Hava NaGrilla Serves up Kosher Barbecue in Third Annual Cook-Off

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Competitors serve kosher barbecue at the 2017 Hava NaGrilla Smoke BBQ Festival
Competitors serve kosher barbecue at the 2017 Hava NaGrilla Smoke BBQ Festival. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Gordon)

Imagine entering a photography competition and not being able to use your own camera: That’s how Stuart Gordon describes the challenge of Hava NaGrilla Smoke BBQ Festival, one of the largest kosher barbecue competitions in the United States.

Twenty teams from as far as New York, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Illinois will converge at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood for the third annual cook-off from noon to 4 p.m. on June 23. All net proceeds will go to the nonprofits Support Homeless Veterans and the Jewish Relief Agency.

Gordon has staged the event will the help of the synagogue’s men’s club annually since 2017. His motivation is to bring Jews of all different backgrounds together for a day of fun under the sun.

“The idea, my mission, is to try to bring people together,” Gordon said. “[Jewish people of] all sects will come. And we have non-Jews, people of color, black Jews, Ethiopian Jews, we have Jews of all different groups who are coming. It’s like the lobby of the United Nations, and they’re having fun. Food is really a universal magnetic for building friendships and bonds.”

Gordon expects 4,500 people to attend, with a higher turnout this year because admission is free for the first time.

Kosher barbecue competitions are less common than their non-kosher counterparts, Gordon said, due to the difficulty. All food, grills and cooking utensils have to be provided by event organizers to competitors, ensuring kashrut with certification by Keystone-K.

The only thing cooking teams can use of their own are a handful of spices. Competitors are given four types of meats to cook — beef ribs, turkey, chicken thighs and smoked brisket. With a standardized playing field, cooks have to rely on their knowledge of smoke, fire and spice to come out on top and walk away with the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Kosher BBQ Competition trophy.

“This is not a hamburger-hot dog barbecue,” Gordon said. “This is not like a backyard grill; this is the real Texas Memphis-style, Kansas City-style, that’s what we do.”

The meat is ranked by 24 judges under Kansas City Barbecue Society guidelines, evaluated for texture, appearance and taste. One of this year’s competitors, Erik Schneiman of Center City, said he appreciates the level playing field the competition creates with the standardization of materials. Whether you’re an expert or an amateur, he said everyone has an opportunity to do well.

“It’s fabulous,” Schneiman said. “I really love the fact that everybody gets the same things. There’s both professional cooks and backyard cooks, but we all have the same stuff. So it’s not like the professionals are going out to their food purveyors and getting something really special that a backyard cook can’t have. It gives everybody a chance.”

Visitors can partake in the food and other activities, including a watermelon-eating contest, a monster truck bounce house, beer garden, premium scotch and bourbon table, a chili cook-off, obstacle course, a trampoline ride and mechanical bull riding. Live music will be played, with Gabriel Boxer of Kosher Guru serving as master of ceremonies. Oh, and don’t miss the chance to meet the event’s mascot, Mooshe.

One of the vendors will be Ari White, pit boss and owner at Wandering Que in Hackensack, New Jersey. In 2016, he won the top prize from the Brisket King NYC competition. The Texas native is famous for his kosher Texas-style roadside smokehouse barbecue.

Jeff Klein of Jake’s Kosher Smoked Meats will be serving brisket, chicken wings and sausages with his custom Kansas City-made mega-smoker using oak and fruit woods.

And be on the lookout for grub from Star of David Kosher Grill, Judd’s Memphis BBQ and vegetarian and vegan dishes from Nana’s Kitchen.

A parking shuttle from the Kaiserman JCC at the corner of City Line Avenue and Haverford Road will transport visitors to the event starting at 11:40 a.m.

While a large number of event attendees are members of the Jewish community, Gordon said he expects about half to be non-Jews.

“This is not a Temple Beth Hillel event — this is an event for our region,” he said. “Think big or go home. The more people we reach, the more who can enjoy this event. That’s our mission.”

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