Serious Eats

Memphis in May 2010: An Introduction to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

Our new barbecue bureau chief James Boo (of The Eaten Path) is in Memphis this week reporting from the smokey pits of Memphis in May, one of the biggest barbecue competitions in America. He'll have updates through the weekend on the competitors and judging process. Take it away, James! —The Mgmt.

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[Flickr: xoxoryan]

Today marks the start of the 33rd annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC). In anticipation of the next three days of marinating, dry-rubbing, coal-burning, carcinogen-loving, belt-busting Americana, I'd like to introduce you to Memphis in May.

Beyond the Pork Barrel

While Serious Eaters may be inclined to associate Memphis in May (and perhaps Memphis altogether) with a rack of ribs, the annual festival is actually month-long series of events that draws over 300,000 people and brings in over $40 million in tourism to downtown Memphis in the name of music, culture and food. Surpassing the cult phenomenon of Elvis Week, Memphis in May kicks off with the Beale Street Music Festival, which is followed by a weeklong "salute" to a particular country. The focus of this year's International Week is Tunisia, which has been celebrated all over town in the form of museum exhibits, special performances and public appearances by Tunisian dignitaries.

Nearly as old as Memphis in May itself, the WCBCC has emerged as an increasingly popular draw, attracting almost 100,000 competitors, judges and visitors. Considered one of the "big four" sanctioned American barbecue competitions, this contest draws over 250 teams from all walks of life and all parts of the country, some of whom will spend upwards of $15,000 to make their team a part of the biggest pork cookout in the world.

Choosing Barbecue's World Champion

While many pit crews spare no expense for the sake of showmanship and one hell of a party (I've been told that while I might not be allowed to bring a water bottle onto festival grounds, sanctioned teams can walk in with kegs of beer), everything on display this weekend will burn down to a single bite of smoked pork.

Ribs, shoulder or whole hog are the only main events, all meats must be cooked over wood or charcoal, and garnishing any submission is strictly forbidden.

Public health regulations prevent any of the teams from serving their entries directly to festivalgoers; sanctioned WCBCC judges, however, have their pick of the litter. One set of judges accepts a "blind box" of meat samples —sauce is an option—from a team, while another set of judges, completely separated from the blind judging tent, visits that team's booth for series of one-on-one, 15-minute tasting demonstrations.

The three teams with the highest combined scores in each category repeat this process in a final heat. Once the smoke has cleared, there can be only one champion of ribs, one champion of shoulder and one champion of whole hog. Whichever of the three victorious teams earns the highest score in final judging will then be named 2010's Grand Champion of barbecue.

Mike Mills' Advice

The intensity of the judging process and the presence of many top-notch cooks make for fierce competition, and the title of World Barbecue Champ carries great distinction and a serious amount of prize money. Yet, when a veteran pit cook like 17th St. Bar & Grill's Mike Mills thinks on the importance of Memphis in May, a spirit of community is the first thing that comes to mind.

"All you need to belong is a passion for barbecue and the willingness to talk and share with other people. That's it...every weekend is like a nice, slow-paced reunion," Mills says in Peace, Love and Barbecue, the four-time World Champ's own published collection of recipes, tales and smoky wisdom.

While Mills speaks of the camaraderie of pit cooks in the thick of a balmy summer day, his words seem to reflect Memphis in May as a whole. As the legends and movements that made this city so vital to American culture slowly slip out of public consciousness, celebrations that match the global with the local, the elder with the younger, and the dry rub with the tomato-based sauce are sorely needed to preserve old traditions and foster new ones.

Barbecue is no exception. Sharing this sense of history and openness, the WCBCC promises to be a vital space for pit masters to show off years of skill and for newcomers to take hold of the smoldering torch. On a more ironic note, the likelihood of American barbecue finding crossover success in Tunisia is slim: The majority of the country doesn't eat pork.

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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