UPDATED 9:30 a.m. on May 16, 2018: This story was originally published in October 2017, but we're bringing it back in honor of National BBQ Day.
Barbecue is supposed to be a spiritual experience, right?
I had mine Sunday midway while nibbling on a sampler plate at the Dallas Kosher BBQ Championship. I was searching for something inspired among pedestrian "shredded" beef, salty brisket and a hunk of chicken.
An older couple, whose dress gave them away as Orthodox and, thus, they adhere to the laws of Kashruth (keeping kosher), sat down with their own sampler plate. They also had another plate ... filled with blobs of ketchup, mustard and relish. These folks eat barbecue differently than I do.
As the gentleman dug into his plate, he looked at his wife lovingly: "Oh, I love this stuff, this chipped beef."
It was then that I realized this kosher barbecue championship, sanctioned by the royal governing body of competition barbecue, the Kansas City Barbeque Society, wasn't so much about the "barbecue" as it was about the "kosher."
I was reminded of this by Rabbi David Shawel, the director of supervision for Dallas Kosher Agency and the big macher (that's Yiddish for "boss") of this operation. He's also a big deal as a mohel, the supervising official at the ritual circumcision of boys known as a bris. In other words, you very much would like this guy slicing your brisket. And, yeah, he's available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and barbecues. But enough of the kibitzing.
"It's these communal events that are the strength of the Jewish nation," the rabbi said. "The first mitzvah — the first commandment given to Adam and Eve — had to do with food. When Israel gets together as one at the table, we find a common ground."
For those in Dallas who adhere to the laws of Kashruth, it's exceptionally difficult to find smoked meat outside of the home. There aren't big business opportunities for barbecue joints that exclude pork from their menus and close on Saturdays. There appear to be two kosher restaurants, both in North Dallas, that are heavy on meat: the Meat Point and Aderet Grill. Neither sells brisket, slow-smoked over oak.
For this competition, the "common ground" extends further. You aren't bringing your own cuts of meat. Or hauling your own smoker. You aren't even lighting your own fire: The rabbis did that after sundown Saturday when the Sabbath officially ended. Everything from the meats to spices to the standard charcoal grills is provided for competitors to make sure it adheres to dietary laws.
It also means this is a championship, not a festival. For most of the day, the only barbecue available was that from Texas Kosher BBQ, a local caterer and not a competitor. With precious little surface space to cook on, the teams focused on competition entries: brisket, smoked chicken, beef ribs and turkey.
"It was a major challenge," said Ilan Fehler, one of the members of 99 Percent Kosher, which finished second overall and shared the People's Choice Award.
At home, he's got an electric smoker and buys his meat from wherever he pleases. Here, he had to deal with a much more difficult scenario of regulating his fire and handling saltier meat. When it came time to present the brisket to the judges, the five-man team huddled up, tasted, basted a little, then sliced.
Ajay Patel — "he's the 1 percent not kosher," they joked — sliced the brisket. Ralph Landau inspected it. "You want it to be like an accordion" he said as he pulled on it.
With two minutes to spare, they handed their box to the judging table. They were concerned it might be drier than they wanted. They went over their other entries. They tasted a bit more.
Nearby, Rabbi Shawel, holding a hunk of a beef rib, strolled by the competitors' tents. I asked him about this cookoff, which is sponsored by Congregation Beth Torah, and the local Kosher Chili Cookoff. I wondered if making barbecue kosher was more about the assimilation of the Jewish community than anything else. It should be noted that among Jews, brisket, albeit cooked to death in a mix of onion soup or ketchup, is a staple of most holiday feasts. And growing up in Newport News, Va., Rabbi Shawel was definitely not a fan.
"No," he said. "They are in the land of Texas and they are making their food delicious. Finally."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story indicated Congregation Beth Torah sponsors both the BBQ Championship and the Kosher Chili Cookoff. Congregation Beth Torah does not sponsore the Kosher Chili Cookoff.