Manischewitz Cook-Off National Finals 2011

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.

The whole affair smacked more of a family reunion than a competition, where everyone was friendly and welcoming. Dena Burcat, 26, was cooking a Shallot Smothered Chicken (“My friends told me I should call it “ManiShallots,” she gushed to me), but rather than honing her skills or quaking nervously, she was just happy to talk food. Yes, there was a $25,000 prize at stake (a new kitchen makeover, including a new GE oven), but the finalists all just seemed happy to be there in the first place. Suzanne Banfield, 61, developed her Simple Fisherman’s Stew after eating a similarly-tasting recipe with shellfish in an Italian restaurant and wanted to create a healthier kosher version. And then, of course, there was the good old-fashioned Jewish geography — Stuart Davis, 45, was telling me the story about his Chicken and Egg Donburi — a kind of Japanese chicken soup — when I noticed that he was from Cherry Hill. “Hey,” I said, “My aunt lives in Cherry Hill!”

“Oh, really?” he said. “What part?”

I began to explain that I wasn’t quite sure, but they had a sort of yellowy-beige house with brown siding, when a woman next to me said, “Oh, Steven and Marilyn?” I was astounded that my description of their house was so spot-on. It turned out that she just noticed my press badge and matched up our names. But I was still pretty darn impressed.

The competition started. The contestants had an hour to cook and plate their dishes, after which they’d be presented to the judges. Meanwhile, a catering company had taken the recipes and served them to the audience (not the judges, though)…and so we munched. And socialized. And silently judged, even as we hovered by the contestants’ tables, watching them cook and scurry and fry their dishes into existence.

Throughout the day, Manischewitz tried to remind us that they were focused on innovation and new recipes. It’s an uphill battle, considering that the Manischewitz brand is imprinted on Jews since birth — the way most people will see the colors red and yellow together and think McDonald’s, we see orange and green and think Matzah! and Syrupy wine in a square bottle! The Manischewitz emblem was everywhere, so it was kind of hard to miss:

The judges called time. Some of the contestants hurried to finish the last touches on their plating. Suzanne, whose soup was boiling away and who didn’t plan to remove it until just before serving, folded her arms quietly. Stuart finished stacking his donburi, which had started to look like a wedding cake. Earlier, he said how every culture had its own version of chicken soup. I thought just then that, although every culture also has a different idea of what the perfect dish tastes like, almost everyone has the same aesthetic of food presentation. Not too much, not too little. Arranged a little bit weirdly, but not too weirdly.

The judges tasted. It was actually more of a pleasure watching them eat than it was to eat the food itself.* Jacques Pepin looks unspeakably cute shoveling food into his mouth, which is not something I’d ever say about another man.

And then they deliberated and added up scores — a wreaking process, especially since our babysitter got locked out of the house during that time and we were freaking out about our kids on one hand, and our picks for the winner on the other, and Itta eventually just ran for the subway while I stayed around to film the conclusion — and then co-CEO Paul Bensabat announced the winner. It was the guy who knew my aunt!

If you want to recreate the competition at home, here’s the winning entry: Chicken and Egg Donburi. The other recipes are on there, too.

I still have to admit, it’s hard to take Manischewitz seriously. I say this as a guaranteed lover of Manischewitz, as someone who grew up on their matzah and soup mixes and square wine bottles. Right now, as I type these words, I’m eating a packet of barbecue-flavored Tam-Tams that came inside the cookoff’s press kit (and who even knew Tam-Tams came in flavors besides garlic & onion?).

No matter what they do to improve their image, Manischewitz will always mean certain things to many of us. But the company is revitalizing their image — they’ve released 35 new products in the past year alone. “Our company has a goal of revolutionizing the kosher food industry,” said Bensabat in a speech that, forget a family reunion, had faint but unmistakable rumblings of world domination. “No longer will you say on Passover, ‘I can’t eat this.’ We have a kosher-for-Passover cupcake kit for kids. We have Moroccan fish meatballs. We have everything you could imagine.”

I think that kosher-for-Passover Moroccan fish meatballs (a dish, Bensabat later pointed out, that comes from his mother’s recipe) is officially one level beyond anything I could ever imagine. Even so, my dreams tonight are going to be swimming with Manischewitz recipes. To say nothing of my future midnight snack cravings for barbecue Tam-Tams.


* — Not that I should talk, since I’m a vegetarian and didn’t get to eat most of this — my report here is generated mostly through my wife, and the people we were hanging out with (thanks Farrah and HaDassah and Rachel Shukert), and because I love watching strangers eat. Which, I realize, is a little strange itself. On the other hand, they had really good fudge brownies, and I got a total head start on them.

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