February 21, 2002
Hamantashen Goes Mainstream
First it was bagels. Then rugelach. What's the next Jewish food to go mainstream?
Could be hamantashen.
Hamantashen now can be seen next to mini-bundt cakes and lemon poppy-seed muffins in the display case of your local coffee shop.
Several large supermarket chains now carry them, and it's no longer something they bring in just around Purim time. The triangular pastries -- shaped to reflect the three-cornered hat of Purim villain Haman -- increasingly are being sold year-round.
"It's a staple," says Chris Calfa, who manages Lassen and Hennigs, a small gourmet food store in New York.
He carries them throughout the year and says he sells approximately a dozen a day.
"They're definitely more popular than they used to be," says Renee Apostolou, who manages Prolific Oven, a local bakery and coffee shop in Palo Alto.
While the shop used to sell hamantashen only at Purim, about five years ago they began offering them year-round because of customer demand. People treat them just like any other cookie, Apostolou said.
"We fill ours with figs, so to them it's like a Fig Newton," she says.
In Yiddish, the word "hamantashen" means "Haman's pockets." According to "The Jewish Book of Why," this reflects a tradition that Haman filled his pockets with bribe money. The cookies are folded to form a pocket that is usually filled with poppy seeds, fruits, jam or nuts.
In Hebrew, the cookies are called "oznay Haman," or "Haman's ears."
Many people apparently do not know that the cookies are connected with a specific Jewish holiday. Calfa, for example, was surprised to learn that hamantashen are connected with Purim.
"I had no idea," he says.
Tish Boyle, food editor of Pastry Art and Design Magazine, said she thinks the increasing popularity of hamantashen is due not only to new interest among non-Jews, but also among Jews who aren't religious.
"They recognize the shape and are willing to buy it for nostalgic reasons," she says. "It's like comfort food."
She also thinks non-Jewish bakeries may be making them because they're easier to make than many other pastries.
"It's an easy shape" to make, she says. They're like little pies, but, "you don't have to use a pie tin."
Joan Nathan, cookbook author and host of the weekly PBS program "Jewish Cooking in America," says the popularization of hamantashen has stripped them of their cultural meaning.
"I like the fact that you can only have hamantashen at Purim. To me that's special," Nathan says.
The new year-round popularity of hamantashen is "like getting challah all days of the week," she says. "I don't want to get challah all days of the week. I want it on [Shabbat]."
Among the stores where hamantashen have gone mainstream is Costco, a membership wholesale club where people can get discounts by buying products in bulk.
Like two other wholesale clubs, Sam's Club and B.J.'s, Costco gets its hamantashen from David's Cookies.
"Costco just got 140,000 pounds," says John Griner, the plant manager of David's Cookies, which manufactures more than 6 million hamantashen a year.
The company sells most of its hamantashen to large supermarket chains and wholesale clubs.
Bob Goodman, who markets David's Cookies to major supermarket chains, says supermarkets started carrying hamantashen to appeal to Jewish clients, but discovered that they appeal to non-Jews as well.
"One of our supermarket chains ordered about 14,000 packages in the past seven weeks. I can't imagine that's all for Jewish people," he said. "You don't have to be Italian to like pasta sauce."
Many stores don't even call the cookies hamantashen.
"Different places call them different names," Goodman says. "In New England, they call them 'patriot hats'" -- a reference to the three-cornered hats worn by Colonial-era Americans.
Jim Dolan, a vice president for retail sales for David's Cookies, says his company markets hamantashen not as a Jewish product, but as a variation of the chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies that David's Cookies is known for.
That's because the company's products weren't kosher when David's Cookies first opened in 1979.
Ari Margulies, an Orthodox Jew, bought the Fairfield, N.J. company in 1995 and made all of the cookies kosher.He kept the company's predominantly non-Jewish client base, but began marketing Jewish products to them.
Margulies, who moved to the United States from London 10 years ago, hopes to make hamantashen even more popular than they already are, perhaps as ubiquitous as rugelach.
The smell of baking hamantashen fill the air of the factory. This is not a mom-and-pop operation. The flour is held in 18-foot-high metal containers that look like miniature grain silos. The dough is mixed in a 360-quart mixer.
In the weeks before Purim, Margulies's factory dedicates half its operation to hamantashen.
To fill the flood of incoming orders, David's Cookies has to bake hamantashen 24/6 -- the factory is closed on Shabbat -- for three weeks straight.
Hamantashen are more labor intensive than most cookies.
While the dough is rolled and cut into circles mechanically, the cookies must be filled, shaped and packed individually by hand.
While David's Cookies produces some hamantashen under its own label, most of the cookies are produced for other companies, such as Rokeach, that sell them using their own names.
Raphi Salem sells them under his own label on his Web site, www.purim.com.
"Everyone says I sell the best hamantashen around," he says. "I feel like I'm fooling people, but then I tell them. No one ever minds."