I am from the Southeastern part of Arkansas known as the Delta. This area of the South is famous for a lot of reasons. It is home to the world's largest rice mills, the World Championship Duck Calling Contest, and just about all of the blues music you've ever heard. While the reasons for paying attention to this little corner of the South are endless there is one fact that should be noted above all others: we are very serious about BBQ.
Like many of the people where I'm from, some of my earliest memories involve gorging myself on enough BBQ to end up wearing it. BBQ sandwiches with a layer of coleslaw (it's a Delta thing) were among some of the first solid foods I remember putting in my mouth. With this sort of personal history, you can see where I might have been a bit skeptical to attend a kosher BBQ festival all the way up here in Chicago.
Once I got my judge-y little Southern taste buds to Anshe Emet's fabulous bricked-in parking lot on June 1 for the first ever Chicago Kosher BBQ Festival and Competition, my focus quickly turned from food to people. With more than 1,500 people in attendance the festival on June 1, the real magic of the event was how it brought all sorts of Jews and non-Jews together. We were all represented. I saw everyone from Orthodox Jews to Jews with tattoos and everyone else along the Jewish spectrum.
There was a fascinatingly diverse mix of people represented and that made me feel like the event was a success before a piece of brisket crossed my lips. The old saying, "two Jews, three opinions" was clearly not dreamed up at a Kosher food festival. Jews might have a lot of opinions, but when it comes to food we have only one thought, "Let's eat!"
The event, hosted by Milt's Barbecue for the Perplexed, Anshe Emet Synagogue, and the Barnard Zell Anshe Emet Day School-and media sponsor JUF News-was supervised by the Chicago Rabbinical Council. Ingredients were provided for the teams and a mashgiach (kashruth supervisor) who was present throughout the process. The fourteen teams competing for trophies for Best Brisket, Best Ribs, Best Chicken, Most Original Team Name, Best Booth Decoration, and Grand Champion (so many categories!) met at Milt's on Friday afternoon to prepare their meats and then again after Shabbat in the Anshe Emet parking lot to smoke their food overnight. The JUF News team "Meat the Press" received third place for Best Chicken and second place for Best Brisket. Team "Farbreng It" was the overall festival champion having placed first in Best Ribs and Best Brisket.
Once the gates were open on Sunday morning, festival-goers were able to visit the various team booths and cast their votes for best team name and best booth decoration. And what fun that was! Though, if you're like me, you might have been expecting to eat your weight in brisket, chicken and beans and then vote for your favorites. Apparently health rules and regulations forbid competitors from sharing food with the public. Disappointing news for sure, but once I saw the list of judges included Stephanie Goldfarb, winner of the Food Network's "America's Best Cook" I felt like the competition was in capable enough hands.
Not to worry, there were other delicious food options to keep me and the other festival attendees busy. Milt's Barbecue for the Perplexed, named Joy of Kosher's Restaurant of the Year and listed as one of UrbanSpoon's Best New Restaurants, was on hand with a food truck. Their brisket sandwiches are to die for and they even offered a coleslaw side so I could calm my inner Southerner. BBQ isn't your thing? (What's wrong with you?) Milt's was prepared. They offered other choices including burgers, hotdogs and even
If you're not part of the multitudes obsessed with food and cooking competitions you weren't hurting for entertainment. There was a merry-go-round powered by bicycles and manned by two men cooking on 10 grills, which was surely enough to keep you enthralled. If you needed something a little more stimulating the festival offered a basketball skills competition, kids' play zone, face painters, a magician, various music acts and my personal favorite - food eating competitions. I saw a grown man eat pickles as if his life depended on it. I'm not sure I've ever laughed so hard.
Mazel tov to the organizers of this event. What a brilliant way to bring our very diverse communities together-there might not be a better way than food. I certainly hope that the first annual Chicago Kosher BBQ Festival and Competition will not be the last. I've already started following them on Facebook so that I can put next year's date on my calendar as soon as it's picked. You should do the same!
Jeremy Owens, a proud barbecue connoisseur, is the curator and host of You're Being Ridiculous (yourebeingridiculous.com) and a writer for Oy!Chicago and Gapers Block.