Holy kreplach! I couldn't believe my eyes when, in January, I got a letter inviting me to be a judge in the 7th Annual Manischewitz Cook-Off, scheduled for the week before Passover.
"Does the Pope wear a tall hat?" I almost wrote back. But, I thought, wrong analogy.
Anyway, I was psyched. Pretty much everything I know about Judaism, I learned from watching Charlton Heston. Finally, a chance to reclaim my roots! And eat! I was SO in.
On March 21st, a limo whisked me away to Manischewitz's Newark headquarters, a compound of industrial edifices populated with friendly, hair-netted staff. I was ushered down a hallway adorned with Warhol-esque paintings of Manischewitz chicken-soup cans to the judges' room. There were six of us, including food bloggers and editors from The Huffington Post and Foodnetwork.com, plus Jamie Geller, a celebrity Jewish cookbook author. (My creds: I'm a senior editor at Parenting and past editor of the New York Daily News's Sunday food section.)
A company exec briefed us: Out of more than 2,000 entries, a panel of Manischewitz experts had selected the four tastiest, most original recipes; a fifth had been chosen through popular vote. The five semifinalists would get an hour to whip up their concoctions. Our job would be to monitor their progress, and, of course, taste-test.
We listened intently to the rules. There was some serious gelt at stake for the winner—a new Maytag kitchen and enough cash to cover the taxes, for a total value of $25,000. We weren't just playing for Afikomen money here!
Soon enough, we gathered in the festive contest-staging area, created by clearing away part of the factory floor. Pallets of soup cans were stacked to the ceiling! Kosher stoves and cook stations had been set up for the contestants.
An avid audience was on hand—media, VIPs, and even local kids. Many of those lucky folks got to take a factory tour (the matzo oven is the length of a football field!), but alas, I was too busy. After introductory remarks by the company's CEOs, the contestants' ovens were lit by rabbis, and it was game on.
The contestants were all Jewish (a flukey first for the contest, which is open to people of all faiths) and from all around the country. You like your Seder with a Southern twang? Robin Saul, from Atlanta, was cooking up Balsamic Mushroom Matzo Paninis with Mango Jam. And who says they don't know gefilte fish in the Golden State? Josie Shapiro from San Francisco was stirring up Faux Pho. Nor is our nation's Midwest matzo-deprived, to judge by the presence of Michele Kusma, making Sweet & Spicy Seared Tuna.
Two locals rounded out the list: Allison Hoschander, from Woodmere, NY, with a Chicken Potato & Leek Pie; and youngest-ever contestant Yitzi Taber, from Bergenfield NJ, just 17 years old and already slingin' Garlic Chicken Rollatini. What a catch for some lucky Scarsdale girl someday!
We'd been asked to rate each dish's ease of preparation and factor it into our overall scores, so I spent the hour assessing the chefs' efforts. Were they using tons of pans? Fretting as they fried falafel balls or chicken breasts? Why weren't they just reaching for the Chop Stix takeout menu instead, like I always do? Oh yeah...contest...prize...
As quickly as the hour passed for me, I'm sure it flew by for the semifinalists. Before we knew it, my fellow judges and I were seated at a long table, cameras trained on us as each contestant presented his or her dish. (Right about then, I noticed my name tag was misspelled "Skolnick," with a 'c.' But for as many times as I've misspelled 'Manischewitz,' I suppose it served me right.)
We took our nibbles, and rated each dish on factors like presentation, taste, and originality. It was tough to choose! Each was scrumptious in its own special way. Our score sheets where whisked away for back-room tabulation.
It was amazing to watch Josie Shapiro get teary as she took the crystal trophy—and twenty-five grand—for her Faux Pho, made with Manieschewitz broth and noodles (for hers and all the awesome recipes, visit manischewitz.com). Josie had truly earned her big win, for showing that you can still enjoy exotic Asian flavors while keeping kosher. Hmm, maybe I don't have to call Chop Stix quite as often as before!.
I returned home with a lovely engraved serving tray, commemorating my service as a judge, as well as with some Manischewitz nibbles, like macaroons and latke mix. A happy holiday to all my Jewish (and non-Jewish) Scarsdalians, and if you should enter the 8th annual Manischewitz Cook Off, may the top prize not "pass over" you!
Deborah Skolnik is a Greenacres mother of two and big-time Manischewitz fan.