Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mississippi Delta, Handy Andy & Mo's

The Mississippi Delta struck me as the land that time forgot. As I drove south on the Delta Blues trail, the only way you could notice it was 2009 was the cars on the road. Other than that, it could just as easily have been 1959 in most of the historic towns.

There is a mix of sentiment and sadness in the Delta. On one hand you have the rich historical ties to the blues, and on the other you have a deep, almost third-world standard of living for many of the residents. There are amazing old buildings next to abandoned storefronts and charming homes are one street over from houses that should be condemned. There is alcohol abuse, rampant obesity, and poverty, but there is also a strong sense of community, friendliness and a genuinely welcoming attitude. I didn’t see any outward signs of the racism the state is known for, which made me naively hopeful.

I did however hear some things on the radio from the area church services that made me realize that the “thought leaders” for the communities weren’t quite on the cutting edge of open-mindedness. The preachers seemed blissfully unaware of how much hate surrounded their message of “God’s love”, which is apparently reserved for heterosexual churchgoers, women who obey their husbands and men who aren’t afraid to show a little discipline to their family. While I’d never listened to radio church service before, I found myself unable to turn the station...the kind of sensation you have when you pass a wreck on the interstate. You don’t want to look, but you find yourself staring. As offputting as the sermons were, there was an infectious, almost magnetic quality to the gospel music that followed. Confusing and tragic, yet somehow uplifting. But enough about church.

The Delta Blues Society has done a great job with the historic markers along the blues highway, and I spent the entire day driving down Highway 61 to Greenville and then back up Route 1 along the Mississippi River to Clarksdale. With Muddy Water’s complete compilation as my companion, I drove through cotton fields from town to town, stopping a couple of times for sweet tea and once for fried chicken (and holy bejesus was it good).

Back in Clarksdale, I pulled into the Shack Up Inn, an old cotton gin plantation that has been transformed into the coolest motel I’ve ever seen. In addition to the ten rooms inside of the actual gin building, they remodeled about ten old shacks on the property.

Each one is named after a person or theme, and mine was named Pinetop after Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, a legendary blues piano player who stayed there while working on the Hopson Plantation as a sharecropper.

In addition to the unique accommodations, the thing I really liked best about the Shack Up Inn was that everyone would sit out on their porch when the sun was setting and drink a beer or two. Most folks would walk around and visit with their neighbors, creating a communal experience usually reserved for overseas travel. If you go in the summer, make sure to bring bug spray for the mosquitoes. They are vicious.

On Monday morning I woke up and headed for the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale, which was an hour very well spent. On the way back to Nashville, I went to Handy Andy’s Grocery and BBQ in Oxford, MS.

It’s a cool mini-mart looking place that’s mostly a bbq restaurant. I would recommend knowing what you want to order, as the lady behind the counter is long on sass and short on patience. After fumbling through the menu I got a pork sandwich, which was good but not great.

An hour later or so later in Tupelo, I passed a red gas station that said “Mo’s BBQ”. Immediate U-turn. Mo’s has a smokehouse off to the side of it, and the smell of hickory was evident when I opened the door.

Inside Mo’s is more convenience store than restaurant, so I took my sandwich to go. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the pork by itself. Great smoke ring, tender, juicy and full of flavor. The sauce complimented it well and the slaw, well the slaw was slaw, but overall it was a great experience. The guy behind the counter was really friendly and enthusiastic...he made you excited to order.

As I sat enjoying the sandwich on the hood of my car, I noticed the sign out front. I really don’t think I need to add any commentary.

If you ever find yourself in Tupelo, I would head to Mo’s for sure.

My BBQ/Delta Blues tour over, I reluctantly headed back home via the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Red's- Clarksdale, MS

I came to the Delta in search of an authentic juke joint. The kind of place you read about in magazines but aren’t sure really exists. The kind of place you pull up to and wonder whether it’s safe to get out of the car. The kind of place where you can get lost in the blues for hours.

I got a recommendation for a juke joint called Red’s from the guys at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. They said it was on the street I drove in on, which I found strange because I didn’t see a thing on my way in. I drove back the same way, carefully checking out what amounted to a lot of abandoned buildings until I hit the end of the block. Nothing. I turned around and drove back up the street, beginning to think I was the victim of some sort of inside joke Clarksdale plays on tourists.

