There are two kings in Memphis—Elvis and barbecue—and here, as in most of the South, barbecue usually means pork. But this Sunday, hundreds of competitors will gather at Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth, an Orthodox synagogue with roots stretching back to the Civil War, to compete in the 23rd annual World Kosher Barbecue Championship. Rabbi Joel Finkelstein will monitor the contenders, and his volunteers will ready the grounds for 2,000 to 3,000 guests, setting up everything from the barbecue itself to a basketball tournament and a pickle-eating contest.
“The average person, you come to Memphis, you’ll see Elvis and then you have to get some barbecue,” Finkelstein said. “If you keep kosher, then you’re disconnected from that experience.” The contest allows observant Jews to “connect with both their Jewish and Southern roots,” he said. The model is a successful one: In recent years, similar contests have been proliferating, from Alabama’s When Pigs Fly Kosher BBQ Cookoff to Pennsylvania’s Hava NaGrilla.
Don’t look for homebrewed special sauces or venerable backyard smokers at ASBEE’s contest. Organizers uphold kashrut by providing both the equipment and the ingredients, which this year’s approximately 45 teams have ordered in advance. “Whatever they want,” Finkelstein said, as long as it’s kosher—“a particular barbecue sauce, different types of beans, Cajun spice collections, even different beers and alcoholic ingredients.” ASBEE recently rebuilt a special storage shed for the 100 grills that participants are required to use. “Every year there are one or two real Rube Goldberg types who want to rig up a special cooker or have some special way of starting the fire,” said Finkelstein. Cooks often grill meat for only two or three hours instead of coddling it in a smoker for a dozen or more—deviations that the gentiles in the non-kosher church of ’cue almost certainly consider blasphemy.
Teams arrive several days before the competition to begin cooking in the synagogue’s kitchen, pause for Shabbat, and do the actual grilling outdoors on Sunday. About two dozen local celebrities, many of them non-Jews, award prizes for best brisket, best ribs, and best beans—the main criterion is taste—and also best booth and best team name. (Last year’s winner was Lebron Flames and the Miami Meat.) Nearly every Jewish organization in Memphis fields a team, says organizer Alan Harkavy, who also estimates that 20 percent of attendees are non-Jewish: “In fact, this year we have a Muslim team,” he said.
Crosspollination of traditions has always characterized the Southern Jewish kitchen—and is the reason kosher barbecue exists in the first place. In Matzo Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, Marcie Cohen Ferris points out that by the early 1900s, dishes such as lox and grits, sweet potato kugel, and barbecued brisket had become common, in part because of the influence of African-American cooks, caterers, and domestics. Memphis Jews, Ferris writes, tell a joke about a man with five sets of gold teeth: one for milk, one for meat, one for milk during Passover, one for meat during Passover, and one for barbecue. But partaking of barbecue was rarely if ever Jewish communal experience. “If Jews ate barbecue, they did it quietly,” she said. “It was very covert.”
Enter the ASBEE competition. In 1989 then-synagogue President Ira Weinstein wanted to create a casual social event for the community, and a fellow congregant who owned a charcoal company supplied charcoal and 20 grills for the first synagogue-sponsored barbecue. “There was always a nucleus of 12 to 15 guys who came out,” Weinstein said. “We tried chicken one year, but that got to be a little messy.” The addition of a three-on-three basketball tournament in the mid-1990s transformed the event into a fundraiser with dozens of teams hailing from as far away as Israel, ushering in the pickle-eating contest and the modern competition.
“It’s all humorous, but it’s also serious,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. When it comes to actually making kosher barbecue, “people find it very interesting to learn afresh what’s required. They feel like they are under a higher supervision—a higher authority.”
With kosher barbecue competitions spreading throughout the United States, ASBEE has become an authority, too. In 2008, Howard Levin, of Philadelphia, discovered the ASBEE competition online and subsequently launched Hava NaGrilla, a fundraiser for a local Jewish charity. The 2009 and 2010 competitions attracted several thousand people. Last year Birmingham, Ala., welcomed its first When Pigs Fly Kosher BBQ Cookoff, and this year, Synagogue Emanu-El in Charleston, S.C., hosted its first Top Grillers Jew-B-Q.
Finkelstein isn’t surprised by the growing popularity. “I’ve met people randomly in different parts of the country—even in New Jersey—who travel to participate in barbecue contests,” he said. “Yeah, we have a pickle-eating contest, which obviously doesn’t take place at a real barbecue contest, but the championship has a sense of authenticity.”
How much authenticity, precisely? “I must say,” he admitted, “I don’t know what a real barbecue sandwich tastes like.”