A Look Back at KosherFest

Egg rolls beckoned me, and then bruschetta, sausage, dairy-free Napoleons, pickled beets. My hands teemed with sesame seed crackers, vegetable soups, pizza bagels. I sampled fish balls, gluten-free bread, Asian stir fry, vegetable sushi, roast beef. In the next row of booths, I said yes to tofu ice cream bars, coffee-infused vodka, dried fruit, gelatin-free candy, jello with kosher gelatin, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, potato pancakes, pareve bonbons. There were six more aisles to go. I was euphoric. I was bloated. It was 9:25 AM. I was at KosherFest 2010: the World’s Biggest Kiddush. And let us all say, Amen.

Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel and say to them: My offering. My food for My fires, My satisfying aroma, shall you be scrupulous to offer to Me in its appointed time…male lambs in their first year, unblemished….with a tenth-ephah of fine flour as a meal offering, mixed with a quarter-hin of crushed oil….for a satisfying aroma…an intoxicating libation for Hashem… (Numbers, 28:1-7)

Kosher Fest, which returned to the Secaucus Exposition Center November 8-9 2011, is the largest kosher food trade show in the known world. In its 23 years, the annual event has evolved into a two-day spectacle during which over 300 vendors congregate, kibitz, connect.

There was a time when you had to get your kosher food at a kosher food store, and it was all made by three companies: Manischewitz, Rokeach and Streit. For meat, either you had a local kosher butcher or you didn’t. That was kosher food in the 1970’s. The food was too dry, too salty, or both. It came with the territory. We didn’t complain. What were we expecting, chateaubriand?

Times have changed. Twenty years ago there were 16,000 products under kosher supervision. Now there are more than 110,000 products that have a K or O-U certification. The kosher industry estimates that 85% of the kosher food purchased in the United States is bought by people who are non-religious Jews. (In 1975 my guess would have been “zero percent.”) Kosher meat is made by large, international producers like Meal Mart. Local, Abba and Eema kosher butchers are going out of business.

The global expansion of the kosher food industry is what created KosherFest, and KosherFest has paved the way for even more expansion. I had to take my belly into the belly of the beast.

The Secaucus Exposition Center is a predictably large and non-descript assemblage of unmarked, unremarkable buildings. Lost, I walked in circles until I spotted a woman wearing a denim skirt and hat to match. She led me right to KosherFest. Out front a man carrying twenty boxes of something called a “Bei’gel” was arguing with several men wearing suits and brandishing walkie-talkies, something about a no-loading zone. Men in black suits and long beards smoked cigarettes, checked their blackberries, and watched the drama unfold.

I waited for security patdown – men on the left, women on the right – and walked into the cavernous convention hall. It was clear immediately that this was going to be an overwhelming experience. I headed into the conference room to catch the commencement address being given by Menachem Lubinsky, founder and impresario of KosherFest.

“There are two places in the world: New York and outside New York,” began Lubinsky. He talked about the influx of young people into the kosher consumer market, conflicts between supervising rabbis, the rise of kosher soy products, how Twitter has affected shopping habits: “One mom goes to the store and 20 minutes later all the strawberry jam is gone.”

“The Kosher industry has finally figured out its consumer,” continued Lubinsky. “The first KF was nine people serving potato kugel. How many kugels do you see today?”

After the talk a marketing rep for Albertson’s was talking shop. New kosher grocery stores and kosher bakeries in Chicago. Clifton, New Jersey. Texas. Raleigh. In mid-sentence he grabs a man’s arm as he is walking by.

“I hear we have babka in a box….”

“Don’t tell anybody!”

There were 209 food exhibit booths, and one booth for mincha services.

I started at the Holy Cow kosher beef jerky stall. Holy Cow was founded by two guys who moved to Utah a few years ago and started experimenting with jerky technique. They make a batch of beef jerky in five different flavors every two months, depending on demand. (sweet and spicy, original, teriyaki, hickory, pepperoni) The beef goes through 18 months of aging and curing. Delicious.

I walked past two Latinas cooking pizza bagels in a toaster oven. I walked past the Aaron’s display and their 12 quart crock pot bubbling over with cocktail franks. I walked past Kosher wine. Kosher hemp oil with enhanced omega 6. Kosher chocolates. Kosher dinner rolls.

A guy sidles up to me. He makes no eye contact but stands very close. In my lower peripheral vision I see he is holding a large tray of muffins and dessert breads right below my fingertips. He looks away and out of the corner of his mouth, like a pusher, says, “Go ahead try one. Go ahead, take it. Grandma’s finest, you’re going to love it.” I felt dirty. The banana bread was to die for.

I stepped up to Schafer Fish. There was fish on display and some nice photos of the outdoors. I struck up a conversation with the owner.

“You’ve heard about the Asian carp invasion?” he asked.

“Not sure that I have.”

“They are wiping out all other marine life in the Great Lakes.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Not for us. We sell carp.”

I walk up to Mikee sweet sauces. A guy in a large toque is sweating over three hot plates, cutting up 10 pounds of raw chicken breast at a time. I move on.

Turns out Gus’s Pickles is no longer owned by Gus’s family, and it no longer sells its half-sours and full-sours on the Lower East Side. Nothing is sacred.

Two Mexicans are sitting in a stall wearing the clothing of Jewish peasants in pogrom-era Russia, fake beards and mustaches included. They look like chorus members for a regional production of Fiddler on the Roof. They are busy making braided candles from yellow wax. Tevye laces up the strings on a wood frame while Perchik readies the next batch of wax. Amazingly, they are drawing a crowd. I am starting to feel dizzy.

