When I first approached Shuli Madmone’s table at Kosherfest, he took one look at my press badge and said, “Have I got a story for you.”
Madmone is a second-generation spice retailer whose parents had a retail operation in Israel. His company, WholeSpice.com, sells whole and freshly ground spices with a slightly up-market bent. But these days, Madmone has his sights set on a product that he believes will “take over the world.” It’s a colorful dry mixture that — just add water! — becomes schug , a Middle-Eastern spicy spread popular among Sephardic Jews. Sure, you might never have heard of schug before — and even in its already hydrated form, it’s not selling like hot cakes — but no matter.
Kosherfest, like every other trade show, is about ambition. The hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees hawking or buying wares and services are on either of two sides of the kosher wall: those already inside, hoping to become bigger, and those peering from the outside, hoping to get in. From the long-running family butchery in Brooklyn, N.Y., that became worldwide kosher meat empire Rubashkin to the largely nonkosher Campbell’s, the floor is a mix of backgrounds and destinations.
The sometimes-strained relationships between these very kosher Jews and these kosher-market-wanting non-Jews takes on many forms. At one point, Eddie Fishbaum, chief executive officer of Broadway’s J2 NYC Pizza, a pizza shop and frozen-pizza manufacturer in New York, gathered with a group of non-Jews, though he wouldn’t let them say they were. “I bet if you look back enough, you are Jewish,” he explained, with astonishingly little evidence. He then told them about a documentary in which he saw “Indians, you know, woo-woo-woo-woo, lighting candles” for the Sabbath, which some have seen as evidence that Indians are part of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; of course, the salesmen were neither native Americans nor from the subcontinent, but anyway….
Kosherfest’s ambition is channeled entirely through products and services, some mundane and some less so. One supplier had decided to place his bets on a particular rugelach — from a particular bakery in a particular section of Jerusalem — as it has become quite popular among the young folk; amid a sea of alternative rugelach offerings, and at a hefty eight or nine dollars per pound, he hopes that popularity is sustained on this side of the Atlantic.
But other across-the-pond products fared better. Underberg, a “natural bitter-herb liqueur” that serves as a digestive aid, is marketed as a long-standing tradition in the United Kingdom. Presumably, the theory is that just as they’ve had success selling in the hard-to-digest British food market, they’ll similarly succeed in the hard-to-digest Jewish food market.
But if those hard-to-digest Jewish foods are still weighing you down, the Kosher Diet Club may be your solution. Winner of Kosherfest 2004’s New Products Competition for “Best New Non-Specialty Food Item,” the 30-day diet plan “uses a series of systematic food-combining methods to promote safe and effective weight loss without restricting caloric intake, while the all-natural capsules promote increased cellular metabolic activity.” The pills contain bladder wrack, psyllium husk, oat bran, aloe vera leaf, cascara sagrada bark, silicon dioxide, magnesium stearate and cellulose, but are notably “ephedra-free!”
Of course, if you’re not into the Kosher Diet Club, you can just tweak your eating habits with Light Grape Juice, a product so new that it technically didn’t exist at Kosherfest; its “official” announcement was to come later in the week. Kedem, a kosher blue chip of sorts, is bringing out a product that features two-thirds fewer carbohydrates and calories than the grape juice you’re used to. Typical of a company that’s been around the block awhile, they’ve got a diet plan that will produce sales over the course of 30 years instead of the upstart Kosher Diet Club’s mere 30 days. One can just imagine the slogan: “Kedem Light, Shedding pounds one Sabbath kiddush at a time.”
Steven I. Weiss edits KosherBachelor.com, a food and cooking blog.