The American Royal has a trademark to call itself “The World Series of Barbecue.”
Memphis in May bills itself as “The Super Bowl of Swine.”
Both call themselves a “world championship” of barbecue. So who has earned the ultimate bragging rights?
“We have several world championships, because there is no one arbiter,” says Carolyn Wells, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, who also served this year as a judge in Memphis. “I could probably have a contest in my backyard and call it a world championship, but it probably wouldn’t be so.”
A week after the Royal announced a change of venue, moving from the historic stockyards in the West Bottoms to the roomier Arrowhead Stadium for this year’s contest, which runs this weekend, I left for a planned pilgrimage to the banks of the Mighty Mississippi.
For years I had heard tales of Memphis in May: the Mardi Gras atmosphere, whole hog one-upmanship and theatrical song and dance routines that come with on-site judging.
I was familiar with the more stoic American Royal style of blind judging that gathers six judges per table to silently taste barbecue from numbered Styrofoam boxes. Proponents of blind judging argue that it levels the playing field — a backyard enthusiast with a kettle grill has just as much chance of winning as a celebrity pitmaster with a big rig.
I was eager to see how the rival world-class barbecue competitions compared.
Tom Lee Park in downtown Memphis is a skinny, one-mile strip set alongside the river and a stone’s throw from the blues and juke joints on Beale Street. A popular T-shirt saying — “I Like Pig Butts and I Cannot Lie!” — serves as a welcome squeal, and anthropomorphic pigs wink from every corner a la Porky Pig.
Hogfather, Swinefeld, the Moody Ques and Pork Fiction are clever pop culture pork puns, but you have to wonder what the King of Rock ’n’ Roll might have thought of the team named Suspicious Rinds or its cartoon pig mascot with a pompadour and a Viva Las Vegas-era jumpsuit.
While Kansas City’s appetite for barbecue is voracious, we also have wide-ranging tastes — as Wells always says, “if it moves, we cook it in Kansas City.” By contrast, Memphis is where pretty pigs and handsome hogs take center stage.
The whole hog category requires a pitmaster’s utmost patience to primp and pamper the skin to a burnished bronze, leaving a slight tinge of wood smoke whispering like marbling through the meat. It’s not easy to coax the best out of the individual cuts such as ham, shoulder, ribs, back and loin, all of which require different degrees of doneness.
Only 36 of the nearly 250 teams have signed up to compete in the whole hog division. Meat Mitch of Mission Hills and Braizin’ Assets of Raymore made the trip to compete in ribs. But no Kansas City teams are entered in whole hog, which is less a reflection of the skill level of our pitmasters than it is that pig pickin’ parties are culturally more a Southern than a Midwestern tradition.
To witness on-site judging for whole hog, I have tapped Ardie Davis, the Kansas City godfather of sauce and a charter member of the KCBS. He introduces me to Mike Mills, known as “The Legend” on the competitive barbecue circuit and an inductee of the American Royal’s Barbecue Hall of Fame.
We find Mills primping Phillip Ignatius Garcia, aka P.I.G. Phillip. Mills started his preparations 23 hours before the big barbecue dance. On the cooking grate, the fleshy, deeply creased hog is lying stomach down. His stare is glassy-eyed yet his ears still perky. He chomps down on a small log etched with the word “apple,” used to hold his mouth open for the proverbial garnish.
“Cooking the whole hog is not the best dollar value, but the art of cooking whole hog is being lost,” says Mills, the owner of the 17th Street Bar & Grill, with two locations in Illinois, and two Memphis Championship BBQ restaurants in Las Vegas.
Mills and co-captain Pat Burke have cooked together since 1989 as Apple City BBQ out of Murphysboro, Ill., winning four world championships and three grand world championships at Memphis in May. The men intended to retire after their winning streak, but they just couldn’t stay away. This time they’re betting on a 155-pound Duroc heritage-raised hog from Compart Family Farms in Minnesota.
“A (whole) hog is the hardest piece of meat to cook. With ribs, you have more control,” says Burke, also a member of the Barbecue Hall of Fame. “It’s hard to lift that hog on and off (the fire) while it’s hot.”
Mills, who cooks whole hog twice a week at his restaurants, insists on starting Phillip out with his belly down to allow the smoke to better permeate for the first two to three hours. Then he cuts side pockets in the shoulder and leg and allows the seasonings to distribute throughout. After the hog is flipped upside-down, the body cavity is filled with baste.
Apple City BBQ has competed in the Royal’s standard categories — chicken, beef, ribs and pork shoulder — numerous times and has only good things to say about the experiences, but, Mills says: “This is where we started out. It’s like home.”
Like the Royal, home for the three-day Memphis competition is an elaborate tent city. Corporate sponsors foot the bill for the impressive multi-storied booths that resemble Mardi Gras floats without wheels. Some of the booths feature full-scale bars. Amid the disco balls and chandeliers, it would be easy to forget about the barbecue, but there is plenty of serious cooking going on.
Memphis in May uses a combination of blind and on-site judging. More than 500 men and women who have taken an $85 certified judging class held in the fall pay another application fee of $59 to $65 for the honor. Drawing an on-site assignment, especially for whole hog, is widely considered the holy grail.
Thirty minutes before the first judge arrives at Mills’ tent, a brunette wearing a short black dress and custom red cowboy boots with a peace sign, hearts and “17” on them opens the gate of the white picket fence. Amy Mills’ boots are a reference to “Peace Love and Barbecue” (Rodale), a James Beard-nominated barbecue book that she wrote with her dad.
