Some call it the Mardi Gras of Barbecue. Others call it the Super Bowl of Swine.
The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest can be called both.
And it’s a gathering of the faithful each year in mid-May at Memphis’ Tom Lee Park — Mississippi River permitting. Thus far it has only been moved once due to river flooding.
The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is a mix of old habits with a touch of new hi-tech approaches to the art and science of pork barbecue.
A group of young men stood above the crowd atop a high-rise team structure to survey the scene. When women they deemed remarkable walked past, they held up signs marked 10 or less, along with hoots and hollers. That, and grown men wearing coconut bras, grass skirts and pig noses are some of the old habits that persist.
The new high-tech part of the mix kicks in with team grills and related paraphernalia. Teams invest in top-quality cookers ranging from Ole Hickory, Southern Pride, Cookshack’s Fast Eddy models, Big Green Egg, Primo and others, plus custom-built cookers.
The gadgets include fans that kick in when the temperature in the cooker drops, a variety of other automatic temperature controls, remote temperature sensors and injection devices.
To compete for the grand champion award, teams must enter one pork category of their choice: ribs, shoulder or whole hog.
Unlike the Kansas City Barbeque Society judging protocol, Memphis in May uses a two-tiered approach. Like KCBS-sanctioned contests, all entries are submitted for blind judging.
Memphis adds onsite judging, where three individual certified judges spend as long as 15 minutes with three different teams in their team space. Three teams in each of the three pork categories with perfect blind and onsite scores are selected for finals judging. Finals judges go onsite to judge the nine finalists and pick the overall grand champion winner.
This year I judged ribs. It was an honor I don’t take lightly as a Chow Town guy in the Pork Barbecue Capital of the World. Per Memphis in May protocol, I judged three teams on the basis of the appearance of their team booth and their description of their cooking method, prior to sampling their ribs to evaluate appearance, tenderness and taste.
Before turning in my score cards, I had to compare all three teams and give only one of the three an overall perfect 10. The three teams were so close in quality that my final overall scores were 9.8, 9.9 and 10, respectively. Got Pig?, the team I gave a perfect 10, placed ninth in ribs — not bad for a world-class competition.
On a personal note, it was fun to see Chow Town’s Jill Silva experience the contest for the first time. Her instant rapport with many teams, detailed interviews and hundreds of photos during an intense four days was remarkable.
She was always game to indulge with me in the Memphis culinary scene, never tiring of barbecue in the park and in restaurants.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and was inducted into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent release is America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with chef Paul Kirk.