It’s not uncommon, while hanging out by the food table at a synagogue Kiddush, to overhear one member boasting to another about the superiority of a particular family recipe — brisket, apple cake, or other. But at some congregations, this culinary kvelling is taken to a whole other level in the form of competitive cook-offs and bake-offs, in which shul-goers cum amateur chefs vie for the top prize (and recipe bragging rights).
In the case of Manhattan’s The New Shul, that prize is the Golden Schmaltz Award. The independent congregation held the fourth round of its annual cook-off this past weekend. This year’s theme, “Sweets to the Sweetest,” focused on desserts, but the cook-off tradition began with the “Battle of the Briskets” in 2007, after one member got tired of hearing another constantly lauding his brisket recipe and was confident that his own was tastier. “Basically, he told him — in a good natured way — to ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” executive director Amy Eichenwald Golding recounted humorously.
The New Shul has traditionally held its competitions (usually judged by a panel of local celebrity chefs and restaurateurs) at a venue and time suited to its themes. The “Battle of the Briskets” took place at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, a restaurant in the West Village, not far from where the congregation meets for services. In 2009, the Golden Schmaltz Award went to the best soup entered in the “Souper Bowl” (held one week prior to its NFL namesake).
Culinarily competitive Jews, however, are not limited to New York. A Web search of the shul cook-off landscape reveals synagogue members trying to best one another all over the country. In Orthodox circles, cholent seems to be the dish of choice. Cooks are adding unexpected ingredients like Pepsi, beer and even fried salmon to the traditional stew in an attempt to gain the attention of the judges.
Chicken soup and kugel cook-offs are popular with all types of synagogues from Cincinnati to Santa Clarita, Calif. The New Shul is not alone in its interest in beef. Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, NJ holds its own “Brisket Bake-Off,” begging the question whether one more accurately cooks a brisket or bakes it.
Around Hanukkah time, latke making competitions abound, with even young, hip communities like San Francisco’s the Mission Minyan entering the fray. The cool Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. takes it far beyond greasy pancakes to a more expansive and imaginative potato cook-off, where offerings like handmade potato-stuffed gnocchi are as — if not more — welcome than traditional holiday fare.
In the south, where people take their down home regional cooking extremely seriously, some shul cook-offs have morphed into major, community-wide events. In Memphis, Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth’s kosher barbeque cook-off attracts huge crowds. Tiferet Israel in Dallas, has been hosting the mother of all kosher chili cook-offs for the past 18 years, drawing teams from as far away as St. Louis, Michigan and Wisconsin. Last year the event attracted 3000 people and involved 1,400 pounds of kosher ground beef. This year there are already 42 teams registered with five weeks to go before the competition scheduled for April 3, according to Scott Janco, the cook-off’s co-chair.
Other chili cook-offs at synagogues and JCC’s in Houston, Rhode Island, Austin and St. Louis, all look to Tiferet Israel for inspiration. Janco especially likes that the event draws “Jews from across the spectrum” together. A new vegetarian chili category added for this spring’s cook-off is opening up the competition even further.
Although a team fielded by Chabad of Plano, Texas has won the cook-off for the past couple of years, the event attracts teams of all sorts. The Dallas Fire Department even has a competitive kosher chili-cooking crew, which has won the people’s choice award two years running.
As cutthroat as the cooking competition may be at these events, they are ultimately about more than just the food. “It’s about community,” reflected Eichenwald Golding at The New Shul. “There is a real connection between food and Judaism, and it is a great way to pass on the tradition to the next generation,” she said as she reviewed the list of teenage “junior cheftestants” participating in this year’s Golden Schmaltz Awards.
Does your shul have a cook-off? Tell us in the comments.