As I was sitting at a stop sign, I looked to my right and was drawn to a couple of old smokers sitting outside a presumably condemned building. Next to the smokers was an old refrigerator, some trash cans that hadn’t been emptied in a while and some extra plywood- probably leftover from boarding up the windows. When I drove forward just a bit, I noticed that the refrigerator was blocking a sign that said “Red’s Blues Club”.

My first thought was “are you shitting me?”, quickly followed by “this is fantastic”.

I parked my car and walked over to the front door. In front of the building was a guy looking for something on the floor of his car. When I got closer I asked him if Red’s was open. He responded “it can be”, at which point I knew I was talking with Red himself.

Red was probably 55-60ish. He had a stocky build and wore sunglasses, an open shirt and a white hat. I imagine this was his signature look. He told me to go inside and that he’d be in as soon as he could find his keys.

Walking into Red’s, I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for. It was only about 5:30, but it might as well have been midnight inside. Red’s has no windows, and the only light comes from beer neons and some red rope light in the shape of music notes along the walls. R.L. Burnside was blaring from the house speakers.

The place is tiny, maybe 20x40, with a giant fan roaring in the corner in an attempt to make up for the poor window unit’s valiant but feeble attempt at beating the oppressive Delta heat. When Red walked in, he went behind the counter and brought out two 24 oz Budweisers, sheepishly acknowledging that his keys were in his pocket the whole time.

He walked over to the wall and asked if I knew who was in the picture. Thankfully I recognized John Lee Hooker, and my correct answer earned me some sort of “tourist with a clue” status.

For the next hour Red and I sat and talked about the blues. He told me about all of the people who had come through his joint. Mostly they were names I’d heard of or seen on compilation records but wasn’t really that familiar with-T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, Big T, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Big Jack Johnson.

Our conversation was intermittent. We’d talk for a while, then sit in a silence for a few minutes. But it didn’t seem awkward. I was just soaking everything in, figuring that when Red wanted to talk he would. Every now and then he’d pop up and take me over to another picture on the wall, pointing out Carlos Santana in one of them and Buddy Guy in another.

After a couple of beers, I told Red that I was doing a bbq tour of the country. His head perked up- I’m assuming his eyes opened a little wider as well but couldn’t be sure. Red kept his sunglasses on the entire evening, inside and out. I told him I went to Abe’s but was disappointed. Without saying a word, he pointed his head towards the door, and we walked back out front.

In one of those “it doesn’t get much better than this moments”, Red opened up one of the smokers on the sidewalk to reveal a pork shoulder covered up in foil. Are you kidding me? He took off the foil to reveal a beautiful dark brown hunk of barbecue goodness. Red’s doesn’t serve food, so he was just doing this for himself. And luckily me.

“Go inside and get the knife and white bread”, he barked in my direction. I went inside and found a huge grill knife that hadn’t been cleaned in years sitting next to a half loaf of Wonder Bread. Not wanting to come off as the city-boy patsy that I am, I took the knife out as is and proceeded to slice into the shoulder.

Sitting out on the sidewalk, sweat running down my face, eating smoked shoulder on white bread with the owner of a Delta juke joint. That’s good living.

Just when I thought life couldn’t get much better, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour pulled up and started getting ready for his evening show. To be honest I’d never head of the guy before, but he looked exactly how you would hope a blues musician would. Sixty-nine years old, Mr. Belfour had salt and pepper hair, and wore glasses and a suit. He had an easily inducible laugh that revealed a kindred spirit and a lifetime of stories.

Red told him that I was looking to get educated about the blues, and after he set up he told me to pull up a stool. Smoking a Doral and drinking a Bud Light, he started with telling me that he grew up watching his father play the guitar with a pocket knife for a slide. Once older he’d work during the day and play at nights on the weekends. Back in the old days, before there were clubs, he said they just went to somebody’s house where there was gambling and liquor. They’d give you $5 and all the liquor you could drink. Drunk on homemade white whiskey, he’d play until the sun came up, when everybody would walk home.

He talked about playing on Beale Street back when “Beale was alive”, his eyes lighting up as he took his own trip down memory lane. He threw out names like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, friends and influences of his through the years. I just sat there in silence, drinking deeply from all of the stories he was telling.

