Since a traditional Memphis barbecue usually consists of smoked pork served as a rack of ribs or “pulled” (hand shredded and sauce covered), it is understandable that the city’s 8,000 Jews might try to find a way to bring
five-thousand-year-old tradition of slow cooked meat to the land of the Delta blues.
Memphis barbecue is more than a way of cooking, it is a way of life. The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held during the Memphis in May International Festival, cemented the city’s claim as the Barbecue Capital of the World with more than 250 teams competing over three days for more than $110,000 in prize money.
Memphis is best known for its dry barbecue. In the dry process, the ribs are coated with a rub made from a combination of ingredients that can include salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, brown sugar, chili powder, dry mustard, cumin, and other spices. They are typically cooked in a smoker until they fall off the bone, soft and tender.
Twenty-one years ago, Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth (ASBEE), an orthodox synagogue that can trace its roots to the Civil War, decided to offer a kosher alternative to the traditional Memphis barbecue contest. It is not without precedent; after all, Passover was the very first barbecue festival.
ASBEE hosts the World Kosher BBQ Championship, which is one of the most anticipated events in the Memphis Jewish community. Last year, the ASBEE Championship had 40 teams and more than 3000 attendees. This year the World Kosher BBQ Championship takes place on Sunday, August 29th. You won’t find any swine tasting at this event, but the intoxicating smell of slow roasted brisket and beef ribs will make a pig out of any hard core carnivore.
Vegetarians and other conscientious objectors are able to enjoy a three-on-three basketball tournament, pickle-eating contest, petting zoo, face painting and other family-friendly fun. The event brings out the entire Jewish community and a growing number of competitive kosher barbecue lovers from across the country.
Contestants compete for trophies for the Overall Grand Champion and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in the following categories: Best Beef Brisket, Best Beef Ribs, Best Team Name, Best Team Booth, and Best Beans. On the Thursday before the event, contestants choose their meat, spices and sauces that have been preordered to ensure that kosher standards are strictly adhered to. There is also an overview of the laws of kashrut for all participants.
The frantic preparation begins following the Thursday orientation until about midnight and resumes moments after havdalah on Saturday night, as the aspiring contestants finalize their strategy and test their equipment like a pit crew at a NASCAR race. At 5:30 Sunday morning, the Rabbi comes around to light the fire and the heat is on! By 11:30am the beans and ribs are in front of the judges and the brisket is judged at 1:30pm, leaving time for a nap or a quick trip to the cardiologist.
So what does it take to win a Memphis barbecue championship? “Beer,” says Matt Cohen, the 2009 Overall Champion. Now don’t get the wrong idea, Matt and his team (the “Hungry, Hungry Hebrews”) are not drinking it, well, not all of it. Matt and his team marinate the ribs and brisket overnight in a dry rub of barbeque seasoning, seasoned salt, garlic and brown sugar. On Sunday morning, Matt pours beer into a shallow metal pan, places the pan over charcoal, secures a metal grate to the side of the grill and slow-roasts his ribs for about two hours and his brisket for approximately four hours, basting with, you guessed it, beer. “The beer helps keeps the meat moist,” explains Matt, and the key to impressing the panel of local celebrity judges is to “keep the meat from drying out.”
String, a member of
, manages to make the 900 mile pilgrimage from Silver Spring, Maryland to the ASBEE BBQ Championship in Memphis almost every year. When asked why anyone would travel fifteen hours for a meal, String tries to explain, “imagine watching the sun rise on Sunday morning, smelling the waft of BBQ in the air, with a beer in hand and kosher ribs on the grill. It doesn't get much better than that.” Only half-kidding, String suspects a conspiracy keeps the prize winning trophies from travelling north. After all, Southern pride ranks a close second to Southern hospitality. How else do you explain “how our Grilla’ in Manilla boxing theme, did not bring home any trophies, neither did our genius name of Hakadosh Bar Beque?”
Conspiracy theories aside, if you are able to check out this year’s festivities, remember there is more to Memphis than barbecue. Memphis is the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll. There’s Historic Beale Street, Sun Studio, recording studio for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, U2 and many more and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Graceland, Elvis Presley’s world-famous residence. Memphis is also home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
For a uniquely Southern experience with world-renowned attractions and entertainment, there’s no better place than Memphis and, if you keep kosher, nothing quite like the ASBEE World Kosher BBQ Championship!