Crispy Barbecued Rillettes
Several French classics with a twist made their appearance at the competition, like this version of rillettes that included compressed watermelon and pickled watermelon rind. The meat was delicate and rich without turning mushy, and the tart sauce and watermelon served as a great balance against the fat.
Green Bean Salad
One of the first dishes I tasted set the stage for everything that would follow. This simple "Green Bean Salad" included almonds, citrus, pork lard mayo, and scrapple (made from heart, liver, jowl, and fatback). I'm tempted to drop this on the family Thanksgiving table this year in glorious defiance of the standard green bean casserole.
The signature cocktail of the night was a perfect Manhattan served with Luxardo cherries and your choice of bourbon. I went with Eagle Rare Single Barrel, and the cocktail was served in a small fruit jar complete with a cloth printed with the recipe. Normally I enjoy my Manhattans without ice, but when it's 97° on the river and you're drinking out of a fruit jar, ice is permissible. A cool and refreshing treat before returning to the lineup of pork.
Oyster with Goat Cheese and Country Ham
This was not a team submission but rather one of many appetizers that would appear on trays from time to time. It's a lightly roasted oyster topped with chunks of country ham, goat cheese, and a drizzle of sweet BBQ sauce. Smoky and tangy, and I enjoyed a little seafood throughout the evening to reset my palate.
All Six Categories
The team representing St. Jude Children's Research Hospital chose to provide a full plating of their menu for the guests. The tamale in the upper right was a big hit at our table, while opening up the can of cold beans (flavored with pastrami tongue and pickled feet) was a lot of fun. Perhaps the most interesting dish of the entire evening was right in front: buttermilk parfait with cracklin' hushpuppy, a burnt okra salad, and feta cheese. It was a combination that I was not expecting yet truly enjoyed. On the left is a braised short rib with ear-shaped pasta, a fragrant steamed rice dish wrapped in leaves, and hiding in the back is a grilled oyster topped with barbecued bologna.
A team of four worked on breaking down the whole hog using a giant cleaver and a mallet. Spectators came and went as the spine was split and legs were removed. I saw a few people get a little squeamish, but having spent some time in the back of butcher shops as a child, I've always had a lot of respect for the skill required to properly turn a carcass into the various cuts needed to make the foods we all enjoy.
Pork Confit and Spicy Ham
Another classic French preparation involved a cold cube of pork confit, served with chanterelle mushrooms and pickled flowers. Resting behind are a few slices of bourbon-glazed ham. Although served on recycled paper plates, this team was turning out beautiful plates like this over and over again for upwards of four hundred attendees while working in the damp Memphis heat.
Pork and Peanut Bonbons
These little bonbons are somewhere between a hushpuppy and a truffle with a savory flair. Pulled pork and ground peanuts were combined with cornmeal, fried, rolled in a dry rub spice blend, and topped with a little peanut sauce. Crispy, lighter than you'd imagine, and wonderfully seasoned.
Pork Belly with Pickled Onions
One of the surprisingly few Italian dishes was this preparation of pork belly served with roasted tomatoes, ricotta, a tangy tomato sauce, and topped with pickled onions. It was so rich and full of flavor that I don't know if I could eat much more than an appetizer portion of this, and I mean that as a compliment.
Moonshine Lemonade Cocktail
At the edge of one of the booths I spotted a metal tub full of ice and bearing dozens of little jelly jars (about 2-3 oz. each). The sign said lemonade, and I asked the chef what it was. "Oh, just a little white lightnin'." No better way to cool off at the end of a long night than with some moonshine.