Chow Town

Forget Elvis: Pork is king at Memphis barbecue contest

The Bar-B-Q Shop in Memphis, Tenn.
The Bar-B-Q Shop in Memphis, Tenn. jsilva@kcstar.com

At the Super Bowl of Swine, pork is king, y’all.

For three days during Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, an impressive tent city rises off the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, just a meaty blues riff away from historic Beale Street.

RIP, B.B. King.

Think of these makeshift riverside condos as the barbecue world’s version of a Mardi Gras float without wheels. If you can snag a corporate sponsor to pay the mortgage (Kansas City-based contestants Meat Mitch and Braizin’ Assets told me their more modest weekend digs add up to around $5,000), then chances are your triple decker scaffold rises into the air three stories and is furnished with chandeliers or disco balls.

Of course, most barbecue parties involve at least a few brews, if not full-on bars. But if by late Friday night you’re seeing double, chances are it’s only the army of the anthropomorphic pigs messing with your mind, as emblazoned on team banners, logos and t-shirts.

One of my favorite swine logos sports a Viva Las Vegas pompadour that pays its respects to The King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Let’s just say it’s doubtful most team getting ready for on-site judging, a unique feature of the Memphis competition, will have free time to stand in line at Graceland and take the latest iPad tour. Especially if they’re cooking whole hog, which takes up to 24 hours.

In addition to punny team names — my favorite was Swinefeld, closely followed by Pork Fiction and Aporkalypse Now — among the most popular t-shirts worn by festival-goers were “Keep Calm and Pork On” and “I Like Pig Butts and I Can Not Lie.”

(Curiously, we call it butt and they call it shoulder. Same part of the animal, but different names.)

Beyond the competition categories of whole hog, shoulder and ribs, Memphis restaurants serve even more variations on the pork theme.

The Bar-B-Q Shop is responsible for a popular Memphis culinary mash-up known as barbecue spaghetti, a saucy twist on good ole spaghetti with Italian red sauce. Spaghetti noodles are cooked past al dente (think the texture of Spaghetti O’s), then heavily sauced with a rustier brick red sauce that is presumably sweetened with barbecue sauce and topped with — yup fine shreds of smoky pulled pork.

The waitress I asked claimed not to know much about the background of this uniquely Memphis dish, other than that the recipe came from the retired owners. Google the dish and SouthernLiving.com pops up singing the spaghetti’s praises while citing “Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke Sauce and Soul” (2014) by Craig David Meek for the story of its origin.

Meek credits Brady Vincent, a former railroad cook, for the original recipe that was handed down to the next owners, Frank and Hazel Vernon.

Intrigued by the idea of barbecue spaghetti, I began to take note of other nontraditional barbecue items served at Memphis barbecue joints and restaurants. My first interesting variation showed up at a VIP reception Thursday night and hosted by the Alabama Tourism Department.

Don McLemore of Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q (home of the white sauce and, coincidentally last night’s winner of this year’s pork shoulder category) told me that the hefty baked potatoes his pit crew was handing out that night were actually twice the size of what he serves at his restaurant in Decatur.

The piping hot Russet was split in its foil, fluffed and dressed with scoops of butter, sour cream, layered with shreds of cheddar cheese and topped with pulled pork and smoky, crunchy bits of bacon. It’s a clever meal in a spud with a hint of pork.

And speaking of bacon, the light, greaseless pearls of pigskin known as pork rinds were a must-try at the Memphis Barbecue Company, owned by Melissa Cookston, a prize-winning competitive cooker and author of the cookbook “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”

At A & R Bar-B-Q on Elvis Presley Boulevard, barbecue nachos are a popular menu item. Crisp round chips are layered with a slightly sweet sauce studded with that resembles barbecue spaghetti sauce, with the addition of yellow-orange splotches of nacho cheese for a decadent snack that rivals the ballpark.

Pig chips — house-made potato chips sprinkled with barbecue rub are served with a ranch dressing as dip — and more barbecue nachos, are on the menu at the suburban Germantown Commissary.

But my award for “Favorite Non-Pork Item on a Barbecue Menu“ were hot tamales and barbecue shrimp served at this charming former general store.

The hot tamales come in singles, a half dozen or three as an appetizer. Light and moist, they arrive sans husk, topped with a ladle of chili and a sprinkling of melted cheddar cheese.

When it comes to the barbecue shrimp, there is no evidence of the sea pigs ever touching the grill grates, but I give them points for skipping the side of tomato-horseradish cocktail sauce and brushing it with a barbecue sauce containing a little bit of spicy heat.

Kansas City claims its burnt ends while Memphis has a clear fascination with pork. But let’s face it, Americans will squeal for joy when served anything that even remotely reminds them of barbecue.

To reach Jill Wendholt Silva, call 816-234-4395 or send email to jsilva@kcstar.com.

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