As we sit down to our first meal of the year, Jews throughout the world follow the centuries old custom of dipping an apple into honey to signify our wish for a sweet year.
Apples have a long-standing place in Jewish life. Although the apple was not the Fruit of Knowledge that was Adam’s undoing in the Garden of Eden,1 its mystical connotations in the phrase Sdei Tapuchin are cited by authorities as the basis for dipping this particular fruit in honey at the onset of Rosh Hashanah.2
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for apple – tapuach – is not based upon a horticultural root, but rather derives from the concept of something round and inflated, such as when dough rises into a ball or as a name for the round pile of ashes on the Mizbeach (Holy Altar). Indeed, the Imrei Noam argues that our eating of the apple on Rosh Hashanah is an allusion to the pile of ashes of the Akeida. Even in the botanical sphere, the word tapuach has been grafted onto many fruits other than the conventional apple. Tosefos3 quotes the Targum on the verse from Shir Ha’Shirim that the word “tapuchim” refers to the esrog. [Interestingly, the Targum that we have uses the phrase K’Reicha T’Tapuchin D’Gan Eden – like the fragrance of the “apples” of Gan Eden – perhaps the source of the fable that it was indeed an apple!] The golden apple – tapuach zahav or tapu”z – is the Modern Hebrew word for an orange. Similarly, many languages (including Hebrew) have taken the phrase “earth apple” to refer to a potato [pomme de terre (French), erdapfel (German), and tapuach adamah (Hebrew)].
While the classic apple can be traced back to Shlomo Hamelech, the inclusion of the potato in the European diet began only after its discovery in South America by European explorers. Potatoes were originally cultivated in Peru, where they formed an integral part of the diet. [They actually did not originate with Sir Francis Drake – he merely brought them to England over fifty years after their discovery by Spanish conquistadors.]
Despite its late start, the potato has managed to gain an astounding ascendancy in our diet. The lowly spud is perhaps the only vegetable that has had the power to effect the depopulation of a country and the derision of an American vice president, and has been adopted by an untold number of countries as its own. “French” fries vie with “Belgian” fries to form the nexus of the fast food culture, and no self-respecting simcha would be replete without a potato kugel. On Pesach, we press the potato into every conceivable (or inconceivable) service, and whether they are called “chips” or “crisps” they follow us everywhere between meals. While the potato itself may be only a humble vegetable, the methods by which it is processed lead to a number of interesting kashrus and halachic issues.
Since potatoes were new to the Old World, their acceptance was far from secure. In some areas, ecclesiastical authorities banned the potato as the “Devil’s Apples” because its lack of obvious seeds was deemed unnatural. In addition, people worried that potatoes, as a member of the nightshade family, were as poisonous as are many of its cousins (potato plant leaves are indeed toxic, as are potatoes stored until they turn green). Its nutritional advantages, however, overcame such reticence, but not without some high powered royal persuasion. In the 1620s, Frederick the Great of Prussia decreed that his subjects plant and eat potatoes as a deterrent to ever present famine, but success was only assured when he threatened to cut off the nose and ears of those who refused. The French, on the other hand, resorted to a high-powered marketing campaign. Antoine Augistin Parmentier, a chemist and friend of King Louis XVI, made it his mission to popularize the potato after surviving as a Prussian prisoner in the Seven Years’ War on a diet of potatoes. He prevailed upon the king to serve potatoes at royal feasts, and for Marie Antoinette to adorn her hair with potato flowers. His fidelity to the potato was reciprocated with the famous Potage Parmentier (potato leek soup) named in his honor.
The lack of familiarity with the potato may also have played a role in determining its brocha. Most halachic authorities concur that the brocha is ha’adamah, since the potato grows in the ground. The Ropshitzer Rov, however, felt that the appropriate brocha was shehakol, and several rationales are given for this opinion. The Imrei Moshe posits that the Ropshitzer felt that potatoes were more akin to kemehin, those mushrooms that grow underground (truffles), for which a shehakol is indeed said. This argument was seemingly buttressed by the observation that potatoes do tend to continue growing “from the air” even after they have been removed from the ground. The association between truffles and potatoes is indeed borne out by the use of the name tartuffo in some Italian dialects to mean potato, derived from the Latin terrae tuber or “tuber of the earth”. This etymological relationship even carries through to the famous German/Yiddish word kartoffel, which is a corruption of an old German dialect word tartoffel (potato).
