“This town’s built on barbecue. And having a museum — no, having the Smithsonian of barbecue — is just what we need.” — Memphis Mayor Pete Pigg in “The Politics of Barbecue.”
Blake Fontenay’s debut novel, “The Politics of Barbecue” (2012), pits Memphis and Kansas City as rivals for a World Barbecue Hall of Fame.
I was unaware of the novel until October in Lynchburg, Tenn., where Fontenay and some author friends sat in a book sales tent near the town square.
When I was immediately drawn to “The Politics of Barbecue,” Fontenay mused, “I told them (his author friends) that if that book doesn’t sell here (the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue,) it won’t sell anywhere.”
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I happily added to the sales tally.
The genre of novels featuring Memphis barbecue, Kansas City barbecue or a Memphis/KC combo is slim.
Eight books come to mind. Gerald Duff’s “Memphis Ribs” (1999) and Elizabeth Craig’s (also known as Riley Adams) four barbecue mysteries, “Delicious & Suspicious” (2010), “Hickory Smoked Homicide” (2011), “Finger Lickin’ Dead” (2011) and “Rubbed Out” (2013) are Memphis-based.
Lou Jane Temple’s “Revenge of the Barbeque Queens” (1997) is based in Kansas City.
Doug Worgul’s “Thin Blue Smoke” (2009), based in Kansas City, is seasoned with a Memphis barbecue love story. Fontenay’s “The Politics of Barbecue” is based in Memphis, with a scene on the “Triple B Ranch” near Kansas City.
Corrupt politicians, empire builders, morally challenged clergy, movie star, porn movie mogul, civic-minded arsonist, Elvis impersonator, billionaire recluse and savvy/sexy lawyer are mixed into the plot as artfully as Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee the late John Willingham transformed his WHAM rubs and sauces into heavenly fusions of chopped barbecue pork.
I won’t reveal whether Memphis or Kansas City wins the race for a brick and mortar World Barbecue Hall of Fame, but here are some notable tidbits:
▪ Pig puns and analogies are sprinkled throughout.
▪ Memphis Mayor Peter Applewhite aka Pete Pigg, owner of the Pigg Stand barbecue restaurant on Beale Street, touts the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest as “the pre-eminent barbecue competition in all the world.”
▪ Mayor Pigg is a greedy, unscrupulous opportunist who operates above the law, along with his city council allies.
▪ William “Billy Boy” Bradwell, Mayor Pigg’s Kansas City rival, is willing to do what it takes to get his way. Bradwell owns a multistate Billy Boy’s BBQ restaurant chain, a beef jerky brand, Billy Boy’s Cow Sauce, a 5 percent share of the Kansas City Chiefs, and is a billionaire rancher, skilled with a bull whip.
In real life if Memphis and Kansas City are racing to be first to establish a brick-and-mortar World Barbecue Hall of Fame tourist attraction, it’s a stealth race flying under the radar.
Kansas City’s Barbecue Hall of Fame sponsored by the American Royal is a step ahead of Memphis. As Washington Post writer Jim Shahin has correctly observed, however, Kansas City’s Barbecue Hall of Fame is not a brick and mortar place that attracts tourists and locals. A real life brick and mortar World Barbecue Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Memphis, or elsewhere is up for grabs.
Meanwhile, fictional barbecue politics aside, Memphis and Kansas City each lay claim to the best barbecue and the most prestigious barbecue contest, as well as rivalry over which organization — Memphis in May, the Memphis Barbecue Network or the Kansas City Barbeque Society — has the best contest rules and regulations.
Nevertheless, Kansas City and Memphis are unofficial barbecue sister cities thanks to Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee Henry Perry, a barbecue man with Shelby County roots whom we honor as the Father of Kansas City Barbecue.
Politics aside, life without Memphis and Kansas City barbecue would be sad indeed!
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 an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent releases are America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with chef Paul Kirk, and Barbecue Lover’s Kansas City Style .