NASCAR may have drawn the biggest crowds in central NH last weekend, but it was far from the only event to attract hardcore fans. The social hall at Laconia's Temple B'nai Israel was packed on Sunday, with people and with food.
“I have matzo ball soup in chicken broth,” says Lynn Goodnough. “We have sweet and sour cabbage soup, and we have borscht, a cold beet soup served with sour cream.”
“We've got pastrami over here, tongue over there, and corned beef over there,” her son, Jordan, adds. “The brisket actually sold out in online pre-orders already.”
Both members of the congregation, the Goodnoughs are describing just part of the feast.
“We have I don't know how many ruggelah,” Marilyn Lezberg says of a traditional cookie. She's frying up a few dozen blintzes – thin crepe rolls filled with farmers cheese.
“We have chopped liver,” she continues, “we have chopped herring, we've got stuffed cabbage, we've got potato latkes, we've got meatballs...”
You name it, Lezberg says, “we've got it. And it's marvelous.”
These dishes draw a crowd from all over New Hampshire. Jewish Food Festival, once a modest spread under a small tent out on the front lawn, has become a major undertaking.
Irene Gordon has been here from the beginning, and runs the cooking side of things. She and her team of volunteers have been cooking and baking for the festival since March, and it shows.
“We make about five or six hundred blintzes, at least three or four hundred latkes, kugels, about 90 to 100 portions of Moroccan chicken, about five hundred ruggelah, and at least a hundred rolls of strudel,” she says. “At least forty gallons of matzo ball soup – more than that. And I think I alone made about 700 matzo balls to fit in there.”
Part of the festival's popularity is simple, says Hannah Orden, the rabbi at Temple B'nai Israel. “I had always thought of the Temple B'nai Israel Jewish Food Festival as an opportunity to experience and enjoy Jewish food in a place where it's really hard to come by, both for Jews who can't get good brisket and corned beef and blintzes, but also for the wider community to have an opportunity to try out Jewish foods.”
But she recently realized the festival is important for another reason: There's not a lot of Jewish food in New Hampshire because there aren't a lot of Jews, so sharing these Jewish foods – strongly tied to history, memory, and identity – is part of keeping this far-flung Jewish community going strong.
“It's really part of what we are doing here, as a congregation,” says Rabbi Orden, “is to pass on our Jewish traditions, and also part of that is passing on our foods.”
Back over by the blintzes, Fredda Osman agrees. “We're such a small minority anyhow,” she says. “I think it's important to recognize people with different backgrounds, and people who are not Jewish to come in and enjoy it.”
In fact, lots of the people at the festival aren't Jewish, says Barbara Morgenstern, a temple board member. “We don't even know most of these people!” she laughs. “We've had ministers come, straight from church, because it's a great place for Sunday brunch. Members of the community know about our food.”
Jane Harrington recently moved up from Boston, and is here at the festival for the first time with a couple of friends, and a big to-go bag. They say it may be next to impossible to find a truly good bagel in New Hampshire, but there's still a multiethnic food culture they're enjoying in the Granite State.
“We're already looking forward to the Greek festival,” says Harrington. “It is fun to eat around the world, right here in New Hampshire.”
As for the crowds, they eat through the festival in about three hours, says Irene Gordon. “By then we sell out,” she says, throwing up her hands. “That's it, we're done.”
Well, almost done. Gordon says they'll also be at Laconia Multicultural Market Day on August 3rd, with blintzes and a few other Jewish foods. “We start all over again cooking next week.”
But if not them, then who?