After forty-five minutes and a couple of beers, a few more people strolled in, and Mr. Belfour decided it was time to play. And play he did. For almost four hours straight, he sat up on stage and played the best solo blues show I’ve ever seen. He told me earlier that he never learned chords, which meant he played only notes on the guitar. All I can say is wow. In between songs he would conduct his own, much cooler version of VH-1 Storytellers. There’s a clip or two of him on YouTube that I’d recommend checking out.

At one point I decided to walk down the street to Ground Zero Blues, Morgan Freeman’s club that he opened a few years back to revitalize his hometown. Red had mentioned it in the afternoon, saying its “popular with the white tourists”. Had I not just come from Red’s, I would have thought that Ground Zero was great. I was after all a white tourist. It was much bigger and had a full band of really skilled blues players playing the familiar blues favorites.

But you can find a place like that in most cities in America, so I decided to head back to Red’s after two songs. On the way back I could see why most people might not go to Red’s. Not that it looks nice during the day, but once the sun goes down it looks like a real hellhole from the outside. And if you couldn’t hear the music playing, the only indication that a show was going on was a sheet of paper with “Tonight: Robert Belfour, $5 cover”.

I walked back in and took my same bar stool. Red welcomed me back with an “I told you so” look, sliding another 24 oz Budweiser down the bar to me.

Sometime after 1 in the morning, Mr. Belfour finally stopped playing. After a few minutes he walked over to the bar. I thanked him for everything and he said “hope you enjoyed it son”. Before I could respond Red belted out “I told you he’s good”.

Possibly the understatement of the year. After walking back to my hotel through the outskirts of Clarksdale (which I do NOT recommend doing by yourself at 2 AM), I couldn’t go to sleep for a couple hours. I just sat there thinking about all of the stories I heard and how cool the day/night was. For a dive bar loving, blues listening, barbecue eating idiot like myself, it just might have been the perfect day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, MS

After finishing the judging school, I headed south to Clarksdale, MS, home of the Delta Blues and Abe’s Bar-B-Q.

I had wanted to do a Delta Blues tour as part of my 3 week barbecue excursion, but Hurricane Ike pushed my travels farther north and the trip was postponed until now. In researching the Delta, I kept coming across a place called Abe’s Bar-B-Q. It got rave reviews time and again, so I was really looking forward to this little stop.

I pulled into town and drove straight up to the restaurant. From the outside, Abe’s has absolutely everything a legendary barbecue place should have, and then some.

History- Check. Abe’s has been open since 1924

Cool location- Check. Abe’s has character inside and out

Loyal following- Check. People love this place

Cool story- Check and check mate. Abe’s sits at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49, which is the famous intersection where blues legend Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in order to play the blues. It simply doesn’t get much cooler than that.

I walked into the front door of Abe’s and happily took a seat at a booth. Articles from magazines and newspapers featuring Abe’s covered the walls. One in particular caught my attention, as it explained that the sauce was so good that then Governor Bilbo named it “comeback sauce” because he always kept coming back for it.

After the waitress brought me sweet tea and took my order for a rib plate, I decided to walk around the place and look at the articles and pictures on the wall. I could not have been more excited to eat. There was blues music playing in the background. Smoke from the pit lingered faintly in the air. I almost needed a drool bib.

And then I heard it. The unmistakable, unforgiveable sound of a microwave door opening in a barbecue restaurant. My head snapped towards the counter just in time to see the door close back.

A few seconds later, the waitress brought over my food and confirmed my worst barbecue fear. When I went to try the ribs, my fingers were met with the scalding heat that can only come from something that’s been nuked.

Microwaved. Are you kidding me? Why in the world would you spend hours smoking something only to ruin it by heating it up in the antithesis of a slow cooker? You might as well put a frickin’ McRib on my plate.

The ribs were so bad that I had couldn’t finish them. Not only were they rubbery, but they didn’t taste smokey at all. If I didn’t know better, I would say they were par-boiled as well.

I wanted to give Abe’s the benefit of the doubt, so I ordered a pork sandwich, praying to God that it didn’t get warmed up in the microwave as well. Fortunately I watched them prepare it by putting the meat on the flat grill as they toasted the bun. Not a slow heat, but better than a microwave. The sandwich came with slaw and their famous Comeback sauce.