I start to binge: Tehina filled falafel /olives /vegetarian pigs in blanket (surprisingly edible)/ Pop n Box microwave popcorn/Chopstik frozen kosher Chinese/Elite watermelon juice/skull shaped painted bottles of tequila/Bravo Sol sangria in a box (looking for a distributor/squeezable hummus (served by a guy wearing a crown)/dried guava/couscous/horse radish/Uncle Moishy Pizza. I see vendors hawking (kosher?) cell phones, credit cards, Kosher Spirit magazine, applications for the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts on Coney Island Avenue, and a booth selling challah dough covers (three colors: Black, Blue and Bordeaux). A black-hatted Hasid checks his Blackberry while getting a shoe shine.

I have over 150 booths still to go.

A TV commercial plays overhead: A middle-aged man with a long beard sits down on a bench, opens his briefcase, and takes out a frozen fruit bar. He unwraps it, says a prayer, then closes his eyes. His head rolls back in chaste ecstasy as strawberries float down from above.

I meet Paula Shoyer, author of The Kosher Baker, a pareve dessert book. (available on Amazon) Here’s what you need to know about Paula Shoyer, with emphasis provided by PAULA SHOYER: She went to MEDICAL SCHOOL until she had a bizarre CHEMISTRY ACCIDENT. Then she went to LAW SCHOOL and worked in ENVIRONMENTAL LAW. Then her husband got a job in SWITZERLAND. While in Switzerland she entertained DIPLOMATS and eventually managed a CATERING BUSINESS. She moved back to the United States and worked for SUZIE FISHBEIN, which INSPIRED her to write her own book. When people want to interview her she really enjoys INTERESTING QUESTIONS, like “tell me something I don’t know about you?” People are SHOCKED to hear that she coaches a TEN YEAR OLD BOYS BASKETBALL TEAM.

Moving on, I bit into and quickly spit out tuna spring rolls. My first reject of the day.

I tried the winner of the KosherFest Best in Show award: Mountain Bread, a non-dairy bread that wasn’t half bad. I moved on to the winner of Best Pasta, Rice, Bean or Soup: Zucchini Marinara. “Strips of zucchini with lightly sautéed red and green peppers.” It was fairly tasty but I couldn’t figure out where the pasta, rice, bean or soup was hiding.

Tropicana had a booth. I introduced my self to the rep. We had a conversation that was a half beat off, as is the nature of interactions at these kinds of events.

“Hi!”

“Hi!”

“How are you doing?”

“Good! How are you?”

“I’m good – how are you doing.”

“[ ]”

“Have you ever heard of our products?”

“Yes, I have heard of Tropicana. I see it at my food store.”

“Which store is that?”

“The Park Slope Food Coop.”

“Where is that?”

“Park Slope.”

It was time for my scheduled interview with Alan Bankier, CEO of Manischewitz. He’s trying to replace their gefilte fish with Moroccan fish balls. We talked about Manischewitz’s new package design. Since I was a kid, most Manischewitz products were packaged in mainly orange containers with a forest green offset. No longer – the new boxes of egg kichel and powdered soup mix are light, bright, and highlighted by primary colors plus green. It’s contemporary, eye-catching, but feels sacrilegious. Strangely, the CEO of Manischewitz doesn’t know what Hagbah is.

Do you know what the very first kosher product was? Do you know when? Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, knows the answer (soap, 1870’s). Marks spoke about the seminal moments of kashrut over the past 100 years: The Heinz family wanting to sell vegetarian baked beans to Jews in 1925; Entenmann’s putting its entire product line under kosher certification in 1981. Richard Nixon had only kosher meat in the White House!

Gil started answering questions from the audience. “I have no idea how the taste of imitation crab compares to the real thing.” “More Jews today eat salsa and sushi than shmaltz and shisliks” He segued into an impersonation of Mickey Mouse. Gil Marks has a publicist.

Joan Nathan gave a speech on new book on Jewish French cooking: Quiche, Kugels & Cous Cous. She pronounced the word “croissant” beautifully.

As she spoke, an old man circled the room, offering his ice cream bar to strangers. “I took it but now I don’t want it.” Time is of the essence when you are giving away a frozen dessert. He put it in the face of a woman who was already eating an ice cream bar. At first she shook her head, waved him off; but then she took the bar and put it in her purse.

All day I ate, listened, ate and listened. The quality and variety of food was truly astounding. Kashrut has always been about deprivation, scarcity of options. At KosherFest it felt abundant, prolific, mainstream, gourmet, almost chic. The old ways are dying. How should I feel about this? Kashrut was a differentiator, a source of identity. Now I am part of the 15 percent. Does my Jewish identity get lost in the mighty river of commerce?

And that’s what KosherFest is: A trade show. Not once at did I hear someone talk about WHY Jews keep kosher, the spiritual component. Kashrut has entered the stream of commerce. There is money to be made. Maybe this is a good thing. Why should I be stuck with the same boiled beef and gefilte fish at every holiday meal? What’s wrong with multicultural cuisine, organic, grass fed, free range?

Nothing and everything. We live in a commoditized world. Have a little chicken soup with shitake and lemongrass. Just like your Bubbe used to make it.

Joshua Kranz is a lawyer and writer.  He lives in Brooklyn.  Sometimes he blogs: http://generalrodetsky.blogspot.com/. ...read more

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