Informally billed as “The world’s largest kiddush,” the two-day kosher food mega-expo known as Kosherfest was celebrating quite the victory this year: Israel’s famed Marzipan Bakery is coming to America.
The legendary Jerusalem-based bakery has regularly inspired otherwise sane people to bring an extra suitcase or two for the express purpose of filling them with the kind of gooey rugelach that, apparently, you can’t get anywhere else in the world. It’s not uncommon to witness departure scenes at JFK Airport that include this panicked refrain: “And don’t forget to bring me Marzipan!” When a concerned-looking passerby stopped by Marzipan’s booth at this week’s event to ask Dalia Schwab, the company’s director of business development, if her wares were gluten-free, Schwab didn’t hesitate: “We’ve got everything,” she deadpanned. “Eggs, sugar, oil: you name it.”
Schwab’s proud admission stood in stark contrast to representatives at nearly every other booth waxing poetic on their products’ various health benefits with the same cult-like dreaminess you see from people who chug kale smoothies after marathon gym sessions. “This isn’t food,” said a bright-eyed rabbi behind the booth of De La Rosa Real Foods & Vineyards. “It’s a way to elevate your entire self.” I personally didn’t experience any spiritual revelations after sampling his company’s organic date honey, though it certainly tasted good.
And while I’m partial to ingredients like eggs and plain old flour, it was hard to miss them in the vegan oatie bars from Allie’s Gluten Free Goodies (also nut, peanut, and coconut-free). I also enjoyed sampling cookies made with Blends by Orly’s gluten-free flour blends. “You shouldn’t be baking gluten-free cookies with the same kind of flour you would use for gluten-free pizza dough,” said Orly Gottesman, who goes by Orly the Baker.
Both of these companies—as well as several others represented at Kosherfest—were founded by people who took a more circuitous path to culinary entrepreneurship. Allison Luckman of Allie’s Gluten Free Goodies was a stay-at-home mom who began tinkering with recipes after her gluten-intolerant daughter bemoaned the lack of tasty food available to her. Orly, a New Jersey native, was living in France and had just started taking pastry-making classes when her husband was diagnosed with Celiac disease, newly unable to eat her creations. When she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia, she undertook an independent study about baking with gluten-free flour, the results of which were later incorporated into the school’s curriculum—and her new product line.
Rachelle Kassai enjoyed baking for her five kids and grandkids after a corporate career when a friend suggested she market her creations. Finchi’s by Aunt Rashi was born, and its gluten-free, low-fat, and sugar-free chocolate mousse is always one of my Kosherfest favorites, this year surpassed by the new vanilla flavor, a tiny sample of which was infused with the collective power of a thousand Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans.
My friend and I exchanged knowing glances when we walked by a booth pitching a new cholov yisroel (a stricter dairy kosher certification) nutritional supplement—both of us recovered anorexics with now hearty appetites, these densely-caloric drinks were once a hospital staple for us. “Nugen is great for seniors and people who can’t eat solid food, and who won’t eat cholov stam,” a representative explained. Since a major deterrent for very Orthodox and Hasidic families sending their daughters (or sons) to hospital in-patient programs is that the food served us not up to their kashrut standards, I suggested the company reach out to programs like The Renfrew Center in New York and Philadelphia, both of which draw large populations of Orthodox Jews, with their new product. They took notes, and just like that, I felt less gluttonous and more magnanimous.
At the Orthodox Union booth, Phyllis Koegel, the kosher-certification organization’s only female executive—and the reason items like Tootsie Rolls, Gatorade, and Jelly Bellys are kosher-certified—was busy networking.
Other items of note this year included vegetarian schwarma, carrot cake macaroons, and edible ladles. Official best in show hat tips went to Burning Bush Kosher Hot Sauce, truffle pâté from La Rusticella, DeeBee’s organic tea-flavored ice pops, and Empire’s spicy apple chicken sausage.
Kosherfest, now in its 26th year, seems to have tightened its security along with the belts of everyone in attendance. Intended only for industry professionals like caterers and restaurant managers and some light press, Kosherfest always attracts hordes of people who “know a guy” and who bring duffel bags in anticipation of mountains of free goodies to take home. People go to extreme lengths to get into this two-day buffet on steroids, waiting outside to pounce on the disregarded badges of people leaving the show. But no longer: this year guards repeatedly checked that everyone’s ID matched their name tags, and a new sign directed attendees to leave with only one bag of samples. The leftover food from each booth is now donated to City Harvest and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s community food programs.
At a certain point, with full stomachs and aching feet, my friend and I plopped down in the lobby to catch our bearings. A frantic-looking woman sped toward us with her stroller. “Can you watch my baby while I go in? I just want to run in for some food,” she said. A little astonished, we hemmed and hawed before cautiously assenting. And she sure was cute, this poor child whose mother had entrusted her to two total strangers so she could eat some kosher-for-Passover pizza. We couldn’t even offer her anything from our overflowing goodie bags, which she eyed beseechingly, as we feared potential allergic reactions. Nearly 20 minutes later, after baby Rochel had long descended into sobs at these assorted injustices, her mother came running out with a Klein’s ice-cream sundae, which she at least let her daughter sample.
Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.