I really wish I could say that I enjoyed the sandwich, but the meat really didn’t have much flavor on its own. The Comeback sauce tasted almost exactly like Arby’s sauce, which isn’t a bad’s just not really what most people think of for a barbecue sauce. When you put everything together, the slaw, sauce and pork actually had a pretty good flavor...just not what I’d consider a traditional barbecue flavor.

Now I will be the first to say that regional differences account for a lot of the intrigue and passion behind barbecue, and that it’s unfair to make blanket generalizations about a place based on one meal. Everybody has a bad day, and maybe I caught them on one. I’m sure the Clarksdale’s residents and Abe’s loyalists would shout from their rooftops in defense of Abe’s. After all, it’s been around since 1924, so they’re obviously doing something right.

But there’s no excuse for microwaving barbecue. Ever. Even at home. That’s just plain silly.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Barbecue Competition Judging School- Memphis

I decided that the next logical step in my barbecue dorkdom was to become a judge for the Memphis in May championship. As I went about exploring the process of how you get to be a judge, I found out that there actually is a pretty elaborate process.

The barbecue competition judging circuit is very similar to the world of professional golf. Each has a “Q” school where you have to prove yourself, and then you have to do well on some satellite tournaments before you get invited to play in the majors.

Fortunately the Memphis Barbecue Network’s version of ‘Cue school is a heck of a lot easier than the PGA’s to get into and to pass. All you really need is a $65 check, the ability to sit through six to eight hours of class and a brain that allows you to score better than 400 on the SAT. You probably don’t even need the last part.

The mental image I had for the barbecue school was of me and about 45 Uncle Jesse-esque characters sitting around a Moose Lodge talking about barbecue the way fishermen talk about fish. While I was looking forward to the experience, there was a part of me that was leery of listening to a bunch of barbecue blowhards yack away for an entire day.

Much to my surprise, when I opened the door to the room I saw a pretty diverse cross-section of folks. I would guess that the ages ranged from 25 to 75, with most folks falling in the 40-50 year old category. Some had experience competing and were looking for pointers; some had spouses that competed and wanted to have something to do to fill the hours on weekend; others just loved barbecue.

Everyone I met was very friendly, which makes sense when you think about it since barbecue is a communal event. While there is an occasional surly pitmaster, for the most part barbecue people are people people. They like to entertain. They like to bring folks together. They like to talk, tell stories and laugh. They can also get a little long winded when talking about their barbecue, but that just goes with the territory.

The morning session was mostly lecture. We went through the different parts of a pig, the format for the contests and how you actually judge barbecue. For anyone interested, here are the highlights:

  • The categories are appearance, presentation, texture, flavor and overall impression.
  • There is a preliminary round and a final round.
  • For the preliminary, the teams are put into groupings of three, and the judges visit each of the three teams tents to score them.
  • There is also a blind judging section where the judges score the three entries without knowing who is who.
  • It’s a comparative judging process, where you score the teams in relation to the other two. In some ways this seems unfair, because if the best three teams are paired together in the first round, only one of them will likely advance. But there really isn’t any other way to do it, since you can’t have every judge taste every team’s entry.
A mysterious multiplier is then applied to each category and the adjusted scores are added up to determine who advances to the finals. I say mysterious because the MBN officials won’t reveal what it is, other than to say that flavor counts the most. In my mind this unnecessarily opens the door for controversy. It doesn’t really make sense to me why they wouldn’t be transparent, especially since many of the competition teams do this for a living and spend thousands of dollars each weekend to be judged.

When I pressed the official on why they aren’t open about the scoring process, the response I got had the feeling of a jovial country club board president defending his membership policy. He gave me a friendly yet elusive “well they don’t really need to know”, followed by one of the competition team members saying “it’s been this way for 30 years”. At the risk of becoming a muckraker, I decided that I’d retire the issue for another day.

The second part of the school was experiential learning. They brought in two competition teams, Pigs with Attitude and Yazoo Barbecue to talk about competing, show us how they present their barbecue and of course, to give us a taste of competition bbq. Pigs with Attitude had only recently started competing, but Yazoo Barbecue had been on the circuit for many years. They split the class into two and we went through a mock presentation of how they greet judges and walk them through the judging process. While they didn’t bring their smokers, they did bring two whole pork shoulders, which we got to sample.

