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Pregaming the Jewish Food Festival

April 4, 2019

Three hours. Sunday’s Jewish Food Festival in Schenectady lasts for three hours. Depending on who you are, that is either the blink of an eye, or an eternity. This smorgasbord of the foods I grew up eating, runs from noon until 3pm. Which makes it perfect for a long, leisurely, grazing lunch.

But the food of my people is also quite heavy, so it makes sense to pace yourself. I hesitate to share my pro-tips for navigating the event, but for FLB readers, I’ll let you in on my secrets.

Go to the fish room first.

It’s in the back of the building, all the way down the hall. And most people tend to line up for the hot sliced pastrami first. However, if you grab a piece of bagel, schmear it with cream cheese, and top it with a slice of salmon, you’ll have a pleasantly satisfied feeling while you wait in line for pastrami. Or heck, you can even eat it in line while you wait.

The pastrami line is no joke. But it’s totally worth it. However, this year, as I got myself psyched up for the Jewish Food Festival, I tried something new.

Usually, corned beef or pastrami is a once in a blue moon indulgence for me. Perhaps the concern is that these fatty cured meats are so delicious, if I left myself free to eat these whenever I wanted, I wouldn’t eat much else. If I try hard, and push the existence of these delectable dishes from my consciousness, I’m less tempted to treat myself all the time.

That said, with the Jewish Food Festival on the horizon, I’ve had these meats on my mind.

Currently, the Ben & Bill’s in the Slingerlands Price Chopper is my favorite local place to scratch the itch for a legit Jewish deli sandwich. They do it right. Unsurprisingly, the Ben & Bill’s crew is one of the cornerstones of Sunday’s festival. So for comparison’s sake I was tempted to try another locally famous corned beef sandwich. Any guesses?

Last week I made my first trip to Illium Cafe in Troy to try its famous corned beef sandwich. Actually, I have no idea why it’s called “famous” or what the claim to fame might be. But that’s what it’s called on the menu. Regardless, when a place promotes one of its dishes and gives it a place of prominence on the menu, I always want to give it a try.

For those who don’t know, this sandwich is made from “hot slow braised New York corned beef with Swiss. Specialty spicy Dijon, fresh baked rye, topped with house slaw.” I went for the potato salad on the side, and I regret nothing.

Marla’s sandwich was delicious, but it’s also very different than what one might get at a great Jewish deli. This one was more about the combination of flavors and textures. At a great deli, it’s all about the meat.

How many pastrami sandwich samples will I be able to put down on Sunday? It’s hard to say. I think in the past I have tried to make them more like tacos, eschewing a second piece of rye bread to get the proportions closer to the overstuffed sandwiches at the delis of my youth.

The secret do doing well at the Jewish Food Festival is to pace yourself. Learn to eat standing up. It’s hard to get table space anyhow. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing. There is always a line for the Ben & Bill’s table, but that line is a great place to chill out and let things settle. Remember, the food of my people is filling and satisfying. If you’re in it for the long haul, take small bites, and take your time. Kibitz in the halls. Slow play the afternoon. But make sure to hit the salmon first, because no matter how much salmon you make, it’s never enough.

And if all this talk of corned beef has you hungry, you can check out Illium’s take on the sandwich. Speaking of which, once Passover is through, I’m looking forward to getting back to Illium Cafe for the pulled duck confit panini. That sounds pretty close the sandwich of my dreams.

I’m not entirely sure why duck confit isn’t a Jewish thing. I think the closest we’ve got is gribenes. Thankfully there aren’t gribenes at the Jewish Food Festival. An unlimited supply of gribenes for three hours could very well kill me.

Who else is coming on Sunday? It would be great to see a bunch of Fussies there and compare notes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric Scheirer Stott permalink
    April 4, 2019 7:01 pm

    Gribenes…Chicken Cracklings…with fried onions. Even the Pennsylvania lutheran in me wants some.

  2. April 8, 2019 12:03 pm

    I went to the festival for the first time yesterday.

    Most everything there was great, with a good portion of it made by home cooks. I didn’t have a ton of experience with Jewish fare so it was fun to eat some new things. While it was all samples, many of them were generously sized. I left stuffed.

    And of course, Daniel was there and I got to spend some time chatting about the food with him.

    If you’ve never been, I’d recommend putting it on your bucket list for next year.

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