One Week Every Spring, Memphis Becomes a Bacchanal of Barbecue and Bad (in a Good Way) Behavior
It is a cloudy Saturday morning - about 7 a.m. The Memphis sun is up and the greasy smoke of some 300 charcoal and wood fires — from patio grills to whole-hog cookers — hangs in the air. The night, for some, isn't over.
“Dude, I’m fine! I only need 15 minutes!” The former team captain trades his cocktail for a Coke and takes off his hat.
Billy laughs at his teammate - they’ve been tending the hog since yesterday afternoon, the marathon end to a long week. He’s heard all this before. “Fifteen minutes! You need 10 hours. Where’re your keys?”
The team called Barbeque Republic arrived on the banks of the Mississippi River six days ago with a whole hog smoker and a trailer packed with a portable kitchen, a stereo, a big dead pig and enough booze to stock a bar for a week. Now there is three days of rain-soaked, booze-fueled mayhem to be hosed out of the two-story bamboo fort before the judges arrive. There is, however, another problem. We’ll call him Tom: He’s a big dude - 6”4’ and heavyset – and all of him is passed clean out. The team hoists him into the mostly empty trailer and, fearing that he will come to during the Presentation, lock it. Which Tom does three hours later. The team, now delirious, tries not to laugh as the trapped man’s rapping starts. The judge’s thoughts are unrecorded.
Later that afternoon I ask Billy how he’s managed to maintain all this time. He looks at me with a fine, relaxed grin and says, “Ya know, I try to keep it at a level 65 percent. You go much more than that and you hockey-stick … then you crash.” Undeniably good advice under the circumstances: This is the Memphis in May World Championship Barbeque Competition, the Super Bowl of Pork.
This is where good pigs go when they die.
LIKE GOOD BARBECUE, this epic contest of man and pork didn’t happen quickly or according to plan. It grew out of the music festival that evolved from the aristocratic Cotton Carnival and has proven more iconic than either. In 1978, 26 teams plunked down the $12 entry fee to enter a cook-off held in the parking lot of a largely abandoned theater and drew a crowd of 5,000. By 1990 it was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Barbecue Competition. This year some 300 teams paid fees ranging from $500 to $4,300 and drew about 70,000 visitors.
Today, what the locals simply call “Barbecue” stretches the mile length of Tom Lee Park — named after a man who, after the steamboat M.E. Norman capsized in May of 1925, took his boat out five times into the swirling current to rescue 32 people. A dramatic bronze statue stands commemorating the event in the middle of the park. And it’s about time. Until the turn of this century all that stood was a dignified but condescending obelisk explaining that Tom Lee was “An Honorable Negro.”
Every year on this low, flat park between the river that defined the city and the bluffs that protect it, they gather — teams with names involving all manner of tortured swine puns. Predictable, sure, but like the Japanese haiku, creativity on such a narrow platform requires ingenuity: Rub Me Tender, Boardello’s and Hoggystyle. Some are more honest than clever — The More You Drink, The Better It Tastes – and some nihilistic – BBQ Team.
Over the course of the week a makeshift city emerges from empty lots and bare scaffolding. Along the back of the park are the Patio Porkers with setups no more extensive than something a sane person might have on their deck. On the riverfront are teams like Hog Wild with dozens of members and budgets running upward of $40,000. Ernie Mellor, owner of Hog Wild Catering in Memphis, is a pro, They’ve placed three times in the Shoulder Division. Jimbo, the team’s music guru, scoffs at the idea that winning is secondary. He commands a massive sound system, rave lighting and a refrigerator containing 2,500 Jell-O shots, all of which requires a separate fusebox on top of the power the city provides. I ask what the hell any of that has to do with a tasty pork shoulder. Fingering a necklace of plastic pigs in Karma Sutra positions, he asks, sensibly, “Who says you can’t have fun while you win?”
Friends and Family Night kicks off Wednesday at 6 p.m. — a kid-friendly soft opening and fleeting window before the place gets trashed with the coming rain, foot traffic, spilled drinks, food and ash. Together, these form an undefinable semi-solid odor known locally as “barbecue funk.”
I ask Treat of Barbeque Republic how long they’ve been doing this. “Long enough to know better.” Gordon explains that they started in 1993 — just back from college and looking to get involved. Some 21 years later, most of them have families. “It’s like camp for grown men. Get out of the office, have a few drinks, build something, see friends you don’t see as much anymore. You know, it’s hard now that we’ve all got families, but we’ve got this.”
And it’s impressive, a huge bamboo fortress with two dancing cages in the front. “Oh, the kids love them,” says Treat. “It keeps them entertained and out of the way on Wednesday … and Thursday night the big girls get in them.”
THURSDAY, 11 A.M., THE COMPETITION OPENS TO THE PUBLIC. I met up with Tamara Reynolds who’d come in from Nashville to photograph the spectacle. Memphis in May is, actually, a very businesslike affair. Barbecue’s heavy hitters are here en masse — like Big Bob Gibson’s Barbeque from Decatur, Ala. Owner Chris Lilly is smoking a pork shoulder, instead of the chicken in a mayonnaise sauce that made the place famous. Big Bob’s has been around since 1925, but a new sauce brand, 3 Taxi Guys, is making its first appearance with its taxicab smoker.
