Memphis in May: The Ultimate Meat and Greet
As you walk down the steep hill to Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River, a thick, invisible cloud of smoke reaches your nose and pulls you inside the biggest barbecue competition there is: Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Representatives from Tums shower you with packets of antacid as you clear the gates, letting you know this is a competition unlike any other.
My backyard-BBQ-warrior Dad and I had the opportunity of a lifetime to compete on a real Memphis in May (MIM) BBQ team, making this a father-daughter pilgrimage of sorts. Our fearless leaders of the SwineBucks BBQ team — whose slogan is “Too Sauced To Pork” — welcomed us with open arms into this food culture that is often invite only; while vendors sell BBQ to festival attendees, the real action is inside the tent.
An endurance test of sorts, the competition started with tent set-up, during which teams prepared to cook enormous amounts of food with little sleep and lots of beer. “You get sleep in when you can,” said Blake Marcum, the team's self-described “Chief Tasting Officer." In nearly five days of competition, Blake clocked probably less than six hours of sleep.
Official events started Wednesday evening with a "meat and greet," but by sundown, it was all business as the smokers started heating up. The team I shadowed, SwineBucks, prepared to put in a pork butt at midnight to be judged in Thursday’s “People's Choice” category. Neil Gallagher, a coffee-aficionado and former Starbucks manager, started SwineBucks with an espresso based sauce — Starbucks even sponsored the team at one point. To embrace the team's true culture, the name has morphed into “Too Sauced To Pork." Take that how you will.
Neil acted as team coxswain throughout the competition, shouting out time-tables and deadlines as other team members scrambled around in what Blake calls a “symphony of chaos," putting the finishing touches on meat that must look as scrumptious as it possibly can in its regulation white styrofoam box.
MIM is different than most barbecue competitions in that it has both blind and in-person judging. Blind judging consists of presenting your food to judges in a styrofoam box adorned with an identification number. In-person judging involves having three judges come to your tent where the team gets the chance to personally sell their barbecue concept. Blake, SwineBuck’s barbecue charmer and salesman, does this part well, telling each judge the story of how the team started five years ago when he and Neil were roommates.
Team member Eric Chester stood on the sidelines with Neil, watching as Blake told the judge about the team's Stump’s H2-23 “gravity fed” smoker which holds up to 35 racks of ribs at a time. Eric’s brush with fame came a few years ago when he and teammate Danny Zeller won first place in the chicken wing category for an Asian-inspired sauce. Their award-winning sauce consists of Huy Fong chili sauce, plum sauce and honey, among other things, making it sweet with a nice fiery finish.
While one judge may love the Asian influenced wings one year and give that team a winning score, the next year judges may not like that style and give the same recipe a low score. All MIM judges are specifically trained for this competition, and many of the judges belong to barbecue associations like the Kansas City BBQ Society or the Memphis Barbecue Network. In-person judging is especially difficult because judging not only includes the taste, tenderness and appearance of the meat, but also the “overall impression,” which includes the tent environment and presentation. In preparation for this portion of the competition, my team turned the tent into a dining room complete with a stuffed pig napkin holder and a ceramic pig that says “welcome” on the dining table. Our neighboring tent painted a picket fence to put finishing touches on their presentation.
Friday, the last day of the competition. After partying in our tent during a torrential downpour, my team, like true professionals, loaded a keg of beer onto a cart with a huge umbrella attached, and rolled the party over to the awards ceremony. Names like “Ribbed for Your Pleasure,” “Natural Born Grillers,” and “Slab Yo Mama” were called on stage. While our team didn’t win any trophies, the experience was a prize in itself as competing against over 150 teams really changes how you think about barbecue. Standing there on the banks of the river at sunset in the misty rain with new friends and Johnny Cash songs playing in the background, I thought to myself, “I could do this again."