Food is an important part of Jewish gatherings, says Shellie Gordon, chair of the annual Sunday Jewish Food Festival at Temple Beth-El in Lancaster.
“It’s also about getting together with family and friends and sharing a meal,” says Gordon.
Between 1,000 and 1,500 people are expected to walk through the doors of Temple Beth-El on Sunday to feast on chicken and falafel, eggplant dishes, pastries and more, all prepared by the congregation.
“It’s very rewarding to introduce the outside community to our culture and the traditional foods we eat,” says Gordon.
We asked Gordon to talk about the festival and some of the food served there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What kind of meal trays do you sell at the festival?
They include an Israeli chicken dinner with a slice of kugel, as well as coleslaw, an Israeli salad and a slice of challah (bread).
The second dinner is a falafel plate, which is vegetarian. These are falafel balls in a pita, with sides – hummus and baba ganoush. Falafel (made from chickpeas) is very popular in Israel. It is sold on street corners.
Next, our third option is a traditional New York corned beef sandwich on rye. This comes with a side of coleslaw, a kosher pickle, and a side of potato chips.
We do about 1,200 meals. I know we made 260 sandwiches.
Is there a kids meal?
Yes. It’s a hot dog, a bag of chips and a cookie and a bottle of water for $5.
Are there other items available à la carte?
We have chicken and matzo ball soup or mushroom and barley soup. Next we have kugel and knishes. All our articles are on site or to take away.
The only thing we don’t have to take away is hot soup. But you can take it out frozen or sit down to eat the hot soup.
Are there pastries?
This year we have hamantashen (triangular filled pastries), we have rugelach, we have cinnamon and chocolate babkas (sweet bread), apple strudel and mandelbrot – it’s like an almond biscotti, and it is a traditional Eastern European delicacy.
We have apple cake, black and white cookies like you see in a New York grocery store, and bow tie cookies.
New this year is the rainbow cake, cut into small squares. It’s colorful layers, with jam in between, then it’s covered in chocolate top and bottom.
All of our baked goods are $2.50 per serving. For small items, of course, we put more than one in a bag.
What are the challenges of making these large quantities of food?
All of our food is kosher. Most of these items are handcrafted in our synagogue, and it is labor intensive.
We are very fortunate to have such wonderful and dedicated member volunteers who work so hard to make our food festival a success. Virtually the entire congregation is involved.
We have kosher rules that we cannot mix dairy products with meat. So it’s a challenge. We use special dishes and special utensils. We even have two separate fridges for meat and dairy.
All of our baked goods are pareve, which means they are neither dairy nor meat. For example, they’re made with oil instead of butter, so there’s no dairy. If you have something that is pareve, you can eat it with either (dairy or meat).
How do you make kugel?
The simplest term would be noodle pudding. It’s sweet, and it’s made with noodles and eggs and raisins and sugar.
You mix it up and put it in a pot, and it’s cooked for about 45 minutes to an hour. You wait for it to be firm and then cut it into squares.
What about knishes?
It’s like a little pocket of baked pastry, filled with different fillings. This year we have potatoes, mushrooms, spinach and a cereal called kasha.
What’s in an Israeli salad?
It is a very light salad that can be found all over Israel. Typically, these are tomatoes and cucumbers, onions and green pepper in a lemon vinaigrette with herbs. Some people put mint in it.
How is the chicken made?
It’s Israeli chicken, and it’s made in a secret marinade with orange and ginger. It’s cooked. The portions are very large. You can choose white meat or dark meat.
How do you make your chicken soup?
You put chicken in a pot of water and simmer until the protein reaches the top – it’s like a white foam. You skim it until it’s clear. Depending on how much chicken you are using, you can use a bag or half a bag of baby carrots, two or three stalks of celery cut into 5 or 6 inch pieces and a quartered onion and a small bunch of dill, which I usually wrap in a small packet of cheesecloth to remove when it’s done.
Then you use salt and pepper. If it doesn’t have enough chicken flavor, you can add a little chicken soup seasoning, but you really don’t need it.
You put it to a simmer and let it go. After about an hour it becomes thick and golden yellow.
You can strain it and add chicken pieces, onions, celery and carrots back to the soup. It is traditionally served with matzo balls.
How are matzo balls made?
They are made with matzo flour, which looks a bit like breadcrumbs. And there’s egg, salt, pepper and a bit of oil to hold it together.
It’s my secret: I put a little soda in the matzo balls to moisten them. For some reason, when they cook, the carbonation causes them to puff up.
You make it into meatball-sized balls; you boil them for about 20 minutes. They should be light and fluffy.
Are most of these festive items foods that would regularly be found on the table of a Jewish family?
Many of them are symbolic of Jewish holidays. Hamantaschen are served on Purim.
Rugelach hails from Germany and the area of Europe where many Ashkenazi Jews settled. I think it means “little horn”, so it’s little rolls with cinnamon, sugar and nuts wrapped in pieces of dough.
What are the proceeds of the festival used for?
Fundraising supports programming and education in our synagogue, as well as our community outreach. We also have mitzvah meals. Mitzvah means “good deed”. We sell tickets (for the festival), and if you can’t use your ticket and can’t be there that day, we donate to Power Packs for their meals. Additionally, a portion of the funds we raise goes to Power Packs (which prepares weekend meals for students).
Should people line up early enough on Sunday?
Our doors open at 11am and we always have a queue before we open our doors. It operates until 6 p.m.
This is our 15th annual festival. We have to do something right. It just gets bigger every year.