Memphis did it again. The Super Bowl of Swine happened last weekend with a full measure of the fun, food and hoopla that everyone counts on at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Here’s a piece of the formula for 39 years of success:
A scenic downtown city park on the banks of the Mississippi River.
More than 200 competition barbecue teams with attitude from the USA, Canada (the featured country this year), Denmark, Norway and other countries.
Food trucks selling fast foods such as burgers, hot dogs, barbecue, mac & cheese, pronto pups, pretzels and bacon bombers.
Handouts of free food and beverage samples.
Friendly local festivalgoers with Southern hospitality in their DNA.
Aromas of wood- and charcoal-fueled meat fires mixed with food truck smells reminiscent of Coney Island, Bourbon Street, Beale Street and state fair midways.
$115,000 in prize money.
More than 200 trained and certified judges who are willing to donate $69 for the fun and serious job of judging on Friday, Saturday or both days.
A full year of attending to thousands of details to make everything work in sync.
My first experience with the Mardi Gras of Swine was as a “go-for” (pronounced “gopher”) for Team Kansas City — Paul Kirk, Ronaldo Camargo, Guy Simpson and the late Karen Putnam — and Dick Mais’ King of Kansas City Barbecue team.
After spending a cold Friday night tending two teams’ fires with the late Mark Henry, I knew — despite chilling breezes from the river — that I was hooked on Memphis in May. I also knew that there’s an easier way to enjoy it: be a judge!
Here’s the drill for cooks:
Friday’s contest categories are Exotic, Beef, Seafood, Poultry, Hot Wings & Sauce.
The main contest for Grand Champion honors is on Saturday. Teams can enter one of three pork categories: Shoulder, Whole Hog or Ribs.
Memphis in May judging is two-pronged: blind and onsite. Blind judging is much like the American Royal World Series of Barbecue. Team entries are delivered to the judges’ tent, given a number to prevent team name recognition, and are judged on the basis of appearance, tenderness and taste, with scores ranging from 8 (below average) to 10 (the best the judge has eaten that day). One overall score of 10 is awarded by each judge. Other overall scores are less than 10, but cannot be the same — 9.9, 9.8, 9.7, for example.
Onsite judging, my favorite way to judge at Memphis in May, involves going to each of three assigned teams in your category — Shoulder, Whole Hog or Ribs — and interacting with the team for no less than 10 minutes and no more than 15 minutes. In addition to judging the meat’s presentation, tenderness and taste, judges score the team on the appearance of their team space as well as their rundown of meat selection, preparation and cooking method. Judges are encouraged to ask questions. Teams are given a score card for evaluating each onsite judge.
I judged Shoulder onsite this year. It is the first time that two of my three teams made the finals: the People’s Republic of Swina took third place in Shoulder, and the Parrothead Porkers of Hogaritaville took ninth place in Shoulder. One of my favorite Chicago pitmasters, Charlie McKenna of Lillie’s Q, with his dad, Quito, took first place in Shoulder.
Competition for Grand Champion was intense. Defending champion the Shed and multiple-year winners Jack’s Old South, Apple City, Big Bob Gibson and Yazoo’s Delta Q were there in full force, plus nationally famous teams such as Tuffy Stone’s Cool Smoke and Big Moe Cason’s one-man Ponderosa BBQ team.
In the end, Myron Mixon’s Jack’s Old South Whole Hog entry took Grand Champion honors. This was a rare fourth time Jack’s Old South has won Grand Champion at Memphis in May.
Last year it was a pleasure to experience Memphis in May with Jill Silva for her first time. This year it was a pleasure to see Gary Bronkema, a seasoned Kansas City Barbeque Society master judge and certified Memphis in May judge, experience the event for the first time. We also managed to take in Beale Street and some local off-river cuisine: Uncle Lou’s chicken, Pearl’s chargrilled oysters and pulled pork and barbecue bologna sandwiches at Central BBQ. All were delicious. Memphis did it again!