The Shinnover Rov, however, rejects this approach and explains the opinion of the Ropshitzer from an entirely different perspective. Chazal recognize that certain foods are particularly satisfying – davar hamayzin – and may serve as the mainstay of a diet even if they are not one of the five major grains. The Mechaber,4 following the opinion of the Rif and the Rambam, rules that we therefore make a mezonos on rice even though it would not be subject to hamotzi or other rules appropriate to true grain. Rabbeinu Yonah, quoting the opinion of one of the Geonim, extends this concept to millet and other foods that are particularly satisfying. The Shinnover Rov therefore argues that since potatoes exhibit particularly satisfying attributes – they should, by right, also deserve a mezonos according to this opinion. As such, in order to avoid a question as to its appropriate brocha, the Ropshitzer advised making a shehakol on potatoes, which is valid for all foods. Many Chassidim follow the minhag of the Ropshitzer – except on Pesach, when they use potatoes for karpas and make a ha’adamah! [This paradox, of course, leads to a new understanding of the Talmud’s explanation for eating karpas – “So that the children will notice something out of ordinary.” When using a potato for karpas, there can be nothing more extraordinary than reciting a ha’adamah at the Seder when one recites a shehakol the rest of the year!]
Aside from the appropriate brocha, the manner in which potatoes are processed raises several significant kashrus concerns. One such issue relates to the rules of Bishul Akum, the halacha that requires Jewish involvement in the cooking of many types of foods. In general, a Jew must participate in the cooking of important foods that are not edible raw – otherwise, such food would be considered non-kosher. The criterion of an important food – something that is oleh al shulchan melachim (literally, served on a royal table) – is somewhat subjective, and depends on the current eating habits in any given locale. Given the aforementioned disdain previously accorded potatoes, many authorities5 ruled that they were “peasant food” and therefore not subject to the strictures of Bishul Akum. The Chochmas Adam,6 however, felt that potatoes were indeed an important food and subject to this concern. Today, most authorities recognize potatoes to be a food eminently suited for the fanciest of feasts, and have therefore ruled that they indeed are subject to this halachic requirement.
Instant mashed potatoes pose an interesting twist to Bishul Akum and potatoes. Potato flakes are produced by cooking potatoes, mashing them, mixing them with an emulsifier (an agent that binds oil and water together), and then drying the mashed potatoes by spreading them on the surface of a large, heated steel drum. This thin layer of dried potato is then removed from the drum surface and chopped into flakes, and when mixed with water can be reconstituted into “instant” mashed potatoes. A reliable kosher certification is certainly required due to the use of the emulsifier, but what about concerns of Bishul Akum? To address this concern, many hashgachos rely on an opinion of the Avkas Rochel. The Avkas Rochel posits that even if a food were rendered non-kosher by din of Bishul Akum, if the food were subsequently rendered “uncooked” – that is, requiring additional cooking – and therefore inedible, it would lose its status as a cooked food as regards the strictures of Bishul Akum. Since dry, instant, mashed potatoes are not considered edible and require the addition of hot water to become palatable, it is argued that they fit the parameters of the Avkas Rochel and lose their status of Bishul Akum. This position is questionable, however, in that the re-hydration of the instant potatoes can be done with cold water and thus does not require any additional cooking. In addition, merely pouring hot water into a product would, at best, only be iruy (a lesser form of cooking) and not a full-fledged cooking. A more cogent rationale for approving potato flakes is that the potatoes are generally cooked with steam and not hot water. In general, foods that are smoked are not considered subject to concerns of Bishul Akum, and a number of authorities consider steaming to have the same halachic status as smoking in this regard.
Potato chips may be subject to a different leniency as regards Bishul Akum. Conventional chips are made by frying thin slices of potato in oil or shortening until they are crisp. This food is the quintessential snack, designed to be eaten on the run and, by definition, the antithesis of a stately meal. Many authorities rule that while a particular food may generally be considered important, the manner in which it is prepared must also be taken into account in determining its susceptibility to Bishul Akum. As such, the generally accepted approach is to recognize that chips are not intended to be eaten as part of a meal, and therefore this form of potato would be considered free of concerns of Bishul Akum. On the other hand, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky zt”l is quoted7 as holding that potato chips are indeed subject to concerns of Bishul Akum. He, among others, argues that since potatoes as a species are an important food, the fact that potato chips are not important is insufficient to obviate the concern of Bishul Akum. The OK follows this ruling and requires all potato chips to be Bishul Yisroel. Most hashgachos, however, follow the former approach.
