As I chopped my potatoes, I couldn't help but glance over to see what everyone else was cooking up. One chef drizzled Pepsi into his brew while another poured in a can of beer. A third threw in fried salami. Soon, the heady aroma of beans, barley and spices wafted through the corridors of the synagogue, likely making it difficult for those at prayer services the next day to concentrate.

I was competing in my synagogue's annual cholent cook-off. My son put me up to this gastronomic challenge. Though my culinary skills are lacking, he has long insisted that my cholent is "pretty good," which coming from a fussy 10-year-old is akin to a rave review from the toughest food critic.

But when a confident guy with his bag of secret ingredients strutted into the kitchen and proclaimed himself the "world's greatest cholent-maker," I lost my verve. Feeling like an Olympics competitor who lost the race, I proclaimed that I was simply glad to be there.

Cholent cook-off events, held nationwide, are a celebration of the quintessential Jewish soul food that was invented centuries ago to meet the unique requirements of Jewish law. Because it is not permissible to ignite a flame on Shabbat, cholent – made mostly of potatoes and beans – was prepared and placed on the fire before Shabbat and left to simmer all night for lunch.

Cholent is more than a food, it's a multi-sensory experience that fills your home with the magic of Shabbat. How do you describe the overwhelming aroma? Color? The satisfying taste?

The beauty of cholent is that no two come out precisely the same—even if the cooks are using the same recipe.

Jews from all over the world have made their own style of cholent for generations, using ingredients varying from one continent to another.

Sephardic cholent includes eggs; Iraqi cholent has chicken and rice; North African cholent, garbanzo beans. The major obstacle tormenting cholent lovers is that there are not enough Sabbaths in the world left to permit us to prepare every cholent variation under the sun.

Cholent has come a long way from your bubbe. It's infinitely expandable as a multi-cultural experience that crosses all divides. Although traditionally cholent called for a stew of beans and potatoes, the dish could include anything else the cook wants to throw in, as a former roommate of mine once attested while tossing bologna and red wine into the pot. (I don't recommend it.)

The ingredients vary not only by regions but from family to family. And in an unsolved mystery that the sharpest CSI detective couldn't crack—if the same person makes the identical recipe every week, it always tastes different.

My cholent represents my life experience. It's a concoction of potatoes, barley and beans—as a bow to ancient tradition; onion and spices—in recognition of life's bitterness; hot dogs—in deference to my pedigree as a fourth generation American; and honey and maple syrup—for life's sweetness.

I imagine that such a mingling occurs We take our hard knocks and goodness and mix it up the best we can to create something beautiful. in Jewish households across the world. We take our hard knocks and goodness and mix it up the best we can to create something beautiful. As our stew rages on, we hope to create some very personal and joyous memories that will fortify our children as they journey out into a dark, cold world. Someday, we pray, as they face an uncertain path, the cholent will lift them and carry them back to a warm household and a fulfilled soul.

I mix the ingredients together, knowing that after several hours of heat, the concoction will taste like food from heaven. And the fragrance that will permeate our home will be the perfume of Shabbat.

Our synagogue competition attracted 15 chefs. Most were men, who cooked up chili cholent, chicken cholent, kishka cholent, Sephardic cholent and, of course, a traditional cholent.

As we arrived at the synagogue Friday night, the crock pots filled two long tables. The congregants examined the contents of each pot with precision, and Talmudic-like discussion ensued.

"This one tastes very Jewish," I overhead one woman commenting, before she cast her vote for a different one. "This one is too salty," said another, sounding like Goldilocks. I was flattered when I saw a crowd hovering over my cholent. But then a friend, who obviously didn't know it was mine, whispered, "I didn't like that one." I made a mental note to get takeout next time I invite her over.

The tasters sampled and sampled and finally, cast votes by pushing slips of paper into boxes.

When the results of our contest were tallied, I lost. So did the confident chef whose secret ingredient turned out to be canned potatoes. The chicken cholent won. My son was disappointed. "But Mom," he lamented. "You have the best cholent."

I beamed, realizing that in one corner of the world, at least, my stardom will never fade.

Someday, he will journey out into the world to taste other dishes and cook up his own. But as long as he has nostalgia for his mother's unique recipe, as long as my cholent serves up the comforting magic of home, I'm good.

No matter where life takes him, he will always make it home in time for Shabbat.

Here's the winning Cholent Recipe by Judy Gellerstein:

Chicken Cholent

1 pkg chicken leg quarters
2 potatos cut in small pieces
1 onion whole
1 parsnip in chunks
1 cup barley
1 leaf of leek
onion powder
garlic powder
salt generously
2 soup spoons of chicken soup mix
a few shakes of soy sauce
2 or three small drops of honey
4 1/2 cups of water

Dump it all in your crockpot. Turn it on. Watch it cook. Enjoy 25 hours later.

Do you have a savory or unique cholent recipe? Please post it in the comment section below.