When kosher food came out of the closet

From two-minute cholent to an oversized chicken nugget in the shape of Greater Israel, Kosherfest – America's largest kosher food trade show – has it all.

Joan Nathan tastes Bamba for the first time at Kosherfest 2013.
Joan Nathan tastes Bamba for the first time at Kosherfest 2013. / Photo by Vered Guttman
By Vered Guttman
Published 16:27 01.11.13

Menachem Lubinsky, founder and president of America’s largest kosher trade show, sounded emotional early on Tuesday morning, as he announced the opening of the 25th Kosherfest in Secaucus, New Jersey, before a crowd of about 25 people. By noon the place was packed and it was almost impossible to move around.

Twenty five years ago, Lubinsky said in his presentation, all you could sample at Kosherfest was kugel, gefilte fish and pickles. But as time passed, kosher food moved on to the next generation. And this generation is no less than a golden age in the kosher world: from 16,000 kosher products available in the United States in 1988 to about 200,000 products today, manufactured in 99 countries. The food show, he said, “brought kosher out of the closet.”

The world’s largest chicken nugget by Empire Kosher Poultry, as seen at Kosherfest 2013.
The world’s largest chicken nugget by Empire Kosher Poultry, as seen at Kosherfest 2013. / Photo by Vered Guttman

Cookbook author Joan Nathan, one of the panelists speaking at the event, tied the increased number of kosher products to the rise of the women's movement. While in 1925 most women cooked homemade food for their families from scratch, by 1965 about 75 percent of them relied on prepared and packaged food. This correlated with an increased demand for kosher food.

Almost 20 years ago, when Nathan wrote "Jewish Cooking in America," there were only a few Jewish chefs. "Today there are hundreds and hundreds of them," she told me. "And I hate to say it, but there are even tattooed Jewish chefs today!"

I spent the rest of the morning with Nathan, walking through aisles of countless rugelach and gefilte fish booths. We liked the hickory smoked beef brisket by Premier Tasty Meats from Texas; the excellent Italian olive oil from Coppini Arte Olearia; and the minced black truffle from Truffle Corner. We were impressed by Rachel’s Organic's kosher free-range chicken, astonished by pizza cones and by wine bottles decorated with images of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Equally impressive was the thought put into Manischewitz’s new Passover line, Kitni, which offers kosher for Passover legume (Kitniyot) products for Sephardi Jews. Runa’s Amazonian Guayusa tea and Bruce Cost’s ginger ale brought a little new Brooklyn appeal to a show that used to have old-style Brooklyn appeal in its early days.

Then Nathan spotted an A&B Famous Gefilte Fish stand.

“These are really good,” Marty Fogel, a long-bearded man at the stand told me. I confessed that I had never tried gefilte fish in my life. “Eat it.” He said

“I won’t,” I replied.

“Eat it!”

“I won’t!”

We continued to the Gourmet To Go stand, a new Israeli line by Schulz Catering that presents a line of two-minute heating delicacies, such as shakshuka, lentil and mint salad, and best of all – a two-minute cholent - as opposed to the more conventional twelve-hour cholent we’re used to. And it was actually aromatic and tasty.

The one-portion, two-minute kits are popular among kosher-keeping travelers who search for a simple and easy solution on the go, a friendly staff member at the stand explained.

At the tempting large stand of Amit Pastry I was excited to find good looking, Turkish-style burek with mushroom, cheese and eggplant fillings. LaPastilya, at the same booth, presented Moroccan cigars and pastels, and even good parve kibbeh. An Israeli spice company, Pereg, presented their wonderful spice mixes for kibbeh, shawarma, kebab and more.

We then reached a stand with a large scale, on it what at first glance seemed to be a three-dimensional topographic map of the Greater Israel. Even at a second glance, I still didn’t get it. Someone then explained to us that we were witnessing the world’s largest chicken nugget! A record 23-kilogram (51-pound) nugget by Empire Kosher Poultry. How appetizing!

“People who keep kosher eat dairy until one o’clock, drink parve wine in the afternoon, and eat meat later,” Lubinsky told us, referring to the habits of those who visited the food show.

By that point, I had no idea what I had eaten and when.

Then I spotted the stand of Osem - an Israeli food company that also exports to the United States. It had a huge container piled with bags of Bamba - every Israeli kid’s favorite peanut- butter flavored snack. I knew where I was going to spend the next hour.

“What is this snack?” asked Nathan, who had apparently never tasted Bamba before. It was a proud moment in my career, in which I got to introduce my favorite childhood snack to the queen of Jewish American cooking.

And she loved it.

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  • 1.
    Ovadia Yosef
    Is that photograph on the wine bottle the same Ovadia Yosef who says that the goyim are donkeys that G-d put on earth to serve the Jews?