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On Display

By Mordechai Schmutter, author of Don't Yell Challah in a Crowded Matzah Bakery!

copyright © 2007 Mordechai Schmutter
Reprinted with permission of the author

The general mood at Kosherfest is that everyone feels like they’re on display.

And as a matter of fact, they are on display. Kosherfest is an annual trade show at which thousands of people in the kosher food industry gather to set up booths and feed each other product samples. Basically, it’s like a big kiddush, except that everyone is allowed to talk business, because it’s not Shabbos. Also, you run into people that you had no idea were even in the food industry, and you get to catch up. “What brings you here?” “I’m from the chosson’s side.”

But I wasn’t there from the chosson’s side. I was there as press. That’s what my badge said: “Press.” Nobody pressed it. Lucky for me, because there was a pin on the back.

Kosherfest is now in its 19th year, and has always been a tremendous boon for the kosher food industry. For the sake of illustration, let’s say that you own a huge company that manufactures cheese. You have hundreds of employees, and you’re doing very well for yourself, except that you are getting a little sick of your underlings always calling you the “Big Cheese”. Now let’s say that, as a result of a serious refrigerator malfunction, you suddenly find yourself with about eighty tons of cheese that has turned blue in some places. Your natural response is to find someone to fire, but then your marketing guy informs you that what you have on your hands is actually called “blue cheese”, and that people will pay big bucks for it, especially if you pretend you did it on purpose. So you give your cheese a catchy product name, like “Back of the Fridge,” and you come to Kosherfest and set up a booth that includes little sample chunks of some of your better sellers, as well as a large tray of your “new product” that is giving off a stench that’s interfering with the smoke detectors. And then some fancy restaurant owner walks by, and you can tell that it’s a really fancy restaurant because his first reaction is, “Wow! Kosher blue cheese!” And so you sit down with him and try to strike up some kind of distribution deal over the noise of the general buzz of the room and the occasional regular, non-fancy person walking by and going, “Whoa! What’s that smell?”

Now I don’t want to sound like an uncultured swine (I am an uncultured swine, but I don’t want to sound like one, for professional reasons,) but I am not a big fan of smelly cheese. My feeling is that if Hashem had wanted us to eat blue cheese, he would have created blue milk. But I did try a piece, purely for the purpose of journalism, and I ended up running straight over to the Kedem booth.

That is not to say that all the food there was bad. In fact, most of it was good. But you could tell when the manufacturers knew that they had a good product, and when they weren’t so sure about it but were hoping to sell some anyway. The ones who knew that their food was good, such as the one that was giving out buffalo wings and lamb schwarma, just put the food out and watched quietly while everyone enjoyed it. Kind of like your Bubbie does. The ones with iffy food, meanwhile, felt like they had to spend the entire time while you were chewing describing the benefits of the food – health benefits, allergy benefits, whatever. No one felt the need to explain the benefits of the buffalo wings. Or else they explain how they came up with the product, and you have to stand there with your mouth full and pretend that you like it.

“Do you like it?” they say. “It’s not really cheese.”

“Mmmo?” you ask.

“It’s not,” they say. “We don’t even know what it is. We found it in our basement. We think it’s from that time that we tried to make havdallah candles. But it’s cheesey, huh?”

“Mm-hmm,” you say, thinking that this is definitely what Yehudis should have used in the Chanukah story.

Also, some of the companies brought along products that didn’t really translate very well into samples. I was walking down one of the aisles, looking to see if anyone was handing out coffee samples, when someone handed me a small plastic cup containing about an ounce of barbecue sauce and a pretzel. So I wanted to know: Were they selling the pretzels or the barbecue sauce? Or were they selling the little plastic cups? “Look, it can hold an ounce of barbecue sauce AND a pretzel!” I figured that they were probably selling sauce, because if they were selling pretzels, they weren’t doing a very good job selling it by implying that they were only really good with barbecue sauce. But at least this was better than some of the other sauce companies, who just handed people a small cup and a spoon.

But it turned out that they were, in fact, selling the sauce, and the woman there explained that their company was run out of Seattle by her husband, who was trying to fund his kollel. (He opened a kollel AND invented a barbecue sauce. That’s called living the American dream.) (He also gets to send his wife across the country to market it.)

In fact, a lot of booth owners tried to tell me their stories, because when they saw my badge, they thought I was actual press, and they suddenly had visions of a major write up in Hamodia that would net them millions of dollars. So I had to keep explaining to people that I’m a humor columnist, and then watch it slowly dawn on them that the more time they spent talking to me, the more of a chance there was that I would make irreverent jokes about them in print.

So I didn’t get a whole lot of interviews. But I did get to notice things like market trends. For instance, the current market trend seems to be to sell foods that aren’t really the foods that they’re supposed to be, for people who want to think that they’re eating those foods but don’t actually want to eat them, but don’t want to eat the replacement foods either unless they look like the foods that they want to think that they’re eating. Over the course of the day, I saw wheat-free bread, gluten-free noodles (made from corn), veggie chips (their slogan was, “Made from the Goodness of Beans”), peanut-free peanut butter, pareve cheesecake, dairy-free cheese, fish-free sushi, caffeine-free tea, and crabless crab cakes, which to my understanding is just cake. I like cake. But that did not taste like cake.

The trend for these kinds of foods follows the alarming discovery by the scientific community that almost everything can kill you. Except for soy, apparently. But luckily, soy can be made to taste like anything, kind of like the manna in the desert. In fact, most of the above-mentioned foods were made from soy. (The fish-free sushi was one of the exceptions -- it was made from marzipan. Seriously.) One such item, which I tasted in between shots of barbecue sauce, was a fake peanut butter made from soy. The company’s slogan, and I heard them telling this to at least three people, was: “It’s Close Enough.” (As in, “Mmm! Close enough!”) They also had a chunky style, and I was almost afraid to ask: “Chunks of what?” “Chunks of roasted soy,” the guy said, like that was the most normal thing in the world.

I should have introduced him to the fake cheese people.


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