There will be a decidedly northern flavor in at least one stall at the 23rd annual World Kosher Barbecue Championship in Memphis on Sunday, Sept. 18.
Scott Bieber of South Orange, a member of Congregation Beth El, will be heading south, hoping to nab a trophy with his BBQ brisket, beans, or ribs.
The Memphis championship marks Bieber’s second barbecue competition — the first was in Pennsylvania in the spring, where his “Biebercue” team took third place for beans.
“Some people take their barbecue very seriously,” he said.
Bieber, a professional options trader with his own firm, discovered barbecue on some cross-country trips with his two brothers about 15 years ago.
“When it’s done right, it’s very tender with a smoked flavor,” he said over coffee at Starbucks in South Orange on Monday before the Memphis competition.
The brothers were so taken with the cuisine, they started trying it themselves when they returned home. The first attempt didn’t go so well. “We learned that over-smoked food is totally inedible,” Bieber joked.
The trip is part of a 40th birthday present from his wife, a vegetarian, who organized and encouraged the trip and is buying him a new smoker for their backyard.
It was for her that he swore off all non-kosher barbecue, and learned how to smoke a 14-lb. slab of brisket, now his specialty.
“To an extent, the secret is not so much in the spices,” he said. “It’s more about the heat — temperature is critical.”
He likes to cook his for 10 or 11 hours at 220 degrees with some water below to keep up the moisture; then he turns it down to 190 degrees for another 10 hours. He likes to wrap the meat up, refrigerate it, and cut it the next day, adding some sauce before heating it up. It’s a recipe that works particularly well for Jewish holidays, when he is usually assigned to prepare the main course. But it works less well for this competition, in which contestants have just six hours to cook their entry.
What separates southern barbecue from regular backyard cookouts is temperature, according to Bieber. “Anything below 250 is smoking or barbecue. Hamburgers or steaks that you cook at a high temperature — that’s grilling.”
Smoking meat “low and slow” is the cornerstone of barbecue. Beyond that, experts wrangle over the smoke, the sauce, the spices, the kind of meat, often depending on the region, whether North Carolina, Texas, or Memphis. Dry cooking and adding the sauce later, as Bieber does, is pure Memphis.
The Memphis cookoff, billed as the world’s largest kosher barbecue event, was established at the oldest synagogue in the city, Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth Congregation, as an alternative to a similar non-kosher event featuring pork. The celebrity judging panel includes a number of media personalities and restaurant owners, as well as lay eaters from within the Jewish community.
Among the 52 teams registered, many are from such bastions of southern cooking as Atlanta, Birmingham, Little Rock, Nashville, and Jackson, Miss. — and one from as far away as Israel.
“Over the years there have been a number of teams from north of the Mason-Dixon line,” said Ryan Lubin, one of the organizers. “But the Yanks usually can’t take the heat.”
Bieber’s team, the Glattiators (suppress your groans), includes Ethan Moeller of New York City; Jeff Gordon of North Carolina, Bieber’s business partner; and Matthew Connor of Virginia, formerly of South Orange. They will not be bringing their own meat from a favorite kosher butcher; to maintain the kashrut standards, all participants have to provide a list of ingredients that the contest administrators purchase for them.
However, they will be bringing a new, sealed meat thermometer.
To manage the time issue, Bieber has fashioned a secret recipe for his brisket that may be somewhat familiar to Jewish mothers and grandmothers everywhere. Let’s just say that some of it involves cooking in a sealed wrap at temperatures above 250 degrees, though he will be finishing it with more traditional barbecue temperatures to ensure the meat develops the smoky flavor so characteristic of authentic southern barbecue.
And he’s offering a bit of fusion flavor to his ribs, with a soy/sugar/ginger sauce. “I wanted to do something a little different from the rest of the competition,” said Bieber. “I’m not sure we’ll win, but it will taste good!”
The competition will be stiff, he acknowledged, but he thinks he’s up to the challenge. While he’s hoping for a trophy, he said he’s also looking forward “to meeting people from all over the country who have had a similar journey to kosher barbecue — or a different one,” having fun with old friends, and of course, eating some good kosher barbecue.
He ordered an extra rack of ribs, he said, “just so we can eat them!”