April 1, 2011 at 9:48 AM ET
Billed as the only national kosher cooking event, the 5th Annual Man-O-Manischewitz Cook-Off began on Thursday as you might expect: lots of Jews and plenty of good nosh. The New York City event, which falls during Jewish American Heritage Month, featured some fancy guest judges (be jealous: Jacques Pepin was there!), and five finalists from around the country who were the chosen people among thousands of entries.
The event is put on by the Manischewitz company, the country’s largest producer of processed kosher food.
Competitors didn’t need to be members of the tribe to enter, either. Contestant and West Virginia native Jeannette Nelson got on the mic to describe her dish, but her Southern drawl didn't seem very kosher -- unlike her Golden Sweet Potato Tagine recipe. Nearly every reporter in the room approached the Southern belle and asked out of the side of their mouths: "You're not Jewish, are ya?" She explained that when her husband "quit the mines -- the coal mines, that is" to go back to school, and money was tight, she began to take notice of cooking contests on television and the monetary prizes for the winners. She began entering all sorts of food contests -- kosher included. After tasting her dish, boy, we're glad she did.
Some of the other finalists, like Dina Burcat, were more what one might expect from a Manischewitz Cook-Off. "My bubbe told me about this cook-off, and I'm here in her honor," she explained to the panel of judges while serving her dish, Shallot Smothered Chicken.
As the room filled with cozy smells, spectators sampled Manischewitz recipes, schmoozed and, of course, played Jewish Geography. (Unfamiliar? It's like 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon -- minus the bacon.) After schmoozing with president and CEO of Manischewitz Paul Bensabat, we learned that we shouldn't judge a matzoh box by its cover and that this kosher company appeals to a much larger audience than just kosher-keepers -- and that's by design. Bensabat (who didn't know my sister-in-law even though they're both Moroccan: Jewish Geography Fail) aims to "turn kosher food into a culinary experience,” and oversaw the launch of 30 new products for Passover this year. Among them: chocolate-covered biscotti, cotton candy and a cupcake-making kit for kids.
Interestingly, it turns out that those with celiac disease should be cruising the kosher-for-Passover aisle at the supermarket like Jewish singles on the Upper West Side. The company's new kosher-for-Passover macaroon pie shells are completely gluten-free, and as it turns out, the only readily available store-bought pie crust that can make that claim.