Religion & Jewish Life

Kosher BBQ competition is a hit among Jews — and some Muslims, too

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (JTA) — If there’s anything that can bring the Jews of Tennessee together, it would be barbecue.

Earlier this month, the 23rd annual Kosher BBQ Contest and Festival drew thousands of Jews from Tennessee and around the country.

It attracted a group of Muslims, too. Turns out they’re not bad at cooking kosher brisket: The Memphis Islamic Center’s team, the “Halal Smokers,” won a third-place award for their brisket entry.

The commingling of Jews and Muslims among tables heaped with baked beans, hamburgers and ribs provided a counterpoint to anti-Muslim protests in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and death threats aimed recently at mosques elsewhere in this state.

“This is what America is all about,” Adam Itayem, who manned the Halal Smokers’ booth, said during the event. Itayem is also the owner of Tom’s Bar-B-Q in Memphis.

“People from all over the community feel comfortable coming year after year,” observed Rabbi Joel Finkelstein, the rabbi of Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth, the Orthodox synagogue that organizes the annual event and holds it in its parking lot.

Every May, this Mississippi River city hosts the famed World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held each year on a Saturday. That contest has an overwhelmingly porcine character.

The synagogue cooked up its contest more than two decades ago so that its Shabbat- and kosher-observant members could get in on the barbecue action.

“It is the only event I know that brings the entire Jewish community together,” said Steve Kaplan, a longtime organizer of the event. He estimated that 3,000 people in all came to the festival.

The kosher barbecue contest has become so popular that attendees from far and wide are trying to copy the Memphis model.

Longtime participant Bruce Downs of Birmingham, Ala., said he has helped launch a similar kosher competition back home, sponsored in part by the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain, whose local branch sells kosher meat.

Warren Binderman, an accountant whose “Grillin Tefillin” teams had baked beans bubbling on the grill in Memphis, said he’s trying to start a similar contest in Atlanta.

Marvin Rembo, of Jericho, N.Y., a chemical wholesaler, was sent by his synagogue to scout out the Memphis competition. His mission, Rembo said, is to launch a Long Island-wide kosher barbecue competition next June that will be sanctioned by Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth. The winner will get to compete in Memphis — which can make the uncontested claim, at least for now, of hosting what has quickly evolved into North America’s world series of kosher grilling.

“Eisenhower invaded Europe with less preparation than these guys did to get ready,” Rembo said of the organizers of the Memphis barbecue.

Crowds had an opportunity not just to tantalize the taste buds, but also to pet goats, shoot some hoops and meet up with friends from around town. Some 45 teams participated in the cooking contest, with each paying a $125 entrance fee in addition to buying all the kosher meat and ingredients they needed. With smoke from the grills hovering over the parking lot, the scene had the air of a Civil War reenactment.

Stuart Lazarov, an anesthesiologist and past president of Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth, said sponsors of the event this year included a medical center, a property-management firm, a bank, a casino, law firms and a frozen yogurt store. In a humorous nod, a group of gastrointestinal specialists sponsored a pickle-eating contest.

The grand prize winners, and victors of the ribs competition, were the “Pickering Potchkers.” The best brisket went to “Grills Gone Wild.” The baked beans of the “Cow Towers” took first place in the beans category.

The Memphis Islamic Center’s booth drew a lot of curious Jews who chatted with the cooks about the similarities and differences of the laws governing halal and kosher meat.

Aside from meat, the main draw of the day was a basketball tournament in which 40 teams competed for trophies in three-on-three competition. The power forward for the University of Memphis men’s basketball team, Tariq Black, chatted with fans of his team.

"The Pickering Potchkers" won the grand prize and the ribs competition at the 23rd annual Kosher BBQ Contest and Festival in Memphis, Tenn. (Stuart Lazarov)

Of the food, Black said, “They have the best salami I have ever tasted.”