Each team gets between 10 and 15 minutes to do a presentation for the judges. It’s the team’s chance to entertain, educate and build rapport. The two teams had very contrasting styles of presentations.

Yazoo Barbecue was very scripted, polished and well rehearsed. It was very entertaining and educational, though maybe a little intense at times. A husband and wife team, the Yazoo folks walked you through the cooking process and told you why they did certain things and what that would mean for the flavor. When the judges sat down to taste the barbecue, the husband/pitmaster would talk about the different flavors the judges were about to taste, similar to how a good winery owner will walk you through the different flavor sensations of each wine. While some might argue that they’re leading the witness, I think it’s a very clever way to boost the scores. Most people’s palates are not finely tuned enough to pick out different flavor profiles on their own, but if given a little guidance, that sweet/smoky flavor can quickly become caramelized sugar with hints of the peachwood used to smoke it.

The Pigs with Attitude presentation was more like what you’d get at your friend’s cookout. Very down to earth, friendly and humble. A relatively quick presentation, they preferred to get down to business and have you taste their shoulder, rub and sauce rather than tell you about it.

The best part was watching them pull apart the different cuts of the shoulder. They would start by effortlessly pulling out the three large bones, a sign that the barbecue was tender and done. Then they would pull away some of the beautiful, dark outer layer to reveal a deep smoke ring and then place four different samples on the plate. Fortunately we were able to taste the barbecue as well, and it was interesting to see how some parts were full of flavor and moisture, while others were a little dry. My guess is that the shoulders were cooked earlier in the morning and probably continued to cook in the foil a bit too much in parts. But the flavor was great for both teams.

From there we all sat down at the tables and went through a blind judging exercise. Three containers full of barbecue sat in front of us, and before we could start tasting we had to judge on appearance. It’s actually pretty hard to score barbecue, especially when comparing it to another. While it’s easy to say “I like this one best”, it’s harder to quantify why you like it. I ended up having to go back and forth between a few samples, which is tough because the second round of samples is colder than the first. An enjoyable dilemma to have for sure.

After the judging was over, we had a Q&A session with the MBN officials and the teams and then took a test to gauge our barbecue judging IQ. Fortunately I passed, along with everyone else in the class. So I’m officially a trained barbecue judge with a credential that designates me as a blowhard with an opinion that matters.

Barbecue aside, the coolest part about the day for me was seeing how the teams, judges and officials interact. Sure they argued over some things and bickered about others, but they did so in the way that you argue with your brother or sister. Most of the time they were going back and forth telling stories, laughing about their experiences and talking about how they love the friendships that they get to make with folks from all over the country. It’s very similar to the bond you find among brewers, artists and musicians. People that are passionate about their craft really seem to look out for one another and are usually very welcoming. Probably because they love what they do.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

J.D.'s BBQ Barn-Somewhere in West TN

I got off the interstate at the Lexington, TN exit in search of a place I had heard about and eaten from, but never been to. A friend’s mother used to bring it up on her way from Jackson to Nashville and I remembered her describing the place as an old country shack with a huge smokehouse attached to it. How I remember that from ten years ago is beyond me.

I pulled up to a place called Scott’s at about 4:30 PM and knew that I was at the right spot. The smokehouse seemed to be twice the size of the restaurant. As I pulled in, my excitement was met with the reality that I was the only car in the lot. For a brief second, I had a Griswaldian moment where I thought that maybe I was the first one there, but the sign on the door confirmed my worst fears. Sorry Folks, Park’s Closed, the moose out front shoulda told ya.

Sold Out. Son of a bitch.

I parked the car and went to look at the giant smokehouse for a moment or two before reluctantly getting back in my car, determined to return another day.

I’m not always a believer that one door opens when another closes, but in this case it did. Twenty miles south of Lexington, at the intersection of highways 22 and 100, at a place called J.D.’s Barbecue Barn.

The intersection of 22 and 100 doesn’t even have a name. You won’t find the town on a map, which meant that J.D.’s had a chance to be legendary.

When I walked into the small building, J.D. himself greeted me with an almost-friendly “what can we getch u?”. Now J.D. is a man who is not afraid to sample some of his own product, and his thick southern accent is exactly what you’d hope for in a place like this. Behind him was a young girl I would assume was kinfolk of some kind.

