Linda Griff and Andrea Nachman roll up the rugelach, and you can taste the fruits of their bakery labor this weekend. (Photo by Stephanie Ganz)
The smell of food meets you in the parking lot at Keneseth Beth Israel (KBI). It’s a comforting aroma of just-made dough and hot oil that wafts from the side door of the synagogue's social hall, where about 10 people spent their morning rolling, filling, cutting and baking rugelach, those crescent-shaped pastries filled with strawberry jam, cinnamon, sugar and pecans.
In order to prepare for the Richmond Jewish Food Festival, filling bellies at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center Jan. 15 and 16, a handful of steadfast volunteers start planning as early as the previous February and begin cooking in November. There’s a committee for every major food group of the Jewish Food Festival: one for Bubbe’s Bakery, one for Israeli food and even one for stuffed cabbage, which requires a small, well-trained army to produce. The festival, now in its 10th year, has come a long way from its beginnings at KBI. A few years in, organizers Rich and Diane Goldberg and Ilene Paley moved the event to its current home at the Weinstein JCC, and they’ve been adding tents and flooring to meet demand ever since. Refrigerated trucks and well-maintained spreadsheets keep the festival — staffed by roughly 200 volunteers from KBI, Shaarei Torah of Richmond, and the Jewish community and friends — running smoothly. And since no one knows the event like those volunteers, many of whom have been a part of the Richmond Jewish Food Festival since day one, we asked them for their favorite, can’t-miss foods to help relative novices like ourselves plan the best, definitive RJFF meal possible. Warning: You are going to need at least two plates.
It’s no wonder that latkes, that iconic symbol of Jewish cuisine, are the most popular item the festival has to offer. But what's interesting is the manpower it takes to make them: Teams of latke cooks start shredding and shaping at dawn to prepare trays of latkes for festival-goers arriving at 11:30 a.m. Throughout the day, they’ll fry off hundreds of the potato pancakes on sheet trays spread over a stovetop to create a makeshift flat-top grill. Once the doors open, it’s a mad rush to keep the latkes coming.
“Last year, we had four people doing nothing but flipping latkes, and another two just making patties,” says organizer Diane Goldberg. “It’s all we can do to keep up!” Serving tent coordinator Miriam Davidow chimes in, “I don’t know how they make them taste so good at such a volume.”
2. Joanie Griff’s Family Rugelach
As chair of the committee for Bubbe’s Bakery, Linda Griff is responsible for organizing every crumb of baking, one sheet tray at a time. Griff rattles off a list of favorite sweets, including mandel bread and gluten-free almond horns, and, as she hoists a tray of the crescent pastries into a hot oven, she adds that the rugelach would have to be her favorite. It’s her mother-in-law’s recipe, after all.
Since the beginning, the festival has used Joan Rothenberg Griff’s family rugelach recipe. Joan tells me the recipe came over with her mother when she emigrated from Austria-Hungary and that it played a central role in wooing her husband, Harris, at a servicemen’s dance in 1950.
“The recipe got better and better because I made it often for the shul,” says Griff. It’s a simple recipe, born of necessity — leftover jam and nuts transform to become something greater. And the key to it all is in the dough: “It has to feel right,” Griff says.
Joan’s granddaughter Andrea is part of the rugelach team on the day I visit KBI. “When I’m working in the bakery at the festival, people come up and ask me for the special family rugelach that they’ve heard that everyone is getting,” she says, “and it makes me feel good because it happens to be my family’s recipe they’re asking for.”
3. Beverly Soble’s Stuffed Cabbage
It takes a few dozen volunteers three Sundays, from sunup to sundown, to prepare all of the stuffed cabbage necessary to feed festival-goers. Ilene Paley says what keeps people coming back for the cabbage is consistency: “It’s Beverly Soble’s recipe,” says Paley. “And it’s always the same. That’s very important. It has to be the same taste, year after year.” On these Sundays, the social hall fills with volunteers in an assembly line of cabbage-roll production. There are hotel pans of ground beef and rice cooling, waiting to be stuffed into blanched cabbage leaves, and a giant bubbling pot of tomato sauce to bring the whole dish together with the distinct flavor of the Old World.
4. Hot Corned Beef (or Brisket) Sandwich
Michael Griff spends countless hours volunteering for the festival. He bakes, he schleps. He’s an all-around mensch. When I ask Michael his favorite part of the festival, he gives a wry chuckle and says, “When it’s over.” But, when pressed, Griff gets a dreamy look in his eye, as if conjuring the memory of his favorite festival bite: a hot corned beef sandwich. “You just can’t get one anywhere else in town,” says Griff. Paley echoes his sentiment: “I’d probably say don’t miss the brisket. You won’t get it anywhere else.” Ilene knows firsthand all of the work that goes into making those brisket and corned beef sandwiches happen. Over the course of a few months, Ilene oversees the cooking of 4,000 pounds of meat at the kosher meat kitchen at KBI. Whether you keep kosher or just love corned beef, the volunteers want the final product to be the kind of sandwich you crave all year.
5. Israeli Food
Most days, Yossi Goel is busy running Cafe 1602, but for two days in January, he and his team of cooks man the popular Israeli food station at the festival. There, he oversees production of a half dozen items including homemade baklava; falafel with hummus, Israeli salad and an Israeli mango condiment called amba; lamb and turkey shawarma served with red and green coleslaw and Israeli salad; and Yossi’s own Sephardic Israeli shakshuka, a cous cous topped with a pepper-and-onion flavored tomato sauce crowned with two poached eggs.
Yossi's prep starts the week before the festival, and he prepares many items à la minute to ensure quality. “Hands down, without a doubt in my body, I would say that everyone should try the shawarma,” he says emphatically. “I grew up on it and could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ve been cooking for over 20 years. It’s what I love to do and share with people.”
While the food plays a starring role, volunteer after volunteer gives the same response when asked about their favorite aspect of this food festival: Every one of them said it was about connecting with family and community to create something that everyone can enjoy.
For Ilene Paley, who works for months behind the scenes, those people include the sponsors, grocers and delivery drivers who make her life a little easier. Andrea Nachman, another volunteer, says there’s a thrill in talking to people about Jewish culture and recipes. “I just love the pace and the interaction at the festival," she shares. "We see every age group, everything from true ‘bubbes’ to high schoolers. It’s just a nice feeling seeing everyone come together.”
Among them, you’ll likely see Alan Lasko, now in his 90s, a diehard volunteer who never misses a festival. In his tall Uncle Sam hat, Lasko sets the stage for this community event with a friendly smile and wave for everyone who comes through the doors.
“Volunteers are essential to the success of the program,” says Miriam Davidow. “Working for months beforehand or during the festival itself, it’s a team, and serving our customers is our No. 1 concern.”
Catch this year's Richmond Jewish Food Festival Jan. 15 and 16 from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center, located at 5403 Monument Ave.