To Kenny Callaghan, barbecue is like religion.

"If you're Roman Catholic, you don't go to a synagogue," said Callaghan, the executive chef and barbecue czar at New York's Blue Smoke restaurant. "If you're from North Carolina, you don't understand what Memphis barbecue is."

As barbecue lovers know, different regions of the U.S. cherish their distinctive barbecue traditions, and Blue Smoke is famous for bringing those traditions together on its menu.

In 2002, to help the various barbecue factions gain an appreciation for each other, Callaghan invited five renowned smokers and slatherers from around the country to showcase the best of their respective regions.

"We hatched this idea to educate New Yorkers," he said. The first year, it was held in front of the restaurant. "It rained 11 out of the 12 hours, and we still had 5,000 people a day," said Callaghan.

The simple gathering grew to a New York-size event. If you're visiting the city this weekend, you can sample meats prepared by 16 of the nation's most awarded and praised pitmasters at the ninth annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party at Madison Square Park.

If past years are a guide, as many as 125,000 people are expected to arrive hungry and leave stuffed in an event that includes free live music, plus cooking seminars and demonstrations from chefs and experts at Cooking Light, Real Simple and Southern Living magazines. There is no admission charge, and barbecue is sold for $8 a plate. Part of the proceeds benefit the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which last year received a check for $135,000.

For Marylanders, the closest representative at the backyard barbecue will be Virginia's Tommy Houston of the Checkered Pig in Danville and Pigs R Us in Martinsville. Like others, he will serve a meat and a side, in his case St. Louis pork ribs and a summer slaw made with Italian dressing instead of mayonnaise.

Houston planned to drive two rigs to New York on Thursday, one with a pit that can cook 1,400 pounds of meat at once and the other with a walk-in cooler plus space to cook 700 pounds of meat. He and his crew of seven will begin cooking Friday night, and continue through Sunday evening with barely a breather, he said.

Other big barbecue names expected at Madison Square Park are Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Ala., who will prepare pulled pork shoulder; Michael Rodriguez of The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que in Driftwood, Tex., who will serve beef brisket and sausage; and Mike Emerson of Pappy's Smokehouse in St. Louis, who will put baby back ribs on the grill.

"I've picked kind of the cream of the crop from around the country," said Callaghan, who will showcase his Texas salt-and-pepper beef ribs. "There are no slackers in the group. If you don't have some of the best barbecue, I wouldn't have invited you."

Country-style desserts, including blueberry crisps and root beer floats, will be prepared by Jennifer Giblin at Blue Smoke, and pies will be sold by the Original Fried Pie Shop.

Callaghan said he provides enough meat for each pitmaster to cook 3,000 servings a day. Participants have their expenses covered, but Houston said making money is not the goal.

"It's more of a charitable event for us," he said. "It's kind of a break-even deal."

Mostly, he participates because it is fun. "I know most of these guys," he said. "Some of them I compete against on the barbecue circuit. It's good fellowship. It's a great event."

And there's one more benefit, he said. "I guess we're kind of treated like rock stars."

If you go

The 9th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Madison Square Park, located between Madison Avenue and 23rd Street in New York City. Admission is free and includes live music, cooking demonstrations, seminars and book-signings. The barbecue is sold for $8 a plate, with proceeds benefiting the Madison Square Park Conservancy. The event is sponsored by Danny Meyer's Union Square Events, Blue Smoke and its downstairs jazz club, Jazz Standard.

Getting there: New York City is about a three-hour drive from Baltimore. Regional bus lines such as megabus.com, Bolt Bus and Greyhound Express offer direct service starting as low as $1 each way. Amtrak and multiple airlines also offer service to the New York area.

Lodging: New York City has a wealth of hotels at various price points, ranging from a little expensive to a lot expensive. One idea is to stay at the newly renovated New Yorker Hotel at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, which is offering a promotion through Aug. 22 that includes passes to the Empire State Building observation deck and continental breakfast for two each morning at the Tick Tock Diner, which is attached to the hotel. Rates start at $289 per room per night. For more information, go to newyorkerhotel.com or call 800-764-4680.

Information: The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party website is bigapplebbq.org. For general information, call 646-747-0584 or email info@bigapplebbq.org.