St. Louis gets its own kosher barbecue competition

A scene from the third annual Kansas City Kosher BBQ Festival. Nusach Hari B’nai Zion  will hold a St. Louis Kosher Barbecue    Cookoff on Sept. 11. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As summer turns to fall, one local congregation is looking forward to the smell of savory sauces and flavorful smoke in playing host to the St. Louis area’s first kosher barbecue contest.

“The only difference is that instead of pork, we smoke turkey,” said Mindy Woolf, chair of the event at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion.

Woolf helped kick off the idea. A native of Kansas City, she recalled a similar competition held there for the last five years.

“I thought, why not bring it to St. Louis?” she said.

Bob Kaiser, president of the congregation, said the idea isn’t uncommon.

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“There are other kosher barbecue contests in other places in the country — Kansas City, Memphis, Dallas, New York, Chicago. There is probably half a dozen of them,” he said.

The event, which is set for 2 p.m., Sept. 11, will be open to the Jewish and general communities. Attendance is free though food will be available for purchase, including special tickets allowing attendees to sample the contestants’ wares. 

“Everyone has their own recipe for the sauces and their own way of making stuff so it is going to be fun,” said Woolf.

Ten teams from across Missouri and Illinois — some Jewish, some not — will participate.

“We’ve limited it to 10 because in our first year we wanted to get our legs underneath ourselves,” said Kaiser, who noted the importance of starting such an event small.

The logistics of kosher barbecue did present an additional set of challenges. For starters, all of the equipment would have to be purchased new. Smokers were about $300 apiece with grills running another $75 to $100 each.

Those items cost the congregation roughly $4,000. Then there were the other items — everything from measuring cups and cutting boards to tongs and forks.

“We bought good equipment with the expectation that we would use it again,” Kaiser said. “Obviously, to the extent that Year 2 has more than 10 teams, we’ll have to buy more grills and smokers for those teams next year.”

After that, the grates and utensils needed to go through kashering with a ritual washing in the mikvah.

Kaiser said that, due to the lack of pork, officials in the St. Louis barbecue world were unable to provide certification for the event. Instead, to make things official, the congregation turned to the Kansas City Barbecue Society – the world’s largest sanctioning body. The KCBS will provide oversight of the event as well as certified judges for it. 

Woolf noted that the organization — which is involved with hundreds of competitive grilling events worldwide — had even trained some of its judges on the particulars of kosher barbecue with a special class in the last year. Gaining official sanction is important since it allows teams to accrue points, which can earn them access to other competitions.

The congregation is providing the meats, which will include turkey, chicken and two kinds of beef – ribs and brisket. Kaiser said that the prohibition on pork is the only major issue from a kashrut perspective. Barbecue sauces aren’t traditionally linked to seafood or dairy items though some teams may need to make minor substitutions like margarine instead of butter.

“The teams obviously don’t tell us what their recipes are but they do have to check in their ingredients,” he said, adding that NHBZ’s Rabbi Ze’ev Smason will provide rabbinic oversight for the event.

Barbecue won’t be the only item on the agenda either. With the cookout taking place on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, there will be representatives from law enforcement, fire and the military on hand for a ceremony to mark the occasion. 

There will also be arts and crafts, face-painting and live music along with samples of kosher beer from Shmaltz Brewing, one of the event’s sponsors along with Kohn’s, which will be providing additional food. The Jewish Light also is among the event’s 16 sponsors.

“It is a spectacular community event. It is not just for the congregation, it is for the entire community,” Kaiser said. “It brings people together who might not normally see each other even though we are part of one community.”

He said expected attendance was unknown but organizers were shooting for 150 to 200 people.

Though some teams are non-Jewish, others will compete from Jewish organizations such as Aish St. Louis and Bais Abraham. 

Daniel Picker, an NHBZ congregant, will compete on a team that includes his brother, father and a friend from the synagogue. He said his group aren’t hardcore professional grillers.

“We’re entering more for the good times,” said Picker, adding that his team has competed in Kansas City’s kosher event a couple of times before.

He said the team’s entry will feature smoking and a dry rub but no sauce.

“We’re just going to keep it simple to be honest. Nothing too crazy,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll place but if we don’t, that’s not the end of the world.”

Others are bringing more competitive aspirations to the event. A team from the St. Louis Kollel will include Jon Rubin, a kosher caterer in the area who has helped with Kollel events on many occasions and has competed in kosher barbecue events before.

“We thought it would be important to have a chef of that caliber on our team if we are to have any chance of winning,” said Rabbi Shaya Mintz, executive director of the Kollel.