Well, I can check off one more item from my bucket list: I competed in a barbecue competition.
It was me and the Meatzvah Men on a quest to take top honors at the fourth annual Atlanta Kosher Barbecue Competition and Festival, held Sept. 25 at Brook Run Park in Dunwoody. That’s right, this was no ordinary meat throwdown — it was a kosher competition.
When team member Stan Schnitzer extended the offer, I told him that backyard barbecue wasn’t my culinary strength. Moreover, this gentile had never knowingly cooked anything kosher.
It’ll be fine, Schnitzer reassured me, promising in the least, that it would be a great time.
I showed up for prep night on Sept. 22 at Congregation B’nai Torah, a synagogue in Sandy Springs. I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but it wasn’t a crowded room of kippah-wearing guys talking smack about their ability to make kosher ‘cue.
After pit boss and event co-founder Matt Dickson spoke to the teams about the rules, everyone went outside to a refrigerated truck to get their brisket, ribs and chicken. Each of those proteins would be judged at the competition, along with beans.
Team names were judged, too. My guys were pretty snarky with their name, I came to learn, only because Schnitzer explained it to me: Meatzvah Men is an English-Hebrew pun, mitzvah being a Hebrew word that means “commandment,” or “good deed.”
Everyone went about their good deeds: collecting ingredients for sauces, cutting meat and, most of all, razzing one another, especially our co-captain Mitch Frank, who taunted fellows at neighboring prep tables with the trophies he and his buddies took home at last year’s competition.
As they bantered, I tried to get a handle on the kosher part of things. I kept attempting to talk to Rabbi David Kayser, but he was too busy inspecting every team’s stash of goods, making sure no outside utensils had been brought in and that all food items were kosher certified.
Thankfully, I ran into Alex Idov. Like Rabbi Kayser, Idov was in attendance to keep things, well, kosher. He’s a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, with the Atlanta Kashruth Commission. He also happens to blog about kosher food on kosherology.com.
Idov’s quick kosher primer included the following: Kosher food is prepared in a way that abides by the laws set forth by the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Among those dictates, meat and dairy cannot be mixed. This applies to both the dish itself as well as the cooking instruments needed to prepare them. When it comes to meat, those who abide by kosher laws can only eat the flesh of split-hooved animals that chew their cud, which means pork is out of the picture. Meat and poultry do undergo a ritual slaughter; however, there is no actual blessing of the food, a common misconception. Were this competition to have had a fish component, shellfish would not enter into the picture since only fish with fins and scales could apply. All of these dietary standards are overseen by a guiding agency.
He then pulled out of his wallet a pocket card denoting approved kosher symbols. It included a whopping 70 symbols, used by various food manufacturers around the world to identify a kosher product on the packaging. Welcome to the wide world of kosher.
By the time I returned from my own journalist “good deed” thing of questioning bodies in the room, the Meatzvah Men had finished prepping the meat. Only the beans remained. I asked for a job so I could say that at least I helped. I was tasked with pouring cheap bourbon over the beans. Oh, and I washed the dishes.
The prepped proteins were then sealed, stored and locked inside that refrigerated meat truck, to be kept at the synagogue until after the Sabbath. The utensils used during prep were collected so that the mashgiach could dip them in a ritual bath, called a mikvah. The teams would get their purified cooking tools back when they began cooking Saturday, an hour after sundown, which marked the end of the Sabbath. They would spend the entire night cooking in the open at Brook Run Park and have their food entries ready for the judges by late Sunday morning.
I prefer to sleep in a bed instead of a lawn chair, so I regrouped with my teammates Sunday morning.
When I arrived, mighty Mitch looked tired. Oh, but he rallied, staying focused to submit his chicken to the judges.
I meandered over to the judging tent, where I found Bob Herndon, president of the Atlanta BBQ Festival and one of the 30 judges for this competition, all of them certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. “There are no celebrity judges,” Herndon added, as I watched judges poke and prod proteins, scoring them on appearance, taste and tenderness. Even at this amateur competition, they take their ‘cue seriously.
Herndon explained why a kosher barbecue competition is tough. “The limitations are huge,” he said, ticking off handicaps like the requirement to cook on a Weber grill as opposed to using a smoker, such as a Big Green Egg, which offers more insulation and temperature control. Teams could not source their own meat. They couldn’t rely on dairy products (butter!) to make the meat taste great. “This is a level playing field,” Herndon said.
Who won? Grillin Tefillin took grand champion as well as best name. The Brisketeers were victorious in, what else?, brisket. Cloven Hoof ranked tops for best ribs. The DeKalb firefighters walked away with first in chicken.
The Meatzvah Men didn’t do so well. We did take third place for team name. And we came in fourth place for decorated booth. (Hey, there is something to be said for enthusiasm.) The best we did for food submissions was sixth place in the chicken category, none of it due to any help from me.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever take honors in a barbecue competition. But I am a tad more literate in kosherology.