Food fascinates Jews. Nearly every holiday and celebration centers around food (or in the case of Yom Kippur, the absence thereof). The stereotypical Jewish mother constantly tries to get her children to eat. Even in the afterlife, Jews are promised a succulent banquet of Leviathan, Behemoth, and Ziz, all three created for just this feast. This fixation exists even though (or perhaps because) Jewish Law dictates fairly stringent dietary restrictions: Pork, shellfish, anything that eats other animals, some birds, and most insects are forbidden. As with many biblical dictates, the exact interpretations and applications have changed over time and depending on whom you ask. Which animals are considered Kosher has long generated debate among layman and scholar alike. In this spirit, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer approach this heady subject in their lighthearted book The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: The Evil Monkey Dialogues. As Ann VanderMeer explains:
Two years ago, my husband and I were taking a hike in the woods. I don’t know how it came up, but at some point we started talking about the “kosherness” of certain animals. With Passover fast approaching, what you can and cannot eat was on my mind. The subject led to the silliness of trying to figure out what imaginary animals might be kosher. As we bantered back and forth we decided that we were having too much fun, which meant it might be fun for our readers, too. So we did a blog post in honor of Passover.
This short (92 pages) compendium of mythical creatures - ranging from the abumi-guchi to the Ziz - features illustrations by designer John Coulthart and short descriptions followed by a humorous discourse between Ann VanderMeer and her husband’s blogging alter ego, Evil Monkey. Written in a conversational style, the occasionally self-referential entries often site “experts,” such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gustave Flaubert, as well as texts including the Old Testament and the Etz Hayim. Each account concludes with symbol denoting the creature’s potential kosherness. For example:
Originating in Irish mythology, the banshee is a frightening female spirit, often considered a bad omen. But how much of a bad omen? Specter-ologists are unsure. Messenger of death or the cause of death? Perhaps the two roles are interchangeable, for many people with bad tickers have had heart attacks upon encountering a banshee. The provenance of the banshee has also been the cause of some debate. Some consider the banshee a prophetess who can see the future. Others (among them heretics, drunks, and rebels) consider the banshee to be a fallen angel. A mournful wail is the calling card of the banshee, who when seen will be wearing a gray hooded cloak, not unlike a rain poncho. Dr. Jorge Luis Borges’ theory that the banshee is a form of elf should be ignored as ridiculous.
EVIL MONKEY: “Would it be wise to try to eat a messenger of death? Wouldn’t that be like eating death? Is eating death kosher?”
ANN: “Depends on what you mean by death. If death is a guy in a black robe, no. If death is a strawberry, then, yes.”
EVIL MONKEY: “So she’s not kosher?”
ANN: “No. Any ‘creature’ you can call ‘he’ or ‘she’ is probably not kosher. But why are the evil ones always women?”
EVIL MONKEY: “Nothing I can say here will save me.
The volume concludes with an entertaining conversation between Ann VanderMeer and Duff Goldman, star of the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes. The pair initially discuss the proper preparation of and best wine selection to serve with the kosher creatures before things devolve into even more amusing topics regarding testicles, Clive Barker, and Goldman’s dictum that anything served in a Chinese restaurant is kosher.
With two page entries for each beast and a compact size, the delightful The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals makes for some delicious bathroom (or busstop) reading for Jews and gentiles alike. And for the uninformed out there, cholent is a traditional hearty Jewish stew that simmers for 12 hours or more. You’ll thank me later.
Rick Klaw is a professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon based in Austin.