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  WON'T YOU TAKE ME TO KOSHERTOWN?  
   
  aphy Bitton came to Kosherfest to buy a bottle of seasoned Asian rice vinegar, even though his French restaurant is not kosher.

"I'm always looking for new products," said Bitton, owner of The Bistro Grill, a French restaurant in Great Neck, Long Island, proudly displaying a bottle and brand available at most bodegas. Bitton came to find new products, wading through items like "salmon salami," for the deli next to his restaurant.

 
 

 

Bitton is one of 12,000 visitors to Kosherfest 2003, a two-day trade show held in the Javits Center -- 80,000 square feet of knishes, kosher beer, kosher pet food and Latino kosher cuisine with an electric chocolate fountain thrown in, for good measure. A place where the merry Kosher wine flows, the hors d'oeuvres and cookies are piled everywhere, and the stout fish lady brings the young flour guy some herring.

"This is the place to be!" said Bitton, 32, adding that he was single and looking.

Hate to break it to him, but I'm not.

I'm about to marry David, a fella who keeps pretty kosher. This means two sets of dishes -- one for meat and dairy -- and no pork

 
 

or shellfish, no cheeseburgers, no catfish po'boys or unagi rolls. And so, since I'm getting married and have always been a bit of a daredevil, I thought I'd give kashrut -- being completely kosher -- a whirl, too.

WILL I GIVE UP BACON?

This is no small feat for a New England Jew with a southerner dad, whose culinary past has been deliciously checkered with steamers and ham hocks. I maintain a special kind of hate for Picky People, but -- especially considering that David and I now eat meat and poultry only if it's both kosher and free-range -- I

 
 

have officially joined the ranks of Annoying Eaters. I take it day by day and I'm doing all right, thanks. I'm not saying that if I find myself in some sort of emergency, like a weekend in Maine, that I won't go ahead and eat a lobster.

But will I give up bacon? To finally answer the question, I went to Kosherfest with to see what kinds of food could replace it, with faint hope that the paridoxically-named to-do would be as fun bacon on Sunday morning. Kosher, after all, calls to mind dour rabbis, sour pickles, hours to wait between meat and ice cream. This? This you call a festival?

Part of me was expected a showcase of icky wannabe food, like macaroni and soy "cheese" or "rice cream" or kosher bouillabaisse. But I was instead delighted to see -- and sample -- food that reflected the changing perception of kosher products that's sending kosher industry sales through the roof.

Turns out that the majority of consumers of kosher food are not necessarily Jews, nor people doing trendy spiritual dabbling, like

 
 

Madonna -- excuse me, Esther -- in Kabbalah. In a March 2003 survey by the Mintel International Group, only 8% who said they buy kosher because they keep kosher.

Who are the others? They're legions of fellow Annoying Eaters. People like vegans and the lactose-intolerant, all in search of butter-free brownies. Vegetarians wary of stealth lard. Folks who think kosher food, prepared with such a high level of care, is, simply, better.

Thirty-five percent of respondents said they bought kosher "because they liked the taste or flavor and really wanted the product." Regardless of consumers' religious practices, said Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Integrated Marketing Communications, Inc., who managed the convention, "Just knowing that there's another set of eyes watching the product gives them an added reassurance."

MORE THAN MEALY MACAROONS.

The kosher food industry knows this, which is why Kosherfest is more than just racks of mealy macaroons and a billion kinds of chicken soup. Sure, there was salmon and humus -- and one gentleman proudly showed me his collection of Passover place settings, napkins, soup bowls and fork handles designed to look like actual pieces of matzah. And there were, predictably, good old-school outfits like Dagim, "the people who know fish best."

But I couldn't help but notice all the mainstream vendors who weren't necessarily kosher from the get-go, but who -- true to those survey results -- saw the demand and went to the trouble of koshering their operation. Capiello cheese was there. And so was Campbell's soup, whose Vegetarian Vegetable just got certified.

Kosherfest even had those guys who make the college staple "Ragamuffin" mix. At the Ragamuffin booth, I heard a visitor reprimand the company for making only dairy frosting. " That's why we're here," their representative told her, assuring her that comments like hers were the reason they'd work even harder to designate a separate parve mixer for such things.

The Iron Chef posse was there, with a tableful of big bowls of crunchy healthyish snacks marked "Soy Crips." And hey, so was my man Paul Prudhomme, frying up some eggplant alongside various canisters of his seasoning "Magic," including Poultry Magic, Seafood Magic, and Pork and Veal Magic. (Oops.) And that electric chocolate fountain, which advertised itself

   

 

A KOSHER PRIMER.

The word kosher, along with kashrut [KASH-root] -- the body of Jewish dietary laws -- comes from a Hebrew root meaning fit, proper, correct.

Jews can eat anything with cloven hooves and that chews its cud, along with standard birds. To be considered kosher, those animals must be slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law, with a quick knife slash believed to be painless.

Pig, shellfish, shrimp, camel, rabbit, and, sorry, insects. -- are total don'ts. And so are cheeseburgers. Poultry and meat, known as fleshig [FLAY-shig], may not be combined with dairy, which is called milchig [MIL-kkhig], suggesting Jews are not responsible for Chicken Kiev.

Everything in between -- fish, legumes, starches -- is neutral and can swing both ways. These neutral things, neither milk nor meat, are parve [PAR-ev]. Those who really get jiggy with it keep entire separate sets of utensils and dishes for meat and dairy and do not eat in non-kosher restaurants (or homes), or food that's not officially certified as produced under kosher conditions. They also wait a certain amount of time -- up to six hours -- between eating fleishig and milchig. And there's also all manner of mishegas regarding cheese and grapes.

WHY KEEP KOSHER?

The laws originated in the Hebrew Bible, which contains highly specific prohibitions against, for instance, "boil[ing] a kid in its mother's milk" and eating most "winged swarming things," but secular theories about these laws' relationship to ancient health and nutrition don't really pan out consistently.

Rabbis, however, have spent centuries interpreting, updating and elaborating on such directives. In a sense, the broadest consensus as to why Jews keep kosher today, 3000 years later, is: Because we do.

But that's powerful: arbitrary or oblique though they may be, observance of these laws means that every single meal is a mini-ritual. As Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin has pointed out, a kosher-keeper can't eat a bite without being reminded that he or she is a Jew. And that's the notion that appeals to me and motivates me to pass on the pancetta.

 

 
 

for Christmas parties, too. (Oops.)

WILL I GIVE UP BACON?

Maybe I won't miss the bacon after all.

The good folks at Banner Smoked Fish made their sable with sea bass, and it slipped down my throat (and, if you must know, onto my chin) like a thick pat of sexy, salty butter. And as for the cheese, let me tell you -- normally or stereotypically, kosher cheese would not win any awards, except perhaps "Most Forgettable Cheese" -- but the nice lady from Anderson Hill Foods set me up with some serious Gouda, and some even more serious Blue.

It was all very exciting. Maybe too exciting, for salad dressing impresario Todd Levitt of Michigan. "If I'd known how beautiful the Orthodox women were here I'd be benching [praying] every day," exclaimed Levitt to everyone within earshot. "I missed the frickin' boat."

Sorry, Todd.

I'm taken. Really, really taken. I just scored my fiancé and me a package of kosher free-range bison.

 

*BT*