“Dad, everyone here sounds like Hank Hill!” My Iowa-born, Chicago-raised daughter had just made this not-so-sotto voce comment in Dallas, model city for the “King of the Hill” cartoon series. But what tickled me was, not only did she make her astute observation in the middle of my old family synagogue, she made it during a congregant’s reading from the Torah. Because yes, although I grew up listening to that accent, after 17 years in the Midwest, I have to admit that hearing “Hank Hill” read the weekly portion of the Bible in flawless ancient Hebrew is pretty darn amusing when you stop and really listen. 

That was last year and my daughter Yael, then 13, was with me in Texas for the annual Dallas Kosher Chili Cook-off, hosted, as always, by Congregation Tiferet Israel. If this sounds provincial, think again: There are a number of food trends embodied in this fressen-fest ( fressen is Yiddish for “chowing down”). From a local pride point of view, Tiferet Israel is my hometown synagogue. Yet the cook-off, started in 1984, has become one of the biggest chili cook-offs in the country—kosher or otherwise. This year, nearly 4,500 attendees enjoyed almost 50 different chili recipes. It’s a complete fair, with rides, markets, live music…and rabbis in 10-gallon hats. 

The kosher food industry has grown at a rate that matches the organic trend: double digit increases almost every year for the past couple of decades. Although only about 5.5 million Jews live in the U.S., and only a quarter or so strictly adhere to the kosher laws (but another rapidly expanding number), more than 12 million Americans regularly buy kosher products. This not only includes several million Muslims, as well as Hindus, Seventh Day Adventists, and vegan/vegetarians (the level of purity in kosher foods certified “pareve”—free of all animal products—is literally molecular), but people who are aware of the extra oversight given to food and beverage facilities with kosher certification. 

As determined from statistics compiled by research firm Lubicom Marketing and Consulting Inc., the number of Americans who “either regularly or occasionally purchase kosher products because they are kosher” comes to 21% of the population and more than half (55%) do so for these perceived health/food safety benefits. Interestingly, more than a third buy kosher because they believe it tastes better than the uncertified versions of the item. All told, the value of kosher foods and ingredients sold in this country is more than half a trillion dollars annually. 

But that’s just one leg of a running trend. At the Research Chef Association annual conference, which came a few days after (and a few hours south of) the chili cook-off, trend queen Liz Sloan, Ph.D., revealed that Tex-Mex/Texas-style cuisines are among the very hottest movements in the food business these days—once again, double-digit growth spurts. (I’ll write more on the Research Chef Association annual conference next week.) And, two related generic trends also have seen big expansion in the last few years, those of spicy foods and comfort foods; consumers just can’t seem to get enough of either. What happens in Texas apparently does not stay in Texas. 

From my viewpoint, the 19th Annual Dallas Kosher Chili Cook-off was a success. Rather than judge as before, I participated this year. We made a 4-Pepper Turkey Chili, using chipotle meco, negra pasilla, mulato and ancho (all from The Chile Guy in New Mexico and certified kosher), and sorry, purists, but we did include beans (pintos). While my team didn’t win, we had major fun and there are worse things than a weekend in my home town, enjoying hot chili and cold Shiner beer. 

My special thanks to Cordon Bleu student Tyrone Howard, whose service surpassed excellent. To my food biz friends out there, I seriously recommend snapping this guy up BEFORE he graduates because once he does, the demand will be too high and you'll have to fight for him. Seriously. Natural talents like Ty are rare. 

Thanks to Tiferet Israel Synagogue, Dallas, for having me participate. Sorry I didn't win the trophy for us. I'd say, "Better luck next year," but I want to go back to being a judge for this shindig. Easier to taste 50 chili recipes than make one! 

 PS: To Fred Gray of Sparkling River Pepper Co. LLC, in Mt. Olive, Ark., PLEASE consider getting kosher certification! Your hickory smoked chili peppers are simply da bomb!