A quick look around the joint told me that most folks probably do takeout. There were three tables, one of which was occupied by a guy that will likely be there the next time I go back.

Knowing that I was eating at the Bar-B-Q Shop in a couple hours, I reluctantly limited my order to a small pork sandwich with slaw and hot sauce. “Is that all you want” I heard come from the guy in the corner, his tone intimating that his teenage daughter would order more than I did. I regrettably had already reached into the cooler at the moment he said that, and when I pulled out a Diet Coke, I sheepishly waited for him to say “you city boys really are pussies, aren’t ya”.

Fortunately he didn't say a word, and I eagerly took my sandwich to a table eight feet away on the other side of the room.

I’m happy to say that the pulled pork sandwich at J.D.’s was one of the best I’ve ever had. The meat was well smoked, and the sandwich had a great mix of juicy inside meat mixed in with chunks of the outside bark. The slaw was purple and there was just enough of it to add a little bit of texture, but not much in terms of flavor-which I believe if you’re going to add slaw is the only way to do it.

The sauce was hands down the best vinegar sauce I’ve had (sorry North Carolina). The spice mixture he puts in it really gives it a great flavor, whereas normally the vinegar overpowers whatever spices get put in there. This one had a slightly salty/sugary balance that really worked well.

I savored every bite, counting my blessings that Scott’s was closed.

After I ate I asked J.D. if I could take a look at his pit, which he happily agreed to show me. He smokes over hickory, doing shoulder, ribs and chicken. He no longer does whole hogs he said, lamenting the fact that there just aren’t many small hog farmers anymore.

J.D. told me that he’s had this place for two years,and before this one he’d had another closer to Lexington that he and a partner ran for five years. When I complimented him on his sauce, he told me that he got the recipe from a non-blood relative of his aunt’s.

He recounted the story of how he got the recipe...

“the guy who gave me this was one of those guys that does everything spot on. Don’t matter if it’s hunting, fishing or fixing cars, he does everything spot on. So right before I was getting ready to start my first place we’re driving somewhere and he looks over and says “so you reckon you’re fixin to open a barbecue pit”...when I said yeah, he said “get you a pencil and right this down”....then gave me this recipe from memory”.

That’s one hell of a family heirloom.

After standing out and sweating near the pits chatting for another five minutes, we shook hands and parted ways, with the promise that I would be back.

I pulled onto old Highway 100 for Memphis, rolled the windows down and turned the music up, thankful for the unexpected surprises that life throws at you every now and then.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

I could smell it before I could see it. As we walked down the hill leading to Tom Lee Park, the collective smell of literally hundreds of pits full of hickory smoke, ribs and shoulder was overwhelming. Right there on the banks of the Mississippi lay tent after tent of competition barbecue teams, all of whom were competing in the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

The Memphis in May (MIM) Barbecue Championship is an amazing spectacle.

Imagine throwing a party in your front yard for 150-200 of your closest friends. Not a casual little gathering that ends early, but a party where you wake up to find your furniture in the front yard. Now imagine your next door neighbors on either side do the same thing. And their neighbors and their neighbors, all the way down the block and around the corner to the next couple of blocks. Take that image and shrink everybody’s yard down to about a 30’ by 20’ space, put a fence in between each and then open the whole thing up to the rest of the city. That’s what the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest feels like...for three days.

As if that’s not enough, all of the parties are theme-parties...the kind where everybody gets into it and plans for months. There are dance floors, DJ’s, ice luges and beer bongs. Speaking of beer, there is a refrigerated truck that sells kegs all day to the teams and provides dollies for team members to haul the kegs back to the tents, a very common site throughout the day. Folks even make multi-level structures to take the party to the roof.

Since the health department cracked down on samples years ago, the MIM barbecue championship has become a very divided world of the haves and the have nots.

If you are on someone’s guest list, you are able to enter the pearly gates, feasting on pulled pork, ribs, chicken and beer. Lots of beer. If you aren’t on a list, you are relegated to walking around and smelling the barbecue from the teams. There are a couple of vendors selling pretty good bbq, but it’s just not the same as sampling the best from a real competition team.

