Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 1998 / 13 Kislev, 5759

Nabisco is one of several
multi-billion dollar corporations
that has seen its
going 'kosher' pay off financially

Jonathan Mark

Kosher In Wonderland

DESPITE THE JEWISH COMMUNITY’S DOOMSDAY DEMOGRAPHICS, more and more Americans are looking for the label.

Many things were once off-limits to Jews — including a good menu. There was a hit song—"Bulbes" (Potatoes) — in Jewish music halls back in 1911 that goes through a Jew’s day-to-day menu."

"Zuntik, bulbes,

"Montik, bulbes,

"Dinstik un Mitvoch, bulbes,

"Donershtik un Fritik, bulbes,

"Shabbes [for variety], a bulbe kugeleh,

"Zuntik, vayter, bulbes!"

At least potatoes were kosher. Jewish historian Jenna Weissman Joselit reports that kosher-keeping Jews were fading away. "Between 1914 and 1924," writes Joselit, "the consumption of kosher meat in the Greater New York area fell by 25 to 30 percent. By the mid-1930s ... levels of kosher observance had fallen so low that [one magazine said] it made ‘Jew and gentile alike wonder that kosher is a still a word to four million people in the USA.’ "

Kosher was belittled and sentimentalized by most Jews or presented with a sanitized image by adherents. They said kosher food was proven, not by rabbis but by scientists, to be good for you. Forget what G-d wanted; the main thing was you didn’t get trichinosis. Jewish manufacturers kept apologizing: Horowitz-Margareten’s slogan vouched for their matzahs’ "cleanliness."

Contributing the free-fall was the Reform movement’s radical ruling in 1885 that keeping kosher was "apt to obstruct rather than enhance" one’s Judaism.

But now we’ve come full circle. I quote from Joselit’s article in the Winter 1998 issue of Reform Judaism, where she writes: "Keeping kosher or consuming kosher food is neither alien nor out of step with contemporary America."

Despite Jewish continuity’s doomsday demographics, all is well for kosher in America. In 1998, kosher food reporting is an avalanche of positive numbers. According to the Kosherfest ’98 exposition, held last week at New York’s Meadowlands, 10 million Americans look for the kosher label; the potential market is 74 million; for sixth straight year, industry sales have increased by 12 to 15 percent, approaching $4 billion in annual sales; 2,500 products have been certified kosher in the last year.

But kosher food isn’t a business to most of us; it’s lunch. It’s not unlike the drones who complain that baseball is a business. It may a business to the owners and agents, but to the fan it’s a game. And we want lunch.

So we went across the river, last week, to the two-day Kosherfest ’98. (Just a few more numbers: 450 booths, 10,000 visitors, buyers and visitors from 37 states and Turkey, Japan, Philippines, even Israel.)

So what’s new? On one hand, not too much. First prize for "Year-Round Jewish Ethnic Food — Shelf Stable" went to Gold’s Horseradish Sauce. Maybe a Phillipino buyer doesn’t know from Gold’s Horseradish, but I assume, dear reader, you know.

First prize for "Year-Round Jewish Ethnic Food — Refrigerated" went to SeaSpecialties for packaged Citrus Smoked Salmon. It tastes like that time you went to a bris and someone spilled Tropicana on your bagel.

What do some of these kid chefs know? Ossie’s Famous Gourmet Fish Market offered samples of their gefilte fish with horseradish cooked in. That’s like putting ice cubes in beer. You miss the point, Ossie. It’s not just the horseradish flavor on the fish; it’s the color, the beetiness that you lose, the grainy sensation of the horseradish in and of itself.

Then there was jalapeno gefilte fish and Cajun gefilte fish, everything but jambalaya, crawfish pie and filet gumbo. To speak for Lenny Bruce, that kind of gefilte fish is too goyish.

Here’s what’s Jewish. The booth where Bosco and seltzer come together out of a soda machine of the sort found at luncheonette counters. We also learned that our great ancestral U-Bet chocolate syrup, that wonderful Shabbat staple — back when Shabbat was still Shabbes — is distributed now by Kedem, which also goes very well with seltzer.

Oh where have you been my blue-eyed son? Oh where have you been my darlin’ young one?

I saw Rubashkin’s Italian and Polish sausages on a rotating grill.

At the Maxi-Health booth there was a bowl of celery and carrots that no one seemed to eat.

There was parve chile and caviar served up with Tam Tams.

I saw French wines that were cleared by the Bet Din of Paris.

I’ve seen Jerusalem Pastries’ sugar-free vanilla biscuits.

I drank Red Hook Extra Special Bitter Ale, the first microbrew with an O-U.

And Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, which was like an old friend.

And Little Green Valley’s pickles in brine.

And Gabila’s square knish from old Coney Island.

I heard of a kasha festival, held yearly upstate.

I’ve seen bowls of schav, which was French before it was Yiddish.

And the Tribe of Two Sheiks’ cream cheese and chunky lox spreads.

And a European chef cooked glatt kosher venison.

Big business knows no boundaries. At the booth for Frito Lays and Ruffles, owned by Pepsico, we learned that Pepsico just bought 50 percent of Israel’s Elite candy company. Elite makes and markets Pepsico’s salty snacks in Israel, including Doritos and Cheetos. Closer to home, Cohen’s Chopped Liver won honorable mention for "Year-Round Jewish Ethnic Food — Frozen."

An aisle away, New York’s Mickey Succor of the Cannily Factory did well with his cheesecake, cannoli and Sfogliatelle, a leafy pastry. Zucaro says his food is kosher "because I’m in the New York market. If I was in Tennessee I wouldn’t be kosher."

A few booths down, Robbie Roberts, who owned a soul food restaurant, Robbie’s Rib Cage, was scoring big with his all-natural barbecue sauces.

He tells us that a customer once asked him for a sauce with no sugar. Robbie threw some stuff together, "It was awful." A week later, he ran out of his regular sauce and served up the saltless and sugarless, made only with herbs and spices. He says people loved it; the sauce just needed some aging.

In the last 48 hours at Kosherfest, says Roberts, his sauce was hooked up with representatives from Shop-Rite, Pathmark, Key Food, and even St. Luke’s Hospital, which was looking for a sauce palatable for those with restricted diets.

"Try this," he says. "This is Wild Thang [sic]. It’s sweet, sassy and spicy."

Wild Thang, I think I love you.

Menachem Lubinsky, president of the firm that operates Kosherfest, is also chair of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty. All the leftovers from the massive expo were taken to fill the pantries for the poor.

Nothing was wasted.

And, as all the booths were packing up, there was Homestyle Potato Pancakes, "where you recognize every ingredient."


New JWR contributor Jonathan Mark is Associated Editor of the New York Jewish Week.


©1998 Jonathan Mark