While potato chips may not have a concern of Bishul Akum, they are still subject to many other significant kashrus concerns. First, the oil used to produce them must be kosher, and while most companies today use vegetable oil, this is by no means universal. In the beginning, all chips are created equal – they are nothing more than simple fried potato. As they leave the fryer, however, salt or other flavor powders are sprinkled onto the chip. These flavoring powders contain a number of ingredients, many of which are designed to dilute and disperse the actual spices or flavors. Often, lactose (milk sugar) is used in these blends because it does not absorb as much moisture as other sugars and thus does not cake as easily.
The method by which these seasonings are applied also raises several kashrus concerns. Potato crisp manufacturers generally produce a variety of seasoned products on the same production line, often changing seasonings every few hours. Even where the seasonings are applied at room temperature, it is imperative that equipment used to dispense and apply these seasonings be adequately cleaned between non-kosher and kosher seasonings, as well as between dairy and pareve ones. In addition, some companies apply their seasonings as the chips exit the fryer, i.e. while they are still quite hot. In such situations the equipment handling the hot seasoned chips must be kashered between significant seasoning changeovers.
The venerable potato crisp had changed little over the years, with its innovations being limited mainly to the ripple cut and exotic seasonings. This all changed about thirty years ago with the advent of Pringle-type chips, the trade name of a new kind of potato “chip.” Instead of being made from random-sized slices of fresh potatoes, these chips are created by forcing a potato paste into a uniform shape before they are fried. This potato paste is made from potato flour, but this flour, instead of being merely ground potatoes, is actually instant mashed potato flakes (discussed above) that have been milled into a powder. As such, the kashrus issues discussed above regarding potato flakes may be of concern. In an additional twist, Pringle- type chips causes the issue of the appropriate brocha to return to the fore. Most authorities concur that conventional chips are nothing more than pieces of a potato – and hence require a ha’adamah. However, the accepted brocha for ground vegetables is shehakol and, as such, most authorities conclude that the appropriate brocha for Pringle-type chips is shehakol.
A recent twist on the crisp has been the introduction of Olean (also known as Olestra), a “synthetic” fat replacement developed by Proctor & Gamble. This material can be used to fry chips in much the same way as ordinary oil, but since it passes through the body unchanged it does not contribute any calories to the product. Concern has been expressed about certain health issues regarding this product, but it is indeed kosher certified.
The ubiquity of the potato is not limited to the crisp. While the French may rue the conquest of the world by American fast food, they may nonetheless take some solace in the fact that one of its mainstays is the French fry (interestingly, it is known as Les Pommes Anglaise in France). Most frozen vegetables pose little kashrus concern, other than the issue of insects. However, frozen potatoes – in the form of frozen French fries – differ from conventional frozen vegetables in that they are fried before being frozen. Historically, tallow (beef fat) was often used for this purpose due to its lower cost and the flavor that it imparted. As such, a reliable kosher certification is critical for frozen French fries to ensure that the factory does not process tallow-based products on the same equipment. Interestingly, this product does not pose a significant issue of Bishul Akum, since the fries are only partially fried in the factory and require additional frying or baking at home to render them edible.
While we certainly eat and enjoy potatoes all year long, when it comes to Pesach, potatoes have the distinction of being the only significant domestic source of starch that is considered free from concerns of kitniyos. As such, potato starch has become a staple in Pesach cooking and baking, and is used to produce Passover glucose for use in candies. Despite the inherent suitability of these potato products, their processing for Pesach requires extra vigilance. Potato starch is often the by-product of other potato processes, and special attention must be paid to the antifoams in the starch slurry and the steam used to peel potatoes to ensure that they pose no kashrus concerns. In addition, the emulsifiers used in Pesach potato flakes must similarly be approved for Pesach. Even simple peeled, fresh potatoes (and some other pre-peeled fruits and vegetables) are not immune to Pesach concerns, since companies that peel fresh potatoes often wash the peeled product with citric acid and other chemicals to prevent the potatoes from changing color.
As we have seen, the potato has become quite pervasive in our culture in the 400 years since it was introduced to the Western world. Even on Rosh Hashanah, when we dip our “apple” in honey this year, the lowly potato may indeed have greater relevance than one might think. The Eliyahu Rabbah8 and the Gilyon Rav Akiva Eiger9 quote the custom of the Mahari”l to eat “erd appel” on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, at which time he made a shehechiyanu on the new “fruit”. While the appropriateness of making a shehechiyanu on a potato may not be universally accepted,10 it may nevertheless be well to remember this other tapuach and the beneficence with which Hashem has granted us both enjoyment and sustenance over the years.