NEW YORK, Nov. 4 (JTA) — What do you get when you combine pastrami, gefilte fish, kosher cat food and Campbell´s vegetarian vegetable soup? A kosher food trade show. More than 12,000 people turned out last week for Kosherfest 2003, the kosher food industry´s largest annual trade show, held Oct. 28-29 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. All the usual suspects were on hand — Empire chicken, Tabachnik soups, Osem snack foods and Gold´s horseradish, among others — and the convention floor was a panoply of nearly every different kind of Jewish food imaginable. From kasha to cheesecake, lox spread to mint-flavored soda, bison beef to fine wines, there was plenty to sample and scrutinize at the annual gathering of kosher food lovers and sellers. They came from as close as Brooklyn and as far away as Jerusalem — and from Chile and London and Mexico City, too. Old-timers like Scholomber Raskin, of Raskin´s Fish, were peddling pieces of gefilte fish that looked like they could have come straight from the rebbe´s Shabbos table. Down the aisle, a group of young Israeli entrepreneurs were demonstrating the subtle virtues of a new dessert wine made in the Galilee. Squeezed between a cookie stand and a meat purveyor, two fervently Orthodox men from Brooklyn tended to their display of pickles, whitefish salad and lox spread, stirring the samples whenever they started to get a little crusty. Pressed to explain the difference between sour pickles and half-sour pickles, which are crunchier and a lighter shade of green, the pickle-sellers hesitated. One murmured a few words in Yiddish to the other, then turned back to the customers and shifted into Yiddish-accented English. "The way I´m processing the pickles," he said. "It´s not the ingredients; it´s how long it stays in the ingredients." Half-sour pickles are refrigerated, sour pickles heated, he explained. The pickle salesman, Meyer, insisted his last name not be printed for fear that readers would try to mooch pickled treats off him. "I don´t want people should beg me for some stuff," he explained. According to Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of IMC Events and Exhibitions, which co-produced Kosherfest along with Diversified Business Communications, the U.S. market for kosher food is about $7.5 billion annually. Some of the demand comes from people who eat kosher because they think it is cleaner or healthier, Lubinsky said. Other non-Jews, including Muslims and Hindus, eat kosher because they seek foods that are certifiably meat-free — or, if they´re lactose intolerant, dairy-free. The United States produces $170 billion worth a year of processed food certified as kosher, and $300 billion of kosher ingredient foods, said Lubinsky, who also is the editor of Kosher Today, the industry´s monthly trade publication. Israeli products are one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. kosher food market. In the past six months, exports of foods from Israel to the United States rose by 35 percent, Lubinsky said. Many of the purveyors at Kosherfest were Israeli. Down the aisle from the pickle-sellers, a crowd was gathered in front of the Abeles & Heymann booth, where a steer´s worth of glatt-kosher meats was on display. People snapped up sample salami slices with toothpicks or their hands, plunging the meat into a bowl of mustard and popping it into their mouths three, four or five slices at a time. The lucky ones got little pieces of hot dogs, which were slowly turning on a griller. Israel Wertentheil, a young sales manager at the Bronx-based gourmet meat company, reported that earlier in the day an elderly convention-goer had grabbed a 12-inch garlic stick — basically, a long, spicy hot dog — before it was finished cooking on the grill, dropped it into a bag and disappeared before employees could stop him. Others tried to grab whole salamis and smoked meats that were not part of the free samples. Security guards who looked as if they moonlighted as bouncers for Manhattan nightclubs eyed convention- goers suspiciously at the exhibition hall´s exits, stopping more people than agents at airport security. "Is that a salami in your pocket?" a guard asked one middle-aged man who was trying to slip past. The man turned red. It was a salami, and a package of hot dogs was stowed under his arm. Both were confiscated. "Almost every food show or trade show has that," Lubinsky said. "We tried to confiscate most of the food going out, to make sure that the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty gets more food after the show." Most purveyors donated their leftover food to the Met Council, which this year distributed almost $200,000 worth of Kosherfest leftovers to poor people in New York, according to Lubinsky. The entrance fee for the two-day show was $50, and it seemed that more than a few customers had come to load up on at least $50 worth of free food. They came with their children and their wives, their husbands and their friends. Some wore business suits and were doing as much hand-shaking and schmoozing as they were sampling. Others focused solely on the food, mapping out a strategy to visit each booth during the show, dividing their time between dairy and meat. Attendance at the trade show was up slightly from last year, Lubinsky said, and more than 280 exhibitors were on hand. Not everyone at the trade show was showcasing food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was on hand to answer questions about oversight, policy and law. Kosher certification agencies came to promote their certifications. Fabulous Paper came to sell its food-related paper products. One woman came to promote her city, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "Would you like to move to our community?" she asked passers-by, handing out fliers promoting the city´s synagogues, Jewish communal facilities and overall quality of life. "Do you have hot dogs?" asked one confused convention-goer, looking around the booth plastered with promotional material. Perhaps the items that won the most oohs and aahs were La Briute´s ready-to-eat meals. Packaged in boxes that look much like frozen dinners, the meals do not need refrigeration and are self-heating. Each prepackaged entree — dishes such as chicken primavera and beef stew — comes in a sealed pouch, along with a small bag of sodium water and a little tray. Diners pour the sodium water on the tray, put the food on top of it, and slide it back into the box package. A couple of minutes later the box starts to steam, and soon the meal is hot and ready to eat. A few hundred of these meals were sent to Jewish U.S. troops in Iraq during the High Holidays, the president of the company, Abe Halberstam, said. When asked how he came up with the formula for the self-heating meals, Halberstam, who looks like a Bobover Chasid, quipped, "Let´s put it this way: It didn´t come from graduating from Bobover University." Avidov Bernstein was one of many Israelis who came to the show. Bernstein runs a Jerusalem catering company called Quiche, and he said he came to Kosherfest see what was out there in the market. "I told my wife I had to come, since it was business," Bernstein said. He patted his stomach. "There was nothing she could say," he said with a grin.
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.