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Kosher Tacos Debut On The Border
The Southwest border is a place where people and cultures collide and inevitably blend into one another. For El Paso artist Peter Svarzbein it was the perfect setting to introduce a food experiment that compliments his latest project.
He combined his experience as a Jew growing up on Mexico's doorstep to create a new twist on an iconic dish.
On a July afternoon, the kitchen at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso was hotter than a desert full of burning bushes. No surprise, considering the amount of cooking that went on that day.
Chef Jose Cazares sipped a Dr Pepper in between each flip of his spatula. He fried clumps of shredded potato, or latkes, in a pan. Latkes are the traditional Jewish dish served during the Hanukkah holiday. But that's not all he cooked.
"We did six whole roasted kosher chickens, a pico de gallo, roasted green chiles, an Israeli salad" he said.
All this preparation was aimed at creating the main attraction: a kosher taco.
Levi Greenburg, assistant rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch, supervised the entire process.
"Kosher is dietary laws that are set forth by God in Torah, in the Bible, to the Jewish people," he said.
The kosher taco is the brainchild of Svarzbein, local artist and photographer.
"I actually muled 50 pounds of kosher meat from Albuquerque down to El Paso," he said.
Svarzbein paired his kosher taco experiment with a video exhibit he created on Latino crypto jews. These are the descendants of Jews who forcibly converted to Christianity as far back as the Spanish inquisition in the late 1400s. The Spanish called them 'marranos' or pigs.
"The reason they called them 'marranos' was because they would force them to eat pork to the bone to show how Christian they were," Svarzbein said. "Really it was an identity through food."
Pork is not kosher. Svarzbein's idea of joining a taco and kosher food is a nod to the Jews who fled to Latin America, particularly Mexico, to escape persecution.
"So in a way having a kosher taco is a way to take that power back and to positively identify oneself through food consumption," he said.
And thus was born Conversos y Tacos, a gourmet taco truck touring the streets of El Paso this summer.
There are three different kosher tacos to choose from. There's the chicken shwarma taco. Then the brisket taco that comes with a pickle. And finally a taco prepared with smoked beef from Ari White's famous kosher barbecue in Yonkers, New York. Each order comes with a latke and jalapeño dipping sauce.
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Leslie Garcia sat at an outdoor bench with a table full of relatives.
"They're wonderful. They're delicious," she said.
Garcia is a pastor at a non-denominational Christian church, but her family has a Jewish past.
"Our great-great-grandfather fled during the inquisition and fled through Mexico," she said. "Our whole family ended up in California, except my father opened up a business in El Paso and we are El Pasoans."
It's almost as if the Garcia family is living the kosher taco. They grew up Mexican-American and Christian. But since they discovered their Jewish roots, the family simply combined both cultures.
"We celebrate Christmas, but we like Hanukkah and we do Hanukkah so that they can understand this is where we came from," she said.
The Jewish community in El Paso is small, making kosher food hard to come by and expensive. So the taco truck is a special treat for local Jews. For Svarbein it's also an opportunity to educate. There are those in El Paso who know little or nothing about the Jewish faith.
"For me it's about creating this space of understanding of dialogue," he said. "There's places where cultures can blend together and where you can create something different something new something fresh."