A Grill a Minute: Memphis Jews on ‘Que
As August’s sun sears the city of Memphis, Tenn., the one source of comfort for the sun-baked Jewish mind is, “Not long now till the ASBEE barbecue.” By that they mean the Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth Kroger Kosher Barbecue Contest, an event that has perfumed the skies over Memphis for 18 years. It’s the first and only kosher barbecue contest in America, maybe in the whole Diaspora. Maybe in the solar system.
To understand what goes on at ASBEE in Memphis you must be aware of the Southern fascination with vinegary, peppery barbecue sauce. Start by understanding that Memphis, at the beginning of this third millennium, is the capital of barbecue, or “que” as they call it down here. In the South, lovers of charcoaled chickens, cows and “you know what” kneel by their grills and face Memphis to pray. It’s a city where the inquiry “What’s the best you ever had?” can be addressed without blush to man, woman, or child. It means only barbecue.
Well, the thoughtful, food-obsessed members of ASBEE, a local Orthodox Congregation, watched this mania with wonder in their eyes and hands over their nostrils, lest the porky haze that hangs over Memphis enter therein. But why not, they asked, have a kosher barbecue contest? Pigs, schmigs. What’s wrong with beef ribs and beef brisket from an animal mercifully dispatched according to ritual?
Food is a noble and honorable Jewish theme; are we not the People of the Plate as well as the People of the Book? The Bible is full of kitchens, cooks, blue-plate specials — and barbecues. We’re only halfway through Genesis before Abraham, the world’s first barbecuer, roasts a fat ox for the three divine emissaries who come to visit him. So, a barbecue contest is a natural for a Memphis Orthodox synagogue. It’s a cook-off just like Memphis in May — the World’s Championship Barbecue Contest — except that the three little pigs could attend as guests with no fear of ending up on the wrong side of the grill.
ASBEE does its thing this month. Like Memphis in May, it’s called ASBEE in August. So, each year the environs of the synagogue are thick with the incense of barbecued brisket; like the field around Beersheba when Rebecca, maybe the first female barbecuer, cooked up a mess of spicy, smoky goat for Jacob to present to Isaac. Remember how Isaac reciprocated by giving the blessing to Jacob?