Our new barbecue bureau chief James Boo (of The Eaten Path) is in Memphis this week reporting from the smoky pits of Memphis in May, one of the biggest barbecue competitions in America. He'll be checking in with updates on the competitors and judging process. Take us to hog heaven, James! —The Mgmt.
"I have a barbecue prenup," explains pit cook Chris Mills when asked how many years lie ahead of him on the competitive barbecue circuit. "I told my wife that until I tell her otherwise, I will always be at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest."
Chris and I are sitting in the precious shade of a raised tarp in his team The Flying Pig's official contest booth, facing the Mississippi River with ice-cold cans of Bud Light and doing what he's done on the first day of the WCBCC for many years: relax.
Of course, relaxation has different meanings for different people at the WCBCC. Compared to the double- and triple-decker lounges some teams have constructed to house their smoking rigs in full-blown luxury, The Flying Pigs—a pit crew that Chris and his good friend Dan Wilson have headed since 1993—take things especially easy.
They've earned it. Chris led Pigasus, the previous incarnation of his team, to victory in his second year at Memphis in May. In each of the eighteen competitions since that triumph, The Flying Pigs have won a spot in the top 25, two of which were fourth place pork shoulder rankings. During the rest of the year, both cooks work in the sales department of an IBM tech wholesaler.
This is the first time that Chris and Dan will compete entirely on their own. Eschewing all assistance (The Flying Pigs once included 15 teammates), ancillary competitions (sides, sauce, etc.), and decorations (the most valuable assets to their booth are two portajohns and the commercial cooler they've rented to fill with cold drinks), they're focused entirely on this year's shoulder.
In the meantime, they cruise the grounds to visit fellow teams or perch themselves behind their white picket fence, awaiting others who are doing the same. While nothing will officially hit the grill until Friday night, various teams are already cooking up ribs, chicken, pork, beef and anything else they'd like to share as a delicious prelude to the main event. Old friends reunite, new friends are made, and stories are traded in what is the most essential aspect of Memphis in May.
"What's been successful over the years has been the teams' sharing their knowledge of barbecue with other teams—and it's not just cooking skills," declares Chris. While competitive barbecue is best described as a very expensive hobby, one that has increasingly less to do with the smokehouses, meat markets and rib shacks that lie at the core of America's barbecue culture, the memories made and the skills developed at gatherings like Memphis in May are real to the bone.
Underscoring this point minutes after the sun has set over the water, I'm interrupted by Chris' cousin, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe. Co-author of Peace, Love and Barbecue and my guide to Memphis in May, she's been introducing me to members of her extended barbecue family all day. Now, she drags me to the booth of Ubon's, a notoriously hospitable team that hails from Yazoo City, Mississippi. The elaborate, multi-story structures I'd seen during the day are now filling up with Thursday night locals as they transform into raucous, towering parties.
On Ubon's territory, an oil trader named David Rosen orders me to try his pork belly. I agree without hesitation. Hailing from the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, Rosen first met Ubon's cooks when they schooled him on the proper ways of eating a pulled pork sandwich at New York City's Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. He stayed in touch with his new friends from Mississippi and spent his first visit to Memphis in May in their care before forming Jubon's, am amateur pit crew of "Jewish kids from New York." Jubon's has since taken first place in one Memphis-sanctioned barbecue contest and is hoping for a strong showing in the ribs category of the 2010 WCBCC.
"Pink spaghetti," David declares with a sacrilegious measure of chutzpah as he seizes the center of a full cut of smoked belly and peels back the top layer to reveal the tender, slow-cooked meat beneath its crusty, blackened surface. He pulls the entire layer of meat into thin strands, plops them onto my plate, and points me to a picnic table that has already been stocked with pulled pork shoulder and pork ribs.
Still standing, I pile smoked meats atop styrofoam, wrap a hamburger bun around the best of them, and take a prolonged bite. As I crack another can of light beer, I promise myself to never put on a wedding band without a barbecue prenup of my own.