SECAUCUS, N.J. (JTA) – Gefilte fish? Check. Pastrami? Check.
Kosher-for-Passover anti-constipation pills? Edible spoons for bar mitzvah appetizers? A cholov Yisroel-certified alternative to the nutritional supplement drink Ensure? Check, check, check.
Welcome to Kosherfest, the annual kosher food trade show where hundreds of kosher food companies come together to hawk their wares, luring their would-be customers with free samples of everything from vegan lasagna to an imitation bacon (“facon”) to carrot cake macaroons. There was also plenty of spirits on hand, including vodka, arak and tequila.
Not bad for a weekday afternoon.
Held last week at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in this suburban New York town, the two-day convention featured a mix of old and new. There were longstanding staples like Streit’s matzah, Kedem wine and Gold’s horseradish (unfortunately, too far away from the booth of A&B Famous Gefilte Fish). And there were lots of newer entries to the market, like a nitrate-free cured meat called biltong (courtesy of Joburg Kosher), hot sauce from a company called Burning Bush and kosher-for-Passover chocolates shaped like frogs and locusts from Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe (more plagues may follow!).
“There’s a lot more sampling than other food shows,” observed second-time Kosherfest exhibitor Terry Grant, the president of Smokinlicious, which sells kosher-certified wood products for use in barbecuing. “It’s almost like a deli.”
The market for kosher food in America is growing. Consultants maintain it’s a $12.5 billion-a-year industry, though it’s hard to say exactly what the figure represents.
What is clear is that in this age of heightened food awareness and concern about the provenance of food, a growing number of companies are going out of their way to advertise their kosher status or obtain kosher certification.
About 8,000 facilities representing some 4,500 companies are under the supervision of the Orthodox Union, America’s largest kosher-certification agency. About 28 percent of all new food products launched in 2008 (the latest year available) were certified as kosher, according to a study conducted by the marketing firm Mintel.
Kosher may be enough of a dietary restriction for most, but a growing number of companies are trying to reach more restricted segments of the kosher market. At Kosherfest, there were gluten-free cookies from Allie’s Gluten Free Goodies, organic poultry from Wise Organic Pastures and vegan “seafood” from Sophie’s Kitchen. There were also nutritional shakes from Nugen certified as cholov Yisroel, meaning that the dairy production was supervised by Jews to adhere to a more stringent strain of kosher observance favored by some strictly Orthodox Jews.
One oddly labeled product offered cooked, textured soy slices certified as both pareve and glatt — an impossibility since glatt refers to meat from animals whose lungs were inspected and found to be without blemishes, and pareve is by definition free dairy, meat or poultry.
The kosher-for-Passover category included everything from the anti-constipation pills (Nature’s Cure) to a cake baked to resemble a seder plate (Munch Real Kosher) to matzah-based granola (Foodman’s Matzolah). There were also plenty of Passover breads, which are made with potato flour instead of wheat to circumvent Passover’s prohibition against “chametz,” or leavened foods.
Some of the non-Passover breads were specially marked as “mezonot,” meaning they are made with fruit juice rather than water, thus consumers are not required to wash ritually and recite the blessings before and after meals. Mezonot rolls are commonly used on airplanes for kosher meals, therefore diners can avoid getting up and navigating past seatmates and food carts to find a sink before eating. At Kosherfest, the mezonot breads included full loaves of rye.
Not all the exhibitors at Kosherfest were food companies.
Kosher certification agencies came, including one all the way from Australia. A payment processing company offered free shoe shines to those willing to hear a pitch. And Haynes Lubricants operated a booth promoting its lubricating oils for machines used in food preparation.
The most frenzied moment at the convention came near the end, when exhibitors prepared to pack up and leave. Consumers rushed forward to grab some final free samples, including items that previously had been for display purposes only. After a mad rush for the Bissli and Bamba snack bags at the Osem display, a few women emerged with their goody bags full and their wigs slightly askew.
“It was definitely more intense than I was used to,” said an employee of a promotional company who works helping exhibitors at food conferences who identified herself only as Suzie.