Smoke on the Water
Clint Engel -- Casual Living, June 1, 2008
For three days every year the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis transform into a mecca for barbecue enthusiasts all over the world. Thousands flock to the city famous for its dry-rub ribs and pulled pork shoulder to witness as more than 260 teams compete for thousands of dollars of prize money, sponsorships and, more importantly, bragging rights that come with the massive trophies.
If you think you’re having a barbecue when you throw a burger on your backyard hibachi, think again. The folks at the 31st annual barbecue festival regard the smoking of pork as nothing less than a form of art. Don’t look for beef here. This World Championship Barbecue Cooking contest is all about the pig.
Teams spend thousands on customized grills and months perfecting their smoking techniques in preparation for the big day when they clear their booths and present their pork to a judge. While the atmosphere is laid back and jovial, a closer look reveals a handful of people in each booth who are all business. Those are the men and women presiding over the smokers mastering their craft. No detail is left out. Everything, from where the meat comes from and what it’s fed to the types of charcoal and hardwood used is well thought out and researched. Spices, rubs, mops, sauces, injections, cooking times and temperatures are scrutinized, analyzed, fine-tuned and kept secret with only the base list of ingredients mentioned.
The competition doesn’t stop there. There’s an award for the best booth and it’s not uncommon to see two- and three-story structures erected for the festivities. Teams named such things as Natural Born Grillers, Pork Stars and Aporkalypse Now all compete in one of three categories: pork shoulder, ribs and whole hog. More than 88 tons of pork are smoked during the competition and every team will tell you that its BBQ is the best you will find.
So how do the judges pick the winners? Well, they are trained. New to the festival is the Memphis Barbecue Network and one of it’s goals is to provide the contest network with knowledgeable and experienced judges to maintain continuity.
What if you’re not a trained judge or experienced cooker? Memphis in May officials give visitors an opportunity to get in on the action. The People’s Choice Judging lets you try samples from award winning teams and cast your vote for your favorite. For a closer look at what goes on behind the grill, there’s the Cooker Caravan, which is a free guided tour of several teams’ booths and an explanation of cooking skills and tips you can take home with you.
So, who came home with bragging rights for the next year? Sweet Swine O’Mine took top honors in the shoulder category. Rib Ticklers walked away with, you guessed it, ribs. Natural Born Grillers took whole hog and Best in Show. The People’s Choice award went to Rhoda Brown’s Smokin’ Fatties.