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Memphis in May: How Do Judges Define Barbecue 'World Champion'?

Memphis in May is not a benchmark for the world, or even for Memphis-style barbecue. Is it still fair to call the winners "world champions"?

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[Photographs: James Boo]

The most intense moments of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest are delivered in a white takeout box.

Thinking Inside the Box

After years of anticipation, months of preparation, tens of thousands of dollars, and a single day of competition cooking, every team braves the same bottleneck of nerves. In the span of ten minutes, they must pack their final submission into three compartments of styrofoam for blind-box judging. Any alteration to the blind box, or anything that could be construed as a signal to judges, is grounds for immediately disqualification with no second chances. If the closing tab of the box breaks off, if the box is dropped and punctured before it can reach the judges' tent, or if a dandelion should somehow find its way beneath that lid before it closes, then one team's long journey to Memphis goes up in smoke.

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Behind the picket fence at Manhattan's Jubon's, the stress of world-class competition was palpable. With less than 20 minutes on the clock, team captain David Rosen and his cohort of first-time entrants tore apart racks of ribs in search of "judges cuts," the most attractive portions of meat.

Not a single laugh escaped the tension of the scene as Rosen tried and failed over five times to close the blind box, rearranging the team's ribs into a less and less photogenic state and barely pausing for a sigh when the closing tab finally clicked into place. After one last wipe with a napkin to ensure that the package was spotless, another teammate whisked it away.

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The Flavor of Flair

The pressure of packing the blind box, a common denominator in competitive barbecue, is compounded by Memphis in May's distinctive addition of on-site judging, which takes place immediately after the box is sent to the judges' tent. Formally welcoming the judge, introducing each member of the team, showcasing the smoker and explaining what makes their barbecue worthy of the title—in other words, the art of the sale—are crucial steps in imparting personality to the meat that judge is about to taste. While presentation doesn't need to be lavish, anything to make the experience more memorable is an advantage.

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Once their box was away, the members of Party-Q, defending champions in whole hog, quickly washed up, smoothed over their presentation garb and silenced the perimeter around their booth. Gallons of light beer and heavy liquor were washed out by a stone-faced determination to win.

Each step of the presentation was carefully planned and impeccably executed, leaving just enough wiggle room for team captain Jim Butler to connect with each visiting judge as best he could. In the end, it would come down to the quality of the 'cue, but a warm impression of pride and professionalism will make it easier for any judge to award that coveted ten on the scoring form.

Defining World Championship 'Cue

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What exactly, then, earns a ten-point rating at Memphis in May?

Memphis Barbecue Network president Randy McGee stresses the importance of comparative judging. In the process of becoming MBN-certified, barbecue judges from all walks of life are trained to score what they taste only in comparison to the other barbecue they have tasted that day—barbecue at Memphis in May, according to McGee and other veterans of the competition, "is not judged on an ideal." Expectations, preconceptions and personal favorites are declared irrelevant as judges rank the four to six samples they consume directly against each other.

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Four-time champion Mike Mills stands behind comparative judging as the best way to ensure a fair fight; yet, as a pit master who's just about seen it all, he acknowledges a crucial flaw in this system: the power of a dominant trend.

"The trend at this point in time is candy sweet with a finish of spice at the end...It's sickening sweet," Mills declared after he had finished judging. Although the standards of comparative judging and the sanctity of the blind box effectively eliminate all distractions to the moment of judgment, it seems like nothing can change the fact that Memphis in May has become the stage for a particularly sugary type of barbecue.

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This bias is clearest in the rib competition, in which most teams crust their racks with brown sugar and spray them with apple juice in the smoking process. While all of the entries still end up extremely tasty, a diversity of flavors is absent among high-ranking entries. The Natural Born Grillers' ribs, which took first place at this year's contest, proved this point: Their texture and appearance were second to none, but every sticky bite sent shock waves of sweetness through my mouth, overpowering the tastes of meat and smoke in a way that I would hesitate to call world-class.

"They don't do that normally," pointed out Mills, who linked this trend to American barbecue's regional nature. "That's what started winning in the contests, so that's what everybody started doing...you go to different regions, and the profile will be a little different, so you change the flavor profile to fit that area." While some pit masters are "gutsy enough to go with their own profile," no one relishes defeat, and no one forgets the lessons of last year's competition.

The True Test of Memphis in May

Memphis in May, an extremely expensive competition with a thing for sweet meats, is not a benchmark for the world, or even for Memphis-style barbecue, as a whole. Is it still fair, then, to call the victors of this year's competition "world champions"?

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Perhaps not, but these three days of partying, passion and pork have shown me that Memphis in May is much less about winning than it is about making one's mark in a tightly knit community of barbecue fanatics. When Jubon's first on-site judge returned to the tent to offer his feedback and his encouragement (a common practice at Memphis in May), formality gave way to friendship. Members of other teams gathered around to dig into the New Yorkers' pan of leftover ribs, and cooks from all backgrounds traded stories as the sun set over the Mississippi.

Flavor trends will come and go, but that is the kind of sweetness that really sticks in the world of competitive barbecue.

About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.

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