I give credit to my friend Richard for telling me about this one.

It's a startling thought, but a large number of people don't even know what kosher means. I don't expect people to know everything about Jewish culture, or even a lot about any culture that's not their own, but I would think that most people, especially people in the deli business, would know that it is impossible for ham to be kosher. I thought wrong.

Apparently, about ninety percent of the time, if you ask a deli worker if they have any kosher ham, they will check or tell you what they do have. They are supposed to "get it," and laugh, but they often don't. My friend Richard, who actually executed this prank numerous times, gave me the following story:

    About two decades ago I was getting sandwiches for the family at my late mother-in-law's favorite deli. One of these was a ham sandwich. For no reason whatever, I decided then and there to ask the deli lady, "Is this kosher ham?" Instead of the scornful laugh I was expecting, her response was, "I don't know, I don't buy the meat, I just make the sandwiches." I said nothing in response, having been rendered speechless by such crass ignorance.

    That incident was an isolated one for about ten years or so. I thought of it as a fluke. Surely the vast majority of people out there knew better! Or so I assumed. Wrong!!

    I decided to try this again about ten years ago, this time at the deli counter of my favorite supermarket (where I am such a regular as to be regarded as "like family"). Sure enough, when I asked the young lady if they used kosher ham, she picked up a pre-made sandwich, began to study the label closely . . . until I let her in on the "secret." Couldn't believe it.

    Since then I have repeatedly "gotten away with" this joke, with people I thought surely would know that it was, indeed, a joke. Some highlights:

    A couple of years later, I was checked out at this same supermarket by a key carrier (that's the lowest level management position, in case you didn't know). Having rung up my total, he dutifully asked, "Anything else?" I remarked, "No, that's it . . . I wanted a kosher ham, but your meat department didn't have one." I expected a laughing response: After all, he was management, no less! But to my astonishment, he came back with a sincere "Would you like me to see if I can have them get you one?" The look on his face was eloquent testimony to his lamblike innocence here, so I picked right up on it. With a tone and facial expression of surprised gratitude I said, "Oh, WOULD you? I just can't tell you how thoroughly I would appreciate it!" So he assured me that he would talk to the meat manager in the morning.

    I did get laughs from an old man standing behind me in line here . . . I thought he was going to start rolling on the floor. But the key carrier? Airplane joke, wire to wire.

    Since then I have played this one-liner on a great many people. California must be a vast wasteland of cultural ignorance, because only about one person in ten calls me on my contradiction. Then there was one "fence-sitter." I said "kosher ham" to another shopper in the store, a man about my age with his family. He looked at me questioningly, echoing, "Kosher ham?" So I followed up with, "Yeah! I got the recipe from O'Malley's Kosher Restaurant on Flatbush Avenue, see?" He said, "Oh, OK," and let it go at that. Guess he wasn't sure what sounded phony about it, but he was afraid to look stupid.

    I would have thought that the aforementioned management employee's ignorance was the best one yet, but just recently, a "topper" edged him out of first place. It happened in the season leading up to this year's Passover/Easter time, in the same favorite store of mine. This time, I started jokingly asking the new butcher, a man whom I judge to be at least my age, when he was going to get in a kosher ham. He would always put me off with some evasive remark. He was going along with my gag, so I thought, always coming up with a different clever means of brushing aside my intentionally foolish question. This all came to a head when one day, after I had again asked for this nonexistent product, he beckoned me to the counter. Tearing off a piece of butcher paper, he asked me to write down my name and telephone number, saying that he would have his boss, the meat manager, contact me about getting this kosher ham that I just had to have in time for Passover! (Yes, the nature of our conversations did cause him to misidentify me as Jewish.) At that point, I felt I just had to "come clean." I said, "Look, Mister, are you for real here? Don't do this!" I didn't want him to look so foolish to his boss. "I thought for sure you were just going along with the gag all this time!" "What gag?" he asked. So, forcing myself not to laugh in his face out of respect for his sincerity and dignity, I explained to him the meaning of "kosher," and the fact that there was not, nor could there ever be, a "kosher" ham or pork product of any type whatsoever. His explanation was a bland, "Well, I was raised Catholic." I must give him credit for being a good sport, though: Just yesterday he saw me, then laughingly told a young lady working there as a stock girl about my "kosher" gag at his expense.

So there you have it. I have tried this once with my friend Joe in a supermarket, and the deli guy had no idea what we meant. He didn't even know what "kosher" meant, actually. Try it yourself and see.

People call all sorts of things by names that are outright wrong. Katz's Deli in Austin, Texas, a place to get excellent-if-pricey sandwiches at all hours of the night, is kosher yet serves what they call salami. It's not salami. Salami, by definition, has pork in it. It's a tasty dried beef product that they call a kosher salami, but it's not really a salami. You could take a piece of beef or turkey and do something to it and claim it's a ham, and it might be kosher.

If I were running a deli and you came in asking for kosher ham, telling you you're crazy sounds like bad business. I'd tell you I'd look into it, and then maybe see if I can get something that people call a kosher ham despite not being an actual ham due to not being made from the flesh of a dead pig.

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