Amy serves as her father’s publicist and sergeant of arms, and she has a few ground rules while I’m in the inner circle: I need to wear a team shirt that looks like a bowling shirt to blend in, and I must refrain from taking notes or photos, for fear of a journalist distracting or influencing the judges.
I don the shirt, stow my camera, move to a corner vantage point and quietly record conversations on my smartphone. The first judge of three to arrive at Apple City BBQ is greeted at the gate, and the clock begins ticking. The team has 15 minutes to deliver its spiel and convince the judge to give it a perfect 10.
“Stand right here and I’m going to tell you a little story about a grill and a hog,” Burke begins.
The double-door cooker resembles a stainless steel wardrobe, and it is designed specifically for whole-hog cooking by Ole Hickory Pits in Cape Girardeau, Mo. The cooker is fired with pure hickory charcoal, and the team adds moistened apple wood at the end for mild smoke flavor.
“Right before we put him on the grill, we sprinkle him with some of our Magic Dust and season on the inside, and then we do a thing called cold smoking,” Burke continues.
(Magic Dust is Mike’s rub, made of paprika, kosher salt, sugar, mustard powder, chili powder, ground cumin, black pepper, granulated garlic and cayenne pepper.)
“We start out at 170 degrees for about 3 1/2 hours with the theory that the meat will take on smoke when it’s cool,” Burke says. “We get the smoke in the meat and then we bring it up to about 210 degrees, the whole operation being about 23 hours of slow, easy cooking to get ’er tender and flavorful.”
As the suspense builds, the doors are opened and a bronzed hog is revealed to some oohs and ahhs from the crowd that stops to watch the show. During judging, some teams insist their entire pit crew sit silently outside the booth in a line to shush passersby.
The judge is seated at the Apple City table set with pewter platters and offered a pewter challis of chilled apple cider. Mills kneels down on a fabric-covered riser as if he’s about to pray, leans forward and turns on the charm. Looking the judge square in the eyes, he launches into his well-rehearsed sales pitch, but I can’t hear much of what he says because of the wind that has just started to pick up.
Teams are required to serve the judge samples of ham, shoulder and loin. Other portions of the hog are served at the team’s discretion. At the end of the day, Apple City places ninth, winning $350.
“The tell of a novice judge who is wet behind the ears? When presented with a slab of ribs, novice judges eat bone after bone,” says Ron Childers, as we dig into an order of pork rinds and a half slab of baby-back ribs with a side of turnip greens at the Memphis Barbecue Co., one of his favorite barbecue restaurants, located just over the state line in Mississippi.
Childers is a local TV weatherman and certified barbecue judge. He’s passionate about barbecue and the ethics of judging.
“I usually leave the barbecue hungry,” he says. “There are a lot of judges that come out here, and they’re just here to eat and they want to take home product. I’m here for the competition itself, the seriousness of the judging. I think the teams deserve it. They’ve spent thousands of dollars, so they don’t need a guy who is coming along just to eat their barbecue and go home.”
Memphis Barbecue Co. is owned by pitmaster Melissa Cookston, author of “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” (published by Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel) and one of the few women in competitive barbecue to crack the inner circle as a three-time grand champion.
When I ask Cookston about the peculiarities of on-site judging, she is quick to defend Memphis in May’s quirky style: “You can make it or break it in the blind judging, like in Kansas City,” she says, “but at least here you get to talk to the judges and find out what they like.”
Mitch Benjamin, of Meat Mitch, has cooked at Memphis in May five times, and he agrees it can take a few years to get the hang of on-site judging but the response can be invaluable. “It allows more feedback than turning in a clamshell, walking away and hoping,” he says.
But on-site can also be “daunting” and, well, biased.
Meat Mitch took first place in the “Anything But” beef category, winning $1,000 for smoked short ribs. But for pork ribs, two of the three judges assigned to Meat Mitch also judged Johnny Trigg of Smokin’ Triggers, a celebrity pitmaster who has appeared on TLC’s “BBQ Pitmasters.”
The experience, Benjamin says, is intimidating and cool at the same time. “It was great sitting in a lawn chair and sucking down a Bud Light with him.”
Meat Mitch’s baby-back ribs placed “somewhere in the middle of the pack.” Its best finish? Top 20. Along the way the team has learned: Never cook spareribs (one judge sniffed at them, as if they were spoiled, because baby-backs are expected), and you can’t please everyone (another judge complained a grain of pepper got caught in her teeth).
Braizin’ Assets showed its grilled ribs on a stainless steel oval platter placed on a picnic table without benefit of a tablecloth. “It’s two different worlds. We had to adjust everything we do for Memphis in May (compared to the American Royal) after we finished dead last,” Greg Beachner says after the last judge departs.
Minutes later, Childers, who served as an on-site rib judge for Braizin’ Assets, returns to offer constructive criticism. “In a blind presentation, you’d get straight 10s,” Childers says. “You did well in appearance. It’s the presentation and story. It’s a clear, cohesive story (that) you need.”
As food competitions increasingly become fodder for reality TV, the KCBS’ Wells bets more competitions will skew to on-site judging “because watching people cook big hunks of meat is not all that engaging.”
Recently, I called up Kim Palmer, the American Royal’s barbecue contest coordinator, and asked her which competition can truly claim the most bragging rights, and she politely sidestepped the question: “What I love about both is they’re a celebration of barbecue.”
Nevertheless, if Kansas Citians are itching for the last word, Palmer confirms the American Royal is, without a doubt, the largest barbecue competition with 618 teams, and the new venue is likely to significantly boost those numbers in the years to come.