Kosher Italian for Everyone

Last night, the Italian Embassy hosted “Kosher for Everyone,” a curious title, as I have no idea why “everyone” would ever want to keep kosher. Nonetheless, the Italian Trade Commission, along with the Embassy, sponsored the evening, subtitled “Growth Opportunities and Challenges for the Sales of Italian Specialty Foods in the United States Ethnic Market.” Moderated by gourmet food writer and part time David Crosby impersonator, Fred Plotkin, the panel consisted of Donato Grosser, President of Grosser and Associates, Ltd. Marketing & Management Consultants, the awesomely named Rabbi Umberto Piperno, and Thomas Gellert, the Principal of the Gellert Global Group of Companies.

After a brief introduction from the Italian ambassador to the United States, H.E. Giulio Terzi di Sant’ Agata (don’t even try), Mr. Plotkin took over and proceeded to make no less than three kitschy Jewish jokes in the span of five minutes (“it’s not kosher to use a cell phone in here,” “I see we have a minyan here tonight,” “you may ask, ‘why is this night different from all other nights?’”).  He mercifully surrendered the podium to Mr. Grosser, who explained the market for kosher products in the United States…completely in Italian.  I slinked (slank?) out to get my translator headset, while the audience of kosher food writers and Italian food distributors listened.  Next to speak was Rabbi Umberto Piperno, whose name you just have to say out loud with an Italian accent.  He gave a presentation, also in Italian, about the technical aspects of Jewish law that make something kosher.  Finally, Mr. Gallert, in English, gave a brief presentation about why people buy kosher, and who these people are.  Here are some of my random thoughts/takeaways/most surprising things I learned:

  • People seem to think that kosher food is better for you. Mr. Gallert cited statistics that showed 62% of kosher kustomers (too easy) purchase kosher items because of their “better” food quality, 51% for general healthfulness, and 34% for food safety.  While the Jewish laws governing meat, at least, are stricter than FDA regulations, kosher food overall is not any better for you than non-kosher food, nor is it of noticeable higher quality.  Anyone who’s ever had kosher cheese can attest to this.
  • The kosher food market is estimated at about $225 billion…mostly thanks to non-Jews. Only 10% of the kosher market are orthodox Jews, and a whopping 75% of kosher kustomers are not even Jewish at all.  Who are these non-Jews?  Mostly misinformed foodies, Seventh Day Adventists, and Muslims.
  • Jews like to keep kosher for Passover. Well, kinda, sorta, maybe.  Amazingly, 40% of all kosher food sales for the year take place around Passover time.
  • Italian Jews pioneered the use of cured goose. Jews of Italy have been curing goose as a kosher alternative to ham for centuries (I just made that up, but definitely for a long time).  Fun fact that might not be news to some of you: “prosciutto” does not necessarily mean “ham,” but can refer to any dried-cured meat.
  • “Kosher” does not mean “ethnic.” One of the speakers, I forget which, referred to kosher food as a new “ethnic food trend” among foodies.  I’ve seen something similar with the rise of the term “kosher style” to describe usually traditional ashkenazi fare. However, “kosher” is merely a standard, not a style, nor an ethnicity.  Almost any food of any ethnicity can have some kosher alternative or version.  I’m baffled as to how “kosher” has come to mean “ethnically Jewish” in our vernacular.
  • Free food rocks. Following the panel, attendees were treated to a kosher reception buffet by the local Dahan Caterers in the beautiful atrium of the embassy.  This event was free and apparently open to public, so if you didn’t come out, you should have read the GTJ calendar.

Go here to see pictures from the event.


Scott Weinberg is a GTJ staff member and regularly comments on kosher food.