In years past I had visited on Saturday and joined the masses wandering enviously from tent to tent, hoping to befriend someone on a team so I could taste some of the barbecue. It never worked.

But this year I’d received my own version of Wonka’s Golden Ticket when my friend John Stephany invited me to be a guest of his competition team, Magically Piglicious.

Magically Piglicious is made up of a group of twenty or so guys who share a love of barbecue, beer and good times. Each guy puts in $250-300, which covers the entry fee, tent and equipment rentals, meat and beer for the week.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and immediately was greeted by friendly folks and a cup for beer. With a cold beverage in hand, I promptly made my way over to the smoker, where cooks David Mekeel and Jack Koban were rubbing down a test batch of ribs to put on the smoker.

David and Jack were thrust into the role of pitmasters the week before when the regular chef had a work emergency and couldn’t make the trip up from New Orleans. Going from experienced backyard bbqer to cooking for the World Championship would be kind of like getting a call in single-A baseball that you’re pitching in the Show the next night. Totally unexpected but a cool opportunity you just can’t turn down.

I’m happy to say that David and Jack, with some help from assistant pitmaster David Egner, performed pretty darn well in their debut, finishing 77th for their ribs. When you consider that many of the teams that entered cook barbecue for a living, that’s saying something.

After pestering David and Jack, I settled into the couch by the fence for some of the best people watching I’ve ever seen. The crowd at MIM is one part State Fair, one part fraternity reunion and 1/8 part strip club-dancers and patrons.

After taking in a few beers on the couch, John’s friends Micah and Dave joined me for a walk around the grounds, where we saw some absolutely ridiculous sights. My favorite sideshow was a make-shift driving range, an ingenious invention where guys were using a rib bone for a golf tee and driving balls out into the Mississippi.

From there I walked over to the Patio Porker division- a lower cost contest for backyard bbqers- where Big Al and the Butt Rubbers held court. Big Al’s group was made up of six or so gentlemen that were putting the wisdom of their years to use. In addition to barbecue, these guys had a couple hundred Jello shots, which they happily offered to the young girls that walked by, saying “you should only have your butt rubbed by a professional”, then pointing to the sign that qualified them as professional butt rubbers. Tip of the cap, gentlemen. Well played.

Back at the Magically Piglicious tent, the fellas were pulling the shoulders off the smoker for the evening feast. A line 50 deep waited patiently for some really good barbecue, and within minutes three giant trays of pulled pork had vanished. At that point John broke out leftover smoked chicken from the night before. Again, gone in minutes. For the first and only time all night, the tent was relatively quiet as folks devoured everything in sight.

That’s when I noticed the tent next door to ours consisted of only three guys hanging out by their smoker. These guys from Arkansas clearly meant business, and they were visibly unimpressed with all of the tomfoolery that surrounded them. Luckily for Magically Piglicious, the tent on the other side of them had an ice luge and a DJ, so our ridiculous good time seemed tame by comparison.

While a few teams are at MIM only for the competition, most teams are there for a mix of competition and good times. The guys who are actually cooking usually exit stage left at a reasonable hour, leaving the late-night partying for the rest of the crew. The judging begins on Saturday relatively early in the day, which means they return between 3:30 and 4:00 A.M to fire up the smoker-where it’s not uncommon to see folks leaving for the night. I imagine if you’re entering shoulder you just stay up all night and curtail the drinking a little bit. Maybe.

As the night went on, I got the pleasure of being part of the very informal judging panel for Magically Piglicious’ ribs. David and Jack had tried a few different rubs, so we had 4 racks to sample from, with the winning rub being used the next morning for the competition. I believe the unanimous choice was the first batch, which had a sweet brown sugar rub, but by that point in the evening the palate and the mind were not as sharp as they might have been earlier. Either way, there’s not much that's better than eating ribs that have been smoking for a few hours after an evening of drinking beer...all outdoors on the banks of the Mississippi.

The rest of the evening ended as most good nights a bit of a haze. I remember a rooftop argument at John’s condo with a vegetarian about why there isn’t a tofu division of the Barbecue Championship. You can imagine how well that went over.

I had to leave the next morning before the awards, but all in all, my behind the scenes look at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was an absolute blast. A big thanks to the Magically Piglicious team for being incredibly welcoming and for throwing one hell of a party. Hope to see you next year.