"It's a big schlep," says Dr. Ira Weinstein of Anshei Sphard - Beth El Emeth (ASBEE) Congregation's World Kosher Barbeque Championship. "But it's also a great deal of fun."
The contest marks its 26th year this Sunday.
Weinstein dreamed up the event when he was the congregation's president in 1980s. "I moved here in 1981, and all I heard was barbecue, barbecue, barbecue. Bingo was out of fashion, so I tried to think of a Jewish barbecue that was kosher," he says.
Rabbi Mark Levin loved the idea and gave him the green light. Another congregant made his own charcoal and offered to buy 20 grills. The three of them, along with a few others, sat down to plan.
To ensure that the event was kosher, the committee decided that they would buy the utensils, do the ingredient shopping, and provide each team with a kosher rack of ribs and a roast up front. The team fee was $125, and they had 21 teams sign up. Weinstein was ecstatic.
Event chairman, Eric Mogy, elaborates, "Kosher means a rule of dietary laws that relates to the types of food we do and don't eat and how that food is prepared. We ensure everything is kosher by maintaining control and supervision over all the food and cooking process. We provide the food, grills, and utensils to all the teams competing. We supervise the entire process from marinating the meat to lighting the grills to inspecting what goes on the grill. We try to maintain the highest standards when it comes to making this a kosher barbecue."
The event was modeled after the Memphis In May Barbecue Cooking Contest in that it featured booths and funny team names, celebrity judges, and awards. It was an instant hit, and although they didn't raise any funds, Weinstein says they raised a lot of fun.
Over the years, the event has grown and gained enough corporate sponsorships that it is now the congregation's largest fundraiser. This year's event has 42 teams, and they expect a crowd of 3,000 people.
Teams come from all over the city as well as from across the country. Mogy says, "This is a world kosher barbecue competition. We have teams from all over come and compete. We have had teams come from across the nation, including New York, Texas, Washington, D.C. In addition, we have even had teams come from as far as Israel to compete."
Mogy says that their barbecue contest has spawned the creation of similar, although not as good, contests across the nation. "New York, Kansas City, Birmingham, and even Atlanta have all started their own kosher barbecue competitions after coming to Memphis and seeing how we do it. In fact, there are even talks of creating a circuit in which all competitions work together and send representatives to other events," he says.
In addition to barbecue teams, the ASBEE event features a Cowsher Café, run by the Sisterhood, where food can be purchased. There's a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, a pickle-eating contest, live music, and several children's activities.
There are a few new things this year. They've added chicken as a new category, and there will be vendor booths.
Trophies will be awarded 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; Best Beans; and Best Chicken.
Weinstein competed for the first 23 years as a member of the Alter Cookers. (It's a play on the Yiddish alta cockers or old farts.) "We only won twice," he adds, lest he be accused of courting any favor.
At 86, he prefers to put on one of his signature baseball caps and enjoy the event as a spectator. "I'm a big scotch drinker, so when I come around they give me scotch," he chuckles. He also says he doesn't miss everyone asking, "Is it done yet?"
He's been on the run several times to buy everyone's ingredients. That's where the big schlep comes in. "Everyone always says they'll help, but that's a bunch of bologna," he explains.
This year's event is runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Weinstein says a good time to come is around noon. "I guarantee you will see someone you know," he says.
You don't have to be Jewish or keep kosher to join in the fun.
As a final plug, Weinstein says, "The camaraderie is amazing, and the police have never had to get involved."