Carey Bringle’s Peg Leg Porkers competition team is from one of the best barbecue joints in Nashville. A win is good for business, but that’s hardly the whole story. His logo is a pig with a peg leg — which is only mildly amusing until you meet Bringle holding court in baggy cargo shorts, his own prosthetic leg out for the world to see. He says he always knew he’d cook barbecue, and losing his right leg to bone cancer at the age of 17 only focused his passion. Not only does he smoke a hell of a shoulder, he owns that leg of his.
Some teams will even feed the soul. When we find the Fossil Fuel Porkers in their riverfront booth just inside the park, Gino Slater and Willie Burton aren’t thinking about the Presentation on Saturday: They are preparing for their Thursday guests, regulars who have never in eight years wavered in their excitement, appreciation or desire to hug the cook. Gino sends us up to the top floor to wait for the ladies of Martha’s Manor — a local home for developmentally challenged women. His sister, Caroline, lives there. As the ladies come into sight, we call and wave. They wave back, hopping with excitement. They’ve been talking about this since January and, I’m told, will keep talking about it until late October.
When the ladies arrive, the “hug line” forms. The girls like to squeeze, and no one is skipped. They are polite, but bring a vibe that borders on electric. Gino hams it up and jokes with his “co-Captain” Caroline. Willie watches and looks cool under a straw cowboy hat and sunglasses, but he’s hiding something. “Every year I have to go in the back to wipe some tears and put the glasses back on,” he says, looking at a tent full of joyful faces enjoying the food — his food – with wild abandon. After a scene like that, I ask Gino and Willie if they even care about winning on Saturday.
“Nope,” they say in unison. Gino continues, “Look, we’re as competitive as everyone else, but these are the judges we’re trying to please.” And they have. Their prize is a box of homemade cookies from the ladies in a custom box labeled “Cookies for the Cook.”
Even in a place with such traditional tastes in “Que” as Memphis, there is room for innovation. David of The Pit and The Pigulum II is excited about the team’s “exotic” entry, He also has the look of a man about to do something he shouldn’t. Exotic is judged “blind box,” meaning that the judges don't know what they are eating - which is helpful. “We’ve entered a nutria tamale as our ‘exotic’ selection,” he says. “…Swamp rat. The official name is coypu. I’m serving coypu. Honestly, the only tester that didn’t like it was the one who knew what it was,” David says.
“Man, that’s nasty,” I say. “I want one.”
And where, you may well ask, does one get nutria? If your wife’s family is from Louisiana and she’s a good sport, you ask her relatives to shoot a couple on their property. David soaked the meat in an apple juice concoction for days to get rid of the “overpowering” gaminess and added bacon tips to make chorizo. It wasn’t the best tamale I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t the worst either. Still, the Pit and The Pigulum II’s swamp rat barbecue beat 20 teams out of 85, including the Norwegian National team.
The “II” was added, with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, when the members’ children outnumbered the founders. This competition has become a generational affair.
After a cold snap, Memphis has traded sweltering, humid heat for cool air and rain in short bursts. The walkways have become slews of mud, but it doesn’t stop people from gathering at the main stage for the Miss Piggie Idol Contest: a talent show almost willful in its lack thereof. It is an homage to pork, and the weirder the better. The crowd consists of men half dressed for a duck hunt and women in whatever they can rock with wellies. They cheer for teams like Too Sauced to Pork, which features an unshaven, half-naked man dressed like a sow ruining Pharrell’s “Happy.” Next, Swino turns Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” into “Beans and Slaw” and marginally improves it. Then come last year’s defending champs, The Chi-Town Cookers, who stripped to their Daisy Dukes as they ended their number. Except for the heavy guy wearing a red, glistening leotard. To hell with actual talent — these guys win on sheer audacity.
THEN THINGS GOT WEIRD. TOO MUCH SUN AND TOO MUCH RAIN, all fueled with a slow whiskey drip that tends to build up in the system. No one is going back to work or dealing with the children, and it shows. An acquaintance of mine, another refugee from the financial sector, told me that “Barbecue” was the one time a year he did cocaine. But it’s best not to dwell on the image of this guy, whose analytical skills keep your grandmother from penury, when he’s on a 96-hour tequila binge with a nose full of the devil’s dandruff.
Music and lights boom and whirl from the tents and fort-like booths. Girls in black bikinis dance behind the bar and sling drinks. The Porkasaurous blows smoke on the go-go dancers of Too Sauced To Pork, in a post-show fury that the prize has gone to a foreigner from Chicago.
I found the Hog Wild team again by following the vibrations in the back of my skull. An armed security guard was checking passes and a mob waited outside like this barbecue booth was a pop-up nightclub. It wasn’t always like this; they weren’t even always called Hog Wild. In the early days an incident involving a port-o-john employed as a naval vessel got the team banished to the back with the Patio Porkers. After a few years in exile and a name change, they’ve worked their way back.
