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.


  1. Hey - This is Emily from the BBQ Workshop in Lovely West Memphis, AR. Your blog is fantastic and the fact that you made the trip - even better! I am glad to see Memphis represents well...we have a lot of problems but BBQ is not one of them. Also, I kind of know John and his sister Stephanie as they worked at the University I attended. Very random. Keep the posts coming and see you on "the circuit."

  2. Oops! I meant his sister Kerry.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me. cooking team building singapore