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Southern Comfort

Welcome to Memphis’ World Kosher Barbecue Championship, where thousands of participants get a chance to meld their Southern and Jewish traditions

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The Burro Park Farms booth at the 2007 World Kosher Barbecue Championship. (Courtesy Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth)

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.”

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Richard Diamond says:

I would note in Dallas that we have a terrific Kosher Chili cook off each April that brings in the crowds.

Larry Kerman says:

How about some recipes?

It would be great if I knew the date. Every jewish community should hold one. I know this past week the Young Israel of Oak Park had their Iron Blech!

This is amusing. The competition includes a Muslim team.


bdrlgion says:

My friends, there can be no such thing as “kosher barbeque.”

You may barbeque kosher items. But no such item barbequed can be actual barbeque.

I’ll defer to the true experts on this:

“The incorrect use of the term barbeque on television, in movies and in magazines which is, more often than not, written or spoken by people who know nothing about real barbeque, has led to the misconception, for instance, that beef is barbeque. It’s not. Don’t forget, barbeque is more specifically a noun, a specific thing, and that specific thing is pork, not beef or fish, or beaver, or shrimp or anything else. It’s quite possible to barbeque beef; tens of thousands of people out west do it all the time. And it’s oftentimes delicious. But it’s “barbequed beef” not barbeque. The term barbeque is always properly reserved for pork….
The second proper use of the word, the transitive verb usage, can sometimes be seen in such usage as the term “barbequed chicken” or “barbequed beef.” It is common to barbeque various meats with beef and chicken being probably the most usual but real barbeque can including lamb, turkey, goat and even possum and other exotic creatures. But those animals are termed “barbequed (insert the name of the animal)” where the term “barbequed” in that usage is a transitive verb describing the way the animal was cooked.”

Elina Shatkin says:

I wonder how any of the meat at this kosher BBQ contest, which was grilled for a mere 2-3 hours, would stack up against “real” BBQ, which was smoked for hours and hours. Not very well, I’d imagine. Plus, all the real BBQ pitmasters I’ve talked to are perfectionists about their proprietary spice rubs and would never share the formula or even the ingredient list. It sounds like a fun event and might be in keeping with kosher requirements but it seems like blasphemy to true BBQ fanatics.

Well, I hope bdrlgion and Elina feel better now that they’ve put these kosher weirdos in their place. Shabbat Shalom!

And to the author: an actual date and actual recipes would have rounded out the article.

shushan mussa says:

barbecue causes cancer

I am so glad to hear about a Jewish barbecue in Tennessee. Judaism has so much culture to offer. Kudos!

As a kosher BBQ fan myself, I must concur: Jews can ROCK the grill!! My personal favorite is beer can chicken. The main ingredients are a whole Empire chicken (not pieces) and an aluminum can of your favorite kosher beer. You can substitute a soda can, but the beer gives an excellent flavor (and the alcohol gets cooked out of the chicken anyway).

You open the can, stuff it inside the rump of the chicken and seat the bird on the grill neck-up. Add spices and juices of your choice and cook to your preference. The beer will infuse itself throughout the chicken.

Remove can and enjoy!

The event is this Sunday

Eric Mogy says:

The BBQ will be Sunday, September 18, 2011 at the Anshei beth el Emeth Synagogue located at 120 E. Yates Rd. N. Memphis, TN. Come one come all!

Eric Mogy says:

You may think that Kosher BBQ can not compete to “so called real BBQ.” However, we have teams who are experts in pork BBQ who tell us every year how much they enjoy cooking Kosher BBQ and that as much as they like their pork, nothing beats the beef! You have to taste it to believe it! Be there this Sunday or be square!

Chazar Fresser says:

Hey bdrlgion… Thanks for enlightening us, but you obviously have too much time on your hands. Why don’t you go play some ping pong, or hoover your rug, or make some xerox copies.

Dallas has been hosting the “Kosher Chili Cook-off” since 1994, and draws thousands. My org came in 3rd place in 2004.

Jews have been “rocking the grill” for at least 3,000 years, as readers of Leviticus (long on technique, short on seasoning) will attest; the fires may be out, but the flavor continues. Tasty article!

bdrlgion @ Sep 15, 2011 4:11 PM

The origins of the word “barbeque” are Arabic via Spanish and if I recall a class taught by a cultural anthropologiest over 20 years ago correctly, refered simply to the cooking of meat over an open flame. The Mexican cooking technique — “Barbacoa” — is probably the usage from whence your meaning of “barbeque” arises, but again, from, the tradition was not a reference to pork at all:

Barbacoa is not a method of grilling something over an open flame. Traditional Mexican barbacoa is completely different. It essentially steams and smokes the meat at the same time resulting in a moist and flavorful meat.

First, the head of a cow or goat meat is wrapped in maguey or banana leaves.
A cauldron of hot water is placed in a pit about 3 feet deep with hot coals in the bottom. A grill is placed on top of the cauldron and the meat is placed there. Vegetables, beans and spices are sometimes added to the pot for a soup. The pit is then sealed and covered with damp earth.

Traditionally, the type of meat used is from the head of the cow. Lamb or pork is also used.

Nowadays “barbacoa” can refer to meat that is just slow cooked and tender.

I liked President Reagan. I certainly wouldn”t have trusted him if he said to me,

Would you be occupied with exchanging hyperlinks?


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Southern Comfort

Welcome to Memphis’ World Kosher Barbecue Championship, where thousands of participants get a chance to meld their Southern and Jewish traditions

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