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West Ashley's Synagogue Emanu-El hosts ninth annual kosher barbecue cook-off

No Pork, No Problem



"When you pull up Sunday around noon, wafts of barbecue, it just takes up the entire neighborhood," says Mike Engel, a member of West Ashley's Synagogue Emanu-El. For the past three years, Engel has been in charge of the synagogue's annual kosher barbecue cook-off. A dentist by day, the Charleston native says the event usually draws in 300 to 400 people, with 13 teams competing for best brisket, best ribs, and best chicken. "Everyone flavors them differently, some use direct heat, some use indirect heat ... it's just phenomenal, the way some of them taste."

This isn't your average weekend barbecue, though. Yes, there will be wine and beer and family activities. But there are also rules. And they are strict.

The regulations begin in the slaughterhouse. In order for meat to be deemed kosher, a shochet must do the butchering. According to Lise Stern's book, How to Keep Kosher: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Jewish Dietary Laws, anyone can be a shochet.

Well, anyone of a "sound mind," who also is an observant Jew familiar with Talmudic laws with hands-on butchering experience; every qualified shochet receives a kabbalah, a certificate from an administering rabbi. Before the slaughter, the shochet recites, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has commanded us to fulfill the mitzvah of shechita."

Engel says that for their cook-off, rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum must inspect all spices that participants plan to use for seasoning. The grills for the event, (housed year-long at the synagogue) have only ever been used to cook kosher meat. According to Stern, "the grill must be cleaned thoroughly. The grates then have to be heated until red hot, 'libun gamur,' either through a flame or with a blowtorch."

Cutting boards, too, must meet certain specifications. Boards made of wood "can be kashered (all blood removed) through hag'alah (boiling)," writes Stern, "but they must first be sanded down and bleached, similar to the method used to kasher a wooden countertop. This can be tedious for a cutting board, and you may opt to purchase a new one. A plastic cutting board should be replaced."

A dentist by day, mike Engel has overseen the cook-off for the last three years - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • A dentist by day, mike Engel has overseen the cook-off for the last three years

After the spices get the OK and grills and boards are cleaned, participants are free to season, marinate, and cook their cut of meat as they see fit โ€” by 5 p.m. Sunday there will be 300 pounds of brisket, 220 pounds of ribs, and 220 pounds of chicken ready to be eaten, and judged.

"All judges are certified Memphis in May judges," Engel says. Memphis in May, an annual international, month-long cultural festival, also hosts a world championship barbecue contest. The four-day competition held on the banks of the Mississippi draws hundreds of competitors, with winners in categories spanning pork, seafood, poultry, beef, and "exotic."

And while the average 'cue judge probably hasn't taste-tested strictly kosher barbecue, Engel reminds them "do not judge it against something you've had before โ€” you can only consider what's in front of you. You can say, 'This is the best I've had today.'"

"It's a lot of work, and kosher meat is expensive," says Engel. There are only so many kosher suppliers, slaughterhouses, and shochets in the country, after all, and the synagogue is ordering hundreds of pounds of this specially prepared meat. Luckily, Engel beams, this year the synagogue has secured a major sponsor, one the layman may not associate with quality kosher products โ€” Food Lion. "We noticed Food Lion was starting to carry more and more kosher stuff so we approached them and asked, 'Can you help us get kosher meats?' They didn't even quibble they said 'absolutely.'"

Kenric Rivers, Food Lion director of operations in Charleston says, "Here in Charleston, we're proud to offer an expanded selection of kosher items in multiple local stores because we understand how important those items are for many of our neighbors."

In addition to the meat, your ticket to the ninth annual 'Jews, Brews, & Ques Kosher BBQ Cook-Off' gets you beer from Revelry (brewery partner Sean Fleming is a patient of Engel), wine, and a special William Wolf bourbon cocktail. First place cook-off winners will receive $250, second place gets $100, and the grand champion (first place winner in more than one category) gets an extra $500, plus at least 365 days worth of bragging rights. They'll have a silent auction, with everything from bottles of wine to restaurant gift cards to a stay at Charleston Place. "It's a big event," smiles Engel, a three-time grand champion winner. "Everyone's welcome to come."

Ninth Annual Kosher BBQ Cook-Off. Sun. Dec. 15, 5-7 p.m. $75/adults, $10/children six-12, $5/children five and under. Synagogue Emanu-El, 5 Windsor Drive. West Ashley. Purchase tickets online at

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