Leah Wolff-Pellingra proudly raised her hands to show off her purple manicure.
It wasn’t done at a salon, but in a kitchen, where she peeled the 27 beets that went into the borscht she made for Sunday’s Jewish Food Festival at Congregation Gates of Heaven.
Handling the root vegetables tinted her cuticles and fingers an interesting plum color.
Her pot of savory purple soup was kept cool in a tin of snow atop a serving table in the synagogue.
“It’s what you make in the middle of the winter with what you’ve got left in your cellar,” Wolff-Pellingra explained from behind the table.
Dan Berman was standing next to her, ready to place a dollop of locally produced sour cream on top of each soup sample.
“People say that in upstate New York you can’t eat seasonally all year round but here in the winter we have all these great winter storage vegetables, and beets and onions are among them,” he said.
The synagogue was full of congregants and caterers serving up samples of a variety of Jewish favorites, which were eagerly consumed by the large and hungry crowd.
Festival co-chairman Pete Kopcha said between 550 and 625 people were expected.
Volunteers worked feverishly to prepare everything from knishes to latkes in anticipation of the all-you-can-eat food festival, and local vendors brought in food as well.
The event is truly a labor of love, Kopcha said.
“Part of Judaism is really building a sense of community, and this is a real community-building activity, not only for those who are involved in helping to prepare all the food and being volunteers, but it’s community-building also in the wider Judaic community because we have people here from all over the Capital Region and it’s really a pleasure for us to be able to host all of our guests and our friends.”
Memories of childhood
Norman Baratt was sitting at a table amid all of the hubbub, quietly enjoying a bowl of matzo ball soup.
The Albany resident was raised in New York City and said Sunday’s food brought back memories of his childhood.
“I’ve had some food here that I haven’t eaten in years. … My mother used to make tzimmes and borscht. She was a fastidious cook,” he recalled.
In the synagogue’s bustling kitchen, Jill Polk was readying steaming tins of brisket.
“At every Jewish holiday, we had brisket,” she recalled. “This is a very symbolic food. It was inexpensive cuts of meat that you had to slowly braise in order to tenderize it, so the process of smelling it in your home was part of the allure, you know? You come into a home that is cooking brisket and you smell it and it’s just overwhelming. You float back in time and it’s nice. It’s beautiful.”
There were no food samples to be found on the table set aside for Row by Row Farm, but farm owners Mira Schwartz and Dakota Miller said they can guarantee all sorts of delicious produce once the growing season starts. The two, who met while studying permaculture on a small farm in Israel, have started their own farm in East Chatham and were advertising their Community Supported Agriculture program at the festival.
The program offers investors helpings of their vegetables and eggs throughout the growing season.
“This is our first year self-employed and taking the soil into our own hands,” Miller said.
At a table nearby, Portofino’s Italian Ristorante of Latham was serving up creamy tomato bisque and salmon cakes on a bed of greens, with a lemon-apricot drizzle. This is the restaurant’s first appearance at the festival, according to Anthony Adonnino, one of the owners.
Across the room, Harvey Randall was shaking up what looked like chocolate milk in a plastic juice bottle. The sweet, brown beverage was actually egg cream — a drink made from chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer.
“Why it’s called egg cream, no one knows,” Randall said, noting the absence of both eggs and cream in the recipe.
He fondly recalls purchasing the drink at soda stands when he was a child growing up in New York City.
“We used to spend a whole nickel to get a glass,” he said with a chuckle.
In the crowd, former Price Chopper CEO Neil Golub was enjoying a plate of blintze soufflé. He said he attends the Jewish food festival annually.
“It’s where the community gathers once a year and gets a taste of the culture,” he said between bites.
Price Chopper, which runs a kosher store in Colonie, has sponsored the event for years, he noted.
Store representatives were at the event, serving pastrami sandwiches on rye bread.
Proceeds from the food festival will help support the basic functions of Congregation Gates of Heaven, “everything from keeping the roof over our head to our Hebrew school, and all of the other activities that the synagogue is engaged in,” Kopcha said.