halal food when they cannot find a halal market. “You try to come as close as possible, of course, but you don’t have to starve,” he said. “If I couldn’t get a halal turkey for Thanksgiving, I would substitute a kosher turkey, which is basically the same thing as halal, apart from the blessing. Organic and free-range would be my next choice. At least then you know they’re humanely treated.

Halal meat and kosher meat are similar in many ways, said Rabbi Mark Bloom at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. “There are a lot of specific rules about keeping kosher, particularly with meat, but the main idea is to take this animalistic act and turn it into something holy,” he said, adding that the slaughtering process was nearly identical for turkeys to be kosher or halal.

Food that follows kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, is deemed to be kosher. Generally, keeping kosher prohibits certain foods, like pork and shellfish; and requires some foods to be prepared a certain way, said Bloom. But unlike in Islam, where any sane Muslim may perform the proper slaughter ritual and have the meat be halal, kosher slaughter, called shechita, must be supervised by a rabbi with specialized training, and performed by a specifically-trained butcher. The process, which involves a single cut to the neck without nicking the spinal cord, is supposed to minimize suffering to the animal.

Although they often go together, Bloom emphasized that kosher turkeys are not always antibiotic- and hormone-free. “They’re really separate concepts,” he said. “Two-thousand years ago kosher was the cutting edge of humane and healthy. Now with factory farms, you need to really think harder about the kind of meat that you buy. The intentionality of pasture-raised and organic is very true to what being kosher represents.”

But Bloom added that while a kosher turkey may seem appealing for humane reasons, regardless of your religion, there are challenges to keeping kosher on Thanksgiving. “It’s definitely more expensive to buy a kosher turkey than a normal turkey, so you have to be pretty dedicated,” he said. “If you want to keep kosher for your entire meal, you also aren’t supposed to eat dairy and meat in the same meal. We’re talking pumpkin pie versus turkey.”  Pumpkin pie traditionally contains milk or cream, Bloom meant, and in a kosher home can’t be served at the same meal as turkey.  “So you have to make substitutions, like soy and coconut milk,” Bloom said.

“Keeping kosher is a great way to appreciate food and recognize where it comes from,” Bloom said. “But it’s not easy. I keep kosher now, but I still miss cheeseburgers.”

Even though Thanksgiving is an American holiday, both Bloom and Khwaja say that they feel that the idea aligns well with their religious beliefs. “When there are rules about what you can eat, food becomes this amazing part of your religious identity,” said Khwaja. “I think choosing to keep kosher or halal help create that. At least three times a day, you get to think about your cultural heritage.”

The secular holiday appeals across religion tradition, Bloom added.  “Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday or a Muslim holiday, but the message of gratitude is really universal,” he said. “It’s about intentionality, whether it’s food or some other aspect of your life. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”

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