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"Sure, we can make you some veal," he offered.
My editor had the ahi tuna salad, which was very tasty. The veal Milanese that was set down in front of me looked odd. It was covered with bread crumbs, and it arched strangely above the plate in places, stiff from being too well fried. It tasted okay. I ate about half and asked the waiter to put the rest in a doggie bag.
We had a couple of espressos and split a dessert, then we walked to my car with the Styrofoam to-go box in hand. The computer-generated text on the receipt listed my entrée as "Veal Milanese." In the front seat, I enacted a ritual that had become well ingrained by now. With my editor as a witness, I extracted a baggie and a plastic mailing envelope from my briefcase. Then I took the piece of veal from the white Styrofoam to-go container and dropped it into the baggie. This in turn went into the tamper-proof mailing envelope. I sealed it and wrote ZINLO across the seal with a Sharpie. The five-letter code was derived from the first three letters of the name of the restaurant and the first two letters of the street on which it is located.
I dropped my editor off at the Houston Press office and headed home, where I placed the mailing bag in my freezer alongside all the other sealed and coded envelopes. I had been collecting veal samples from Houston restaurants for almost a year. Finally, it was time for the verdict.
I put the envelopes in a box and sent the package to the University of Texas at Austin's Biochemistry Center. There, department chairman Dr. Barrie Kitto supervised tests to determine the species of the meats.
A few days later he delivered the preliminary results: Two out of ten veal samples tested positive for pork.
"That's incredible. It's scandalous," said Rabbi Brenner Glickman, the president of the Houston Rabbinical Association and a rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue, when I told him about the test results.
Serving pork and calling it veal is one of the most onerous frauds in the restaurant industry. The eating of pork is forbidden to Jews and Muslims, and deceiving them into eating it is a violation of their civil rights.
Jews who keep strictly kosher and Muslims who keep strictly halal can't eat in most restaurants. But Glickman explained that the majority of Houston Jews attempt to follow the spirit of kosher law rather than keeping strictly kosher.
"I do not personally keep a strict kosher diet," he said. "Like many Jews, I like to eat out in restaurants, but I abstain from ordering dishes with pork or bacon or shellfish. So this issue is very relevant to me. Substituting pork for veal is reprehensible. It means that Jews who eat in these restaurants who are trying to observe their religion are being deceived into violating the Torah. It's repulsive."
Glickman said that lots of people think Jews don't eat pork because of some outdated fear of trichinosis, but that's not true. Biblical scholars more accurately describe the avoidance of pork by Jews as a deep-seated religious taboo. "Eating pigs is to us what eating horses or eating dogs is for other Americans," Glickman said with disgust.
The Houston Muslims contacted were equally irate.
"Substituting pork for veal is doubly immoral," said Sheikh Omar Inshanally, imam at the Main Center of the Islamic Society of Houston, North America's largest Islamic community organization. "Not only is it dishonest business, it is also interfering with somebody else's faith." The Islamic community is particularly vulnerable to this kind of cheating, he said.
"Muslims who are trying to consume only halal products have to rely totally on the information provided by the seller," he said. "The label on the bottle or the words on a menu are all we have to go by if we're trying to stay halal. Even if Muslims aren't very devout, they still won't eat pork. Substituting pork for veal is a major, major offense to us as Muslims."
Salman Al-Khatib, a spokesman for Houstonmuslims.com, said that the news of these tests will have a major impact on many Houston ethnic communities. "In the Pakistani and Indian tradition, from the time of childhood, you don't eat pork. What people don't realize is that halal is a very serious concept. These are foods that are prohibited by God."
The tip came in about two years ago, right after my story on seafood scams appeared ("Fish Fraud," November 1, 2001). That story revealed that the "red snapper" on the menu of many Houston restaurants was actually tilapia or some other cheap frozen fillet. But according to this tip, a far more serious fraud was going on in Houston. Pork was being substituted for veal, it alleged, and one place where this was happening was Cafe Elegante. Before I could investigate, the restaurant went out of business.