The woman who owns Evanger's Dog and Cat Food Company phoned a few weeks back. Was I, she asked, interested in writing about their Kosher dog food. "Sure!" I said, then paused. Wait a sec...Didn't I write about you guys? No, no she assured me.
I did, and only a few years back. Which means it is too soon for me to take up the subject again; a topic like Kosher dog food needs about 20 years between columns. But in checking, I re-read this Passover piece, and decided it merits sharing, for those who missed it, or just might enjoy reading it again (heck, I enjoyed reading it again, and I wrote the damn thing). I particularly appreciated the part where I scour the Talmud for dog references. I always feed our dog Kitty before feeding myself: it seems cruel to eat in front of her. Now I see that doing so is also ordained by God. I imagine that dynamic is found in a lot of supposedly-religious practices: impulse first, then divine sanction, if available, second. Then pretend it's the other way around.
"So is Kitty keeping Passover?"
Spoken by my 15-year-old, one of those wise-ass teen questions that pour out of kids' mouths at that age. He had been asking about our family Passover plans, cringing at the thought of matzo sandwiches.
Yes, I said, at Passover—which begins Monday night—the bread gets tucked away, a minor deprivation to help remind him of the carnival of plenty that is his life. Just at that moment Kitty, our little bichon frise/shih tzu mix, squirmed.
What about the dog?
Pets are of course freed from observing the strictures of faith. But I'm a big believer in checking stuff, as opposed to just guessing.
So off to the Talmud—the rabbinic commentary over Jewish law and teachings, compiled over centuries. It runs more than 6,000 pages and contains a surprising amount about dogs. Though of course, given the nature of rabbinic debate, what it contains is often disputatious and contradictory.
Rabbi Natan, for instance, insists raising an "evil dog" violates the principles of Torah. Rabbi Yaakov Emden interprets this to mean that all dogs are forbidden, being not only evil but the sort of thing that gentiles waste their time on. Other rabbis argue there is no prohibition against all dogs, but only against those dogs that are evil. The rabbis then fall to arguing over what an evil dog might be—barking and/or biting seem to be factors.
Nor is the Talmud silent on feeding pets, using a verse in Deuteronomy to insist that— Rabbi Emden notwithstanding—you must feed your dogs before you feed yourself.
But what the Talmud says and what Jews actually do can be entirely different matters, so I consulted an oracle far outstripping the Talmud in both size and scope—Google. Plug in "Kosher dog food" and the first site that pops up is for Evanger's Dog and Cat Food Company of Wheeling, Ill.
"It's a family business," said Brett Sher, whose parents bought it in 2002. The company was started in 1935 by Dr. Fred Evanger, who raised Great Danes.
"He wanted high-quality pet food for his dogs," said Sher. "That's where it all started."
The factory is still in the barn that Evanger converted in 1935—though it is moving to Markham within three months.
"We are the only family-owned cannery making pet food in the United States," he said, emphasizing how they like to buy produce and meat from the Chicago area.
"Most of our raw materials are from Chicago," Sher said. "Ninety percent are from within 50 miles of the plant." They have 80 employees, and sell pet food in 5,000 stores nationwide and around the world.
Evanger's offers exotic fare like "Duck & Sweet Potato Dinner" and "Grain Free Pheasant." They sell pet food made of buffalo, of rabbit, of wild salmon—and of pork, a big seller in Israel, ironically. A reminder that the products are not "Kosher"—not made from approved animals slaughtered in a supervised, ritual way—but rather "Kosher for Passover," meaning they don't contain certain grains or milk products.
"We do have a rabbi who comes in, unannounced, and does an inspection to make sure we're not using chametz," said Sher.
"Chametz" means grains prohibited during Passover. The issue is not what the dog can eat, but what can be kept in the owner's house. During Passover, observant Jews rid their homes of all chametz, and most dog food contains grain. (Ironically, non-grain pork dog food can be kept in an observant Jew's home at Passover while bread cannot).
Families sometimes resort to symbolically selling their pets and pet food to the neighbors, a traditional dodge, or even boarding pets during the holiday. Or there's Evanger's.
"This way the dog can eat with the family rather than eating outside," Sher said. "It takes the hassle out of all that."
It wouldn't make much business sense to sell products only useful for a week in the spring, and then only to Jews. But many pets have gluten issues, plus there's a cachet to the word "Kosher," even in places like Japan.
"They think it's healthier so they love it," said Holly Sher, Brett's mother. "Overseas, they like it." Chicago customers like it too.
"The Kosher for Passover is a large selling point for some people," said Travis Thomas, owner of Wigglyville pet boutique — Evanger's isn't sold by chains, just independents.
It is God, in the book of Exodus, who orders Jews not to have bread in their homes during Passover: "Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses."
There is another passage in Exodus that I was surprised the Talmudic rabbis didn't pick up on: "But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue," God says in 11:7. Now maybe the Lord was referring exclusively to Egyptian dogs. But I think the argument could be made that God was recognizing and accepting the presence of all dogs. Which, thanks to Evanger's, can be fed right next to the pious Seder table.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 24, 2013