The Fifth Annual Man-O-Manischewitz National Cook Off just finished, and, man, I’m still buzzing. There was some serious high-octane, high-pressure, high-quality cooking, and I don’t think I expected to see any of that. I mean, this is Manischewitz you’re talking about — the matzah and wine people.
But this wasn’t your bubbe’s Manischewitz. Not only was the competition a slick, well-presented show at the stylin’ Uptown JCC, with speakers that emphasized the broad variety of Manischewitz products and repeatedly mentioned the word “innovation,” but there was an undertone of foodie-ism that wouldn’t have seemed out of place at a trendy restaurant or gourmet food blog. And the day opened with a tasting by none other than Jacques Pépin, a celebrity chef and TV host. In an interview (we’ll be posting it on our Youtube channel), Pepin was unexpectedly and pleasantly straight-up about Manischewitz. “They know how to make things taste good,” he said.
The day started off with a tasting hosted by Pepin, who also assisted Manischewitz and the JCC’s crew in their preparation. Yes, it was weird to serve chicken and mushroom soup at 10 A.M. But when you’re settling into an entire day where you’re going to be assailed with fine food, why waste time with cereal?
After the tasting, we went upstairs and met the contestants. The five finalists, chosen from a pool of 2,000 entries, really were pulled from all over. Two were from New Jersey, which was sort of expected, but two were from the South — from Miami, Florida, and Sophia, West Virginia — and the fifth hailed from Baltimore. They weren’t all Jewish and they didn’t all keep kosher, which raised some eyebrows among audience members, but seemed bizarrely representative of Manischewitz. It’s a brand that, one way or another, everyone manages to come into contact with sooner or later, even my deep-South ex-roommate’s mother, who loved using matzo meal for breading her pork cutlets.
The rules of the competition were simple. Recipes had to be simple, and easily reproducable. You could use no more than nine ingredients. And at least two of those ingredients had to be Manischewitz products.