Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Keeping it kosher: Strict rules set apart synagogue's serious barbecue competition

Published September 14, 2011 in the Commercial Appeal
Kosher and barbecue are two words that don't normally go together. But they do when it comes to the annual World Kosher Barbeque Championship.

On Sunday, the parking lot of the Mid-South's oldest Orthodox Jewish congregation will fill with smoke as Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth (ASBEE) gears up for the 23rd annual competition.

"We've got the real barbecue," says event chairman Eric Mogy. "Our competition is much more difficult than Memphis in May due to the hamstrings and regulations."

No pork is allowed. Instead, the focus is on beef.

Attaining the kosher seal of approval requires that all teams use the synagogue's own kettle-style grills that are stored year-round under lock and key. Teams also must preorder meat, cooking supplies and spices through the synagogue so that event staff can ensure that they are kosher.

Everything from the meat to the salt must be inspected by the rabbi and certified as kosher. Finally, the utensils must undergo a mikvah, or ritual cleaning.

Teams from around the country will set up themed tents in the parking lot on Saturday night, much like you would see at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, but with a decidedly Jewish flair.

Fifty teams with names like Kippah Cooking, Veal Street, Fresh Meat (a singles team), Fleish Gordon and his Beefy Bunch and Hava No Grilla will spend Sunday morning grilling brisket, ribs and beans.

You don't have to be Jewish or keep kosher to join in the fun -- you just have to abide by the rules. "Come with a great attitude and be willing to try something different," Stuart Lazarov advises. He's been competing for 15 years and is one of the event's main organizers.

This year, Lazarov's team is called the ASBEEFS, and they plan to build on their momentum from last year. "We always do well on team name and booth, but last year we switched cooks and took home fifth in the brisket competition," he says.

Alan Harkavy, who is also on the ASBEEFS team, is the event's team chairman. He says the competition is very serious and people come to win. "We had a national team come for a few years, but they couldn't win and eventually stopped coming," he says. The team's pit boss worked at Corky's in Nashville at the time and was very upset. "I didn't have the heart to tell him that he wasn't any good," Harkavy says.

There have been several teams that have done well in the Memphis in May competition and then tried the ASBEE competition, including Mark Rubenstein. Last year, he put together a team from his office, the Pickering Firm. Much to his delight, the Pickering Potchki-ers (from the Yiddish potchky: to work in an amateur fashion for little gain) took home first place in the brisket competition.

This year, another principal owner in the Pickering firm, Yousef Saleh, hopes to do as well. He has put together a team from the Memphis Islamic Center, which includes the owner of Tom's Bar-B-Q, a restaurant on New Getwell Road.

Harkavy says the competition has inspired Memphians, but also the country. It's quite common for representatives from other cities to call and ask for help in creating a similar event. "Birmingham just had their second contest, and a guy from Long Island is doing an audit this year," he says. With Birmingham's success, Harkavy hopes to work with other, smaller competitions to set up a barbecue circuit. Birmingham is sending one of its strongest teams, All Pigs Left Behind, to compete Sunday. Atlanta is also sending three teams including Grilling and Fulfilling.

Without access to personal smokers, and with a limited amount of time to cook, the playing field is somewhat leveled. Even the most confident backyard griller must succumb to the limited space and heating capabilities of the kettle. The fear of overcooking the meat is palpable. Teams are primarily judged on taste (45 percent) and tenderness (45 percent). Looks aren't everything, just 10 percent.

There are also team name and best booth competitions. Each category has a trophy prize for first through fifth place. Grand champions are named for the showmanship categories and for the food.

Not surprisingly, the ASBEE World Kosher Barbeque Championship is one of the most anticipated events in the Jewish community. "We've been doing it for 23 years, and it gets better each year," says Mogy. This year, they expect a record 50 teams and thousands of visitors. There is no admission charge, and everyone is welcome.

In addition to the barbecue contest, there is a three-on-three basketball tournament for all ages, a kosher dill pickle-eating contest, and numerous children's activities including a petting zoo, a train, face painting and arts and crafts.

"For the unfortunate few who aren't conniving enough to get a taste at the team booths, the Sisterhood has a full café," Mogy says.

The Cowsher Café, led by Debbie Lazarov, typically serves 700 barbecue sandwiches, 200 hamburgers, 300 hot dogs, 70 pounds of coleslaw and baked beans and heaps of brownies.

Those who choose to buy from the café should not feel slighted -- their brisket is award-winning. "They let us enter the competition for the first time last year -- I'd never thought to ask before -- and we won second place," says Lazarov.

She's been helping out in the café for 15 years and says she spends the whole day either in the kitchen or bringing out food. This year, she will be missing her children, who have all gone off to college, but says her husband, brother and mother have big plans for their team's booth. "It's great fun and everyone comes together," she says.

More Information

World Kosher Barbeque Championship, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth (ASBEE), 120 East Yates N.

Call (901) 682-1611 or visit

Sisterhood Hamburgers

2 lbs. ground beef

2 white onions

2 eggs

Salt, pepper, garlic powder and soy sauce to taste

Season ground beef and set aside. Put onion and eggs in Cuisinart and pulse until well mixed. Mix egg mixture and beef mixture together with your hands, then form into patties. For best flavor, fry in a pan.

(Makes 8)

Note: Getting teams to reveal their winning recipes prior to the event proved impossible, but Debbie Lazarov shared this recipe that has been handed down through the synagogue's Sisterhood.

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