Jimbo, wearing a tie-dyed chinois hat and those humping pigs, waves me into where the dancing is butt to groin. In back they were doing Jell-O shots “Hog Wild Style,” which involves having it rocketed down your throat via an invasive soul kiss. Choose your partner wisely.
In this madness I see a well-lubricated symbol of Dixie 4.0: good ol’ boys mingling with the hip-hop crowd, Southern preppies, hipsters, and out-of-towners in a sprawling, well-fed mix of everyone. Across the park, at Barbeque Republic, the big girls dance.
THIS “WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP” BUSINESS is serious stuff with international traction. Nearly all the teams will tell you that they are in it to win it. And that’s true to an extent. Still, by Friday morning — the day the actual competition food is started — the place looks like a bas-relief of a hangover. I’m sure everyone would love to win, but to put the business end of the competition after a scene like Thursday night is not the behavior of the serious-minded.
First timers British Bulldog BBQ of Surrey, England are a little stunned by the excess. Why is hard to say, because these are the same people who drank a German town out of beer during the 2006 World Cup. A guy called Toby tells me they are the “best of the best” from the British Barbecue Society — which sounds about as formidable as being the top-rated hockey player in Louisiana. You may be good, but it’s hardly the Majors, is it?
The Danish National Team appears very professional in a well-appointed tent with a glossy vinyl banner featuring blonde men in black chef coats looking dramatically European against a flaming backdrop. Their name: Grillpendables. Which I assume sounds better in Danish.
The whole festival is, officially, a cultural exchange. Every year Memphis in May highlights a country with which we aren’t currently at war. This year it was Panama, because we haven’t taken a swing at them in a while. According to the CIA, nothing interesting has happened there since they got together with the Panama City Chamber of Commerce and ousted Manuel Noriega in 1987. I ask the spokesman for the Panamanian team if they’d be making a traditional Latin lechón. He told me that Panama was now a banking center, the “the Switzerland of Latin American.”
They didn’t place.
Some cooks are too focused. We get lectured by a woman from Yazoo with a shelf of trophies. She allows no one — no one — to photograph her “process” before the judging. She doesn't so much ask us to leave as stare menacingly at us until we do.
So we walk down to Barbeque Republic where Craig, the cook, lets us photograph the whole thing. Everyone else we ask lets us, too, for that matter. Craig might be an amateur, but now that it is go time, he is pretty meticulous. His team works like surgeons cleaning the hog — surgeons in line for one king-hell of a malpractice suit but surgeons nonetheless. The smoker is flushed and prepped, the hog injected with spices using a garden sprayer with a large perforated needle at the end. The charcoal is lit by blow torch and lengths of wet hickory, apple, peach, and apricot are added to create the smoke to flavor the hog for the next 12 or so hours. For all that time the fire will need to be tended.
At lunch there is another wave of visitors, and again at dinner, but teams are more focused, or possibly hung over. The “camp” Gordon saw earlier in the week is over, and these realtors, lawyers, business owners are getting down to what drew them here in the first place - smoking one hell of a hog. Part of the crew must spend the night tending the cooker, and a team that’s been at this long enough to know better won’t run out of beer. Which is why it’s so important to get those bleary pigskin heroes out of the booth before the Presentation — and not just lock them in a trailer, from which they can burst out and shock the judges.
By Saturday, the reserves of normally deskbound professionals have burned through to fatigue. But there isn’t much to do, just waiting on judges. I wander over to British Bulldog BBQ to see what they make of all this. Toby, standing just inside the booth with muddy, bare feet, is nearly shaking, “The lady came by. We placed! I can’t believe it! This is Memphis and we placed!”
Which shows what I know. “Welcome to the Majors, my friends,” I say. Word spreads quickly and teams that hadn’t placed come by with floral arrangements, clean plates and napkins for the stunned Brits. Finalists from years past give the Brits tips on what to expect. And that makes me prouder than a hometown trophy ever would. Because more important than a win for Southern food is a win for that fabled Southern Hospitality.
THE ESSENSE OF BARBECUE, despite what some insufferable foodie will tell you, is not about the sauce — vinegar, mustard, molasses or mayonnaise (I’m looking at you, Alabama). It isn’t about the pork, beef, chicken or even swamp rat. It’s about us. The people around the table will always be more important that the food on it. That’s why quintessential Southern food is always good but rarely portable. Sit, eat and visit. Just ask the ladies of Martha’s Manor and they’ll give you a squeeze that’ll fix your back.
Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s wins the Grand Champion prize. He accepted graciously, returned to Decatur and went back to work “baptizing” his chickens in white sauce.
And that’s a good thing: The economy is sluggish, wars linger, and it’s nearly impossible to discuss politics without profanity. We need comfort food that anchors us to our roots in a rootless time. In short, we all need some good barbecue.
Hell, an enthusiastic hug line wouldn’t kill anyone either.