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Kosher Food Goes Mainstream

November 19, 1998

SECAUCUS, N.J. (AP) _ Chef Ann Cooper bent over a pan, showing a crowd how to make seared venison with wilted greens and roasted new potatoes.

Around the corner, hungry visitors waited impatiently for a pizza to come out of the oven. A man grabbed a few Oreos from another booth, while a handful of people grazed on foie gras.

Welcome to Kosherfest ’98, the largest-ever gathering of restaurateurs, hoteliers and food makers getting together to show that kosher food goes way beyond blintzes and matzo balls.

``Everybody wants it,″ said Jack Slomowicz, who is the manager of a kosher supermarket, delicatessen and cafe opening in Cleveland, Ohio, in December.

The 10,000 visitors at this 11th annual food fair at the Meadowlands Exposition Center broke a record. New York restaurants serve kosher Cajun, Chinese and Mexican. Kosher concession stands popped up this year at Shea Stadium and at the U.S. Open.

Foods that are certified as kosher post $45 billion in sales a year _ only $4 billion of the sales to Jews observing dietary restrictions, Kosherfest organizers said.

Big businesses are trying to cash in on kosher popularity, seeking certification for thousands of products to satisfy those who must keep kosher for religious reasons and consumers who just think that kosher sounds good.

Most Nabisco products, like Chips Ahoy! cookies and Planters peanuts, have been kosher for years. Oreo cookies were just certified as kosher last year. M&M candies are kosher. So are Barricini’s chocolates, Arizona Iced Tea, Herr’s potato chips and Budweiser beer.

``There’s a huge sales opportunity with the Jewish market,″ said David Picataggio, an M&M-Mars sales rep.

Most people just think that kosher is hip and healthy, experts say.

``They think of it as just being better,″ said Menachem Lubinsky, president of a company that specializes in marketing kosher foods and the Kosherfest organizer. ``They perceive that it’s healthier.″

Although kosher doesn’t always mean healthy, manufacturers say the seal that shows a kosher certification on products makes it easier for people following special diets to eat.

Kosher laws completely ban some foods, like pork and shellfish, and prohibit eating other foods in certain combinations, like meat and milk. Although some foods have no ingredients that are objectionable, they are not kosher if they are made with equipment that is not sterilized and certified as kosher. Rabbis and several certifying agencies have to officially certify a product as ‘kosher’ before it is thought to be so.

Lactose-intolerant people can eat kosher pizza with dairy-free, tofu-based cheese, or tofu cheesecake from a kosher bakery. Diabetics can use sugar-free honey substitutes.

``Would you like to try some of our delicious organic bread? No fat, no sugar, no oil, no salt,″ Helen Davis called out to customers, hawking her oatmeal, sourdough and raisin breads.

Davis, the owner of Windmill Farms, said most of her sales come from health food stores, ``which has nothing to do with kosher.″

And Robert Scheckman, marketing director at Manischewitz & Co., said the leading kosher food producer is reaching out to customers who just want a quick dinner. At this fair, Manischewitz displayed single-serving cups of matzo ball soup and instant dishes of risotto, rice and beans and chili.

Sales are up 50 percent over the past four years, he said.

Exotic tastes were also satisfied at one of several sushi bars. Bernard Benlevi stood by as a chef sliced a tuna-and-avocado sushi roll. All fish was available except for eel, crab and shrimp, although he offered shrimp-shaped, red-and-white striped pieces of processed whitefish.

The variations are ``showing kosher food in a light that is if not trendy, at least contemporary,″ said Cooper, a Vermont chef and consultant at the Culinary Institute of America. ``It’s not like kosher is just gefilte fish.″

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