Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Smokemeisters Henry L., Jerry C., and Elisson whip out their meat.

There’s an old joke about a rabbi who is out of town on a mid-week business trip. He checks into his hotel and heads out to a local eatery... and, as he peruses the menu, a thought pops into his head.

“I’ve never tasted of the flesh of the swine,” he thinks, “and I have always wondered what it’s like.

“Surely, if I were to order pork just this one time, God would forgive me - and besides, I’m away from home, and nobody will ever find out.”

His rationalization thus worked through, he orders the whole roast suckling pig. (Might as well go “whole hog,” eh?) And as soon as the waiter disappears with the order, the rabbi is horrified to see the president of his synagogue’s Sisterhood walk into the restaurant, accompanied by her husband (the ritual director) and their two children.

Of course, they recognize their rabbi immediately and, like one would do when encountering a hometown friend in a faraway place, they come over to greet him. The rabbi gives them a friendly smile, a hearty greeting, all the while silently praying that they will just go away and be seated on the far side of the restaurant.

No such luck. They insist on having the rabbi join them... and he is in no position to refuse.

Moments later, the waiter arrives, bearing a huge domed platter. He whisks away the dome to reveal a roast suckling pig, complete with apple in mouth - and the Sisterhood president and her family gape in open-mouthed horror.

The rabbi looks at the pig, then looks at them. He looks at the pig again, then looks back at them.

“Can you believe it? I order a baked apple, and look at the big production!”

* * * * *

All this is a lengthy prologue to the story of my Birmingham barbecue adventure... competing in a kosher barbecue cook-off at an event held by the Men’s Club at Temple Beth El, the Conservative synagogue there.

[That’d be Birmingham, Alabama, not the one in Old Blighty.]

Lots more below the fold.

I couldn’t not attend, for several reasons. First, our own Men’s Club had fielded a team to compete in the cook-off. Second, I’m a regional president of Men’s Club, and I wanted to be there to represent the region. Third, and most important, barbecue is in my blood... even if it got there by osmosis from She Who Must Be Obeyed.

SWMBO, you see, is a native-born Texan... and along with Eastern European Jews, Texans are one of the two kinds of people who know how to deal with beef brisket. If you fit into both categories simultaneously, there’s no stopping you... and thus I volunteered my services.

This being a kosher cook-off, certain special rules applied. To ensure that all meats, condiments, seasonings, other food ingredients, and utensils were acceptable, these were all provided by the hosting club. The meat itself - all kosher beef brisket and ribs - was supplied by the event’s sponsor, a well-known supermarket chain.

What chain was that, Elisson? I’m glad you asked. Piggly Wiggly, of course! Who better to sponsor a kosher barbecue cook-off?

When Pigs Fly!
Who better to sponsor a kosher barbecue cook-off?

Now, it should be explained that the relationship between Jews and pigs is, generally speaking, not especially close. Because observant Jews do not eat the flesh of the porcine mammal, they do not, as a rule, get jobs as swineherds. This being said, however, Jews differ from their Abrahamic brethren the Muslims in that they do not regard mere representations of pigs with horror and loathing. The smiling Piggly Wiggly mascot offends us not a bit, nor do images of Piglet (of Winnie-the-Pooh fame), piggy banks, or even foods that look like pigs:

Pig Cake
Above: Pig Cake (contains chocolate, but no pork). Below: Panera’s Jalapeño & Cheddar Bagel Breakfast Sandwich (complete with ham and cheese). It’s OK if it looks like a pig, but not if it contains pig.

The Pig Cake pictured above is no problem for the average Red Sea Pedestrian as it contains no pork. On the other hand, despite its having been constructed with a Jewish breadstuff, the Jalapeño & Cheddar Bagel is verboten to the observant. It ain’t what it looks like, it’s what it’s made of... and even that matters only if you plan to eat it.

In any event, several members of our team arrived the night before, in order to season the meat and get it on the smoker in the wee hours of the morning. I arrived shortly after the Butt-Crack of Dawn, just in time to see the beans being assembled.

Award-Winning Beans
Our award-winning barbecue beans on the simmer.

There was competition, lots of it: twenty teams in all, with fanciful names like “Jews, Brews, and Barbecue,” “Delicious, Divine, and Devoid of Swine,” and “Limp Brizkit.” Most were local; we were the only entry that had come from a distance. And that, to be honest, was the point. We were there to make our presence known, to say hello. Taking home a trophy would be a bonus.

Our meat was ridiculously good, not least because we had gotten a head start on pretty much everybody by firing up our smoker in the dead of night.

Meat on the Smoker
Ribs and brisket.

For the last few hours, we kept the meat wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil to retain moisture. When I unwrapped the ribs, a puddle of orange oil - rendered out of the meat - told me that they would be heinously tender... and they were.

The drill was simple. At a designated time, the teams had to plate up five servings - first beans, then ribs, finally brisket - and deliver them unto the judging table. The dishes were then distributed amongst the twenty judges, a group comprising professional barbecue judges, local media celebrities and restaurant owners, and even a stray rabbi or two.

A few of the judges, hard at work.

We had a reasonable amount of brisket left over after plating up the judges’ samples, but it didn’t last long after our team (plus various competitors and hangers-on) descended on the remnants like a pack of starving wolves. Can’t say I blame them.

At the end of the day, we carried off two trophies - one for our beans, another for our ribs. Not bad for the visiting team! We’ll be sure to field a squad for next year’s event.

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