By Jeffrey Markowitz / Detroit
The city of Berkley, Mich. held its first (and probably last) Rib Off Contest on June 27th. It was a Tuesday evening, and the contestants were two Jewish guys (go figure!) who hailed from Oak Park — me and my childhood friend Barry Lefkowitz. The judges were mostly oldies but goodies.
It was a gathering of former graduates of Oak Park High School from the late 1960s, with a few young bloods joining in as well. We have all been friends since elementary school and have shared many good times together — especially when eating. We are chazers (Yiddish for pigs, as in pigging out).
A few months ago, my friend Harold Oleinick suggested that a rib contest between me and Barry would be a great way for all the friends to get together. Barry was still in Florida at the time, and when he heard about the rib contest, he was all in. We set a date and the anticipation and excitement began — and so did the talk. From that point, until the Rib Off, all conversations with friends were basically about the rules of competition.
The first and most important rule was that each contestant would grill his ribs at home, on his own grill. He would then bring his favorite recipe to the Rib Off and be ready for a taste test. The next rule was that the contestants had to provide each judge with three ribs. As it turned out, everyone wanted to be a judge — there were about 20 who voted. The gathering was to be held at Harold and Shirley Oleinick’s house.
More than 50 years had gone into training our taste buds. Most of my friends had their first crack of tasting ribs at Checker BBQ in Detroit in 1967. It was located on Livernois, known locally as The Avenue of Fashion. It was well-known for its unique clothing stores, restaurants, and bars. Next door to Checker Barbeque was Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, known as the top jazz nightclub in Detroit.
After an evening at the racetrack, my friends and I would head over to Checker for a late-night meal. We were interested in harness racing and went to three different tracks — Hazel Park Raceway, Detroit Race Course,, and Northville Downs. Each track was allotted a certain number of racing dates during the year, and we attended all of them.
In the wintertime, my friends and I had ice time reserved at the Oak Park Skating Rink every Saturday at the ungodly hours from 2:00 am to 4:00 am. to play hockey. Checker BBQ was our place for a pre-game meal. Typically, if someone had a good night at the track, they might cover the bill. Imagine paying $25 for four rib dinners, including a tip.
Our favorite server was Shirley (not related to Shirley Oleinick) and she always greeted us with a smile and the same question, “Do you want short ends or long ends?” The difference in price was nominal — short ends were fifty cents more than long ends. Short ends were the most popular at $2.75 for a meal. They came with potatoes and coleslaw. But the highlight of the meal was when Shirley brought out hot towels to clean up our messy barbeque sauce fingers — oh man, it was the bomb.
My interest in cooking started to develop after I made repeated trips to Checker BBQ. I tried to imitate their dishes and then expanded my horizons. When watching the various cooking programs, my imagination peaked and I developed my own style. I even perfected an original barbeque sauce used on many dishes. My family were Guinea pigs and they enjoyed all of it.
After I retired from construction management in 2002, I began a small catering business. At the beginning, most of my dishes were sold to friends and family. The word spread and I soon had people interested in my cooking. The number one requested order was a combo meal of barbecue chicken and ribs.
My friend Barry began his barbecue journey when he had a part-time job working at a popular rib and pizza take-out place in Oak Park— Adam’s Rib. In time, Barry became the manager and learned their secret rib recipe. He went on to college and became a C.P.A. To this day he still enjoys cooking for his family and the secrets of Adam’s Rib live on.
The championship day arrived, and the two heavyweights were ready to have at it. The buzz could be heard about who would win the Rib Off and get the prize trophy that was handmade by Shirley Oleinick.
When the crowd gathered, Harold handed out losing tote tickets from Hazel Park Racetrack that had the numbers one and two written on them. He did not cash these tickets — they were losers. The judges had the option of voting for number one or two, or both. At the end of the evening, the vote was counted. Unbelievably, it turned out to be a dead heat. Since it was a friendly competition, this was the best possible finish to a great evening.
Everyone had volunteered to bring side dishes, which were not part of the competition, but added to the meal. There were shrimp cocktails, coleslaw, potato salad, chicken, and for dessert, Shirley made chocolate truffles and brownies. It was an incredible spread, and the group stuffed their faces.
The Rib Off was not only about whose bones were the best, it was an opportunity for the oldies from Oak Park High to get together for another round of reliving the past. We talked about the crazy times from our youth that we have told repeatedly. It was a night to laugh, share memories, and to celebrate where we are in the present. We didn’t know how good we had it in our youth —and we’re still trying to grow up.
After a 30-year career in construction management, building commercial and residential jobs, Jeffrey has turned to his passion–cooking. He is the master of the grill and has been nicknamed Chef Jeff by his family. Jeffrey also started a small catering business. Nothing makes him happier than satisfying his customers.
Jeffrey enjoys sports and has spent 60+ years playing golf. Competing with friends, playing the course and, most of all, keeping his head in the game for all 18 holes has been gratifying — even if he’s far away from par. He is also the husband of Judi Markowitz, who writes the Dateline Detroit column for The Insider. They have four adult children and seven grandchildren who keep them on their toes. Oh yeah, let’s not forget George, their Bernese Mountain granddog. Jeffrey’s life is full, and he is happy.