Hog heaven

David Kohn reports from the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.


David Kohn
July 3, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Take a drive around Memphis, and you'll see barbecue cookers everywhere -- on porches, in yards, under carports, on the terraces of housing projects. Not those spindly Webers made for cooking up a few burgers, but big cylindrical contraptions, sturdy enough to cook a 130-pound hog for the necessary 24 hours.

Which explains, more or less, how I found myself in this humid city, in a treeless field on the banks of the Mississippi River, surrounded by groups of well-nourished men using all manner of equipment -- 500-gallon propane tanks, converted oil drums and gigantic rotisserie ovens -- to gently cook several tons of pork. I was in the midst of, as one participant called it, "the big 'un": the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

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That night when I undressed, my clothes, down to my underwear and socks, were fragrant with this smoky smell. It had been a good day. I had eaten three heaping barbecue sandwiches, a plate of ribs and several large helpings of baked beans flavored with chunks of pork fat.

How had I -- a Northerner, a Jew and a sometime vegetarian -- ended up here? Eight years ago, as a newly minted college graduate, I applied for 50 newspaper jobs. I was turned down by all but one, the Anniston Star in Alabama. To my surprise, I ended up staying in Alabama for two strange, enjoyable years. There I discovered barbecued pork.

For those who don't know, barbecued pork is to the South what the bagel is to New York. And just as Southerners have no idea how to make an edible bagel, Northerners have no clue how to cook barbecue. So my fiancie and I left Brooklyn to make a weekend pilgrimage to Memphis, she to visit friends and see the city, me to eat as much barbecue as possible.

What is it about the taste of pork barbecue that I find so irresistible? It has to do with the cooking itself, because I don't even like pork prepared any other way. There's something about the way barbecued pig just melts off the bone, about the juxtaposition between the meat's almost buttery tenderness, and its heft, its substantiality. Done correctly, the smoky flavor harmonizes perfectly with the sweetness of the meat and the spiciness of the sauce. In the end, though, who knows? It's ineffable.

Every May since 1978, Memphis has hosted the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Equal parts sport, culinary seminar, frat party and beauty pageant, it is the most prestigious pork barbecue competition in the world (Kansas City, another barbecue stronghold, holds the preeminent beef event). For 21 years, competitors have gathered on the banks of the Mississippi, in Tom Lee Park just a few blocks from downtown Memphis, to see who can cook the best rib, shoulder and hog.

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What was once a low-key get-together has, over the years, become a much larger event. That first year, 20 teams battled it out; this year the number was 227. Tens of thousands of spectators now pay $6 apiece simply to soak in the ambiance (competitors' barbecue isn't for sale, and the public must settle for vendors' fare). At stake is a lot of money, this year almost $40,000 in cash prizes. The overall champion takes home $10,000, while top finishers receive as much as $5,000. And winners can expect to reap endorsement deals with meat suppliers and charcoal makers.

To ensure fairness, the contest has organized a complex grading system that uses 450 volunteer judges; each of these palates has been educated at an eight-hour seminar on rating barbecued pork. To increase its profile and encourage participation, Memphis in May has even set up a series of satellite barbecue contests all over the South, 55 in all.

Preparation is elaborate. Each team is given a patch of land where it sets up a booth in which to cook, throw parties, relax, sleep and, most important, present its work to the judges. These rigs, as they are called, can be lavish; some have running water, electric fans, built-in cookers and second-floor terraces. It's not uncommon for a team to spend $40,000 or more just putting one together.

When I first arrived, I was, to be honest, disappointed by the magnitude of it all. Memphis in May was clearly no down-home event. Corporate sponsors, including Reynolds and Piggly Wiggly (a southern supermarket chain), had set up promotional trailers. The sponsoring radio station, Froggy 94, had a large tent topped with a giant leering inflated frog, and their sound system blared Top 40. A bungee-jumping concession had set up shop in the center of the park, charging leapers $25 a pop (by Saturday, the price would double). Memphis in May, it appeared, was nothing more than a corporate-sponsored barbecue-flavored street fair.

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But as I roamed the park talking to people, I came to realize that underneath this merchandised surface lay something meatier. The contestants, and their contest, occupied a kind of parallel universe outside the domain of Froggy 94 -- a place devoted to the ideal of the perfectly cooked pig. For them, Memphis in May isn't really about money -- even championship squads end up spending more than they win. For many in Tom Lee Park, Memphis in May, and barbecue in general, is an obsession. As one cook told me: "Once you get into the sweet taste of that pork meat, the sauces and everything, it gets better and better as you learn more and more about it."

Most of the participants were born and raised in the South, grew up eating barbecue, and have been cooking it themselves since they were teenagers. One way to understand these contests, in fact, is as a sort of paean to the Dixie where these men were raised. Not that this South -- small towns, home-cooked meals, close extended families -- doesn't exist anymore. But it's definitely not as prevalent as it once was.

"Everybody 'round here been barbecuing in their back yard forever, every one of em," said Jimmy Blackford, head cook for the Super Swine Sizzlers. A house painter from West Memphis, Ark., a small town just across the Mississippi from Memphis, Blackford was one of the few lean men I met at the contest. "Dad, whoever, somebody in your family'd be doing it; you have family reunions, everybody's barbecuin'."

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(Here, "everybody" means, for the most part, men. Competitive barbecuing is, in general, a middle-aged male pursuit. "It's still only a guy thing 'round where we come from," Blackford says. "Guys get into it. It's just the outdoors, the smoke, that kind of thing." Memphis in May is also primarily white, which is surprising, given that barbecue is a Southern black staple. Why the absence of blacks? For one, it may be the cost of financing a team. But many blacks may also see the contest as a "white" event, one not particularly interesting to them, and also not particularly interested in including them.)

In a way, barbecuing is a simple process. More than anything, it requires patience. You fire up some charcoal or wood, throw on some hog meat, and then let it sit there for a long time. Barbecue is not by any stretch of the imagination fast food. Ribs, the quickest part of a hog to barbecue, require six hours of cooking; a whole hog needs between 22 and 24 hours. The key to barbecuing well, I was told over and over, is "slow and low." The reason: Cooking a hog for hours at a relatively low temperature (somewhere around 225 degrees) liquefies its connective tissue and fat, leaving only tender meat that practically falls from the bone. This method also allows the smoke to penetrate deep into the meat, imbuing it thoroughly with its distinctive flavor.

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But beyond this, the field is wide open for innovation, and every cook has an idiosyncratic theory about how to make great barbecue. The range of ideas is astonishing. Among the strategies I heard about, saw and tasted: smoking the meat before it's cooked; using syringes to inject it with sauce; injecting it with beer; basting it regularly; closing it up in the cooker and not touching it until it's done; wrapping it in aluminum foil; cooking it on a kind of vertical rotisserie; cooking with hickory wood; cooking with apple wood; cooking with the skin on; cooking with the skin off; laying the hog face up; and laying the hog face down.

Every cook also has distinct ideas about spicing. For flavor, Memphis-style barbecue relies not only on tangy sauce, but on a "rub," a mixture of spices kneaded into the pig. Every cook (even those who use store-bought spices straight from the bottle) has an elaborate story about his unique mixture. One man I met sprayed Dr. Pepper and root beer on his ribs -- with, I can attest, surprisingly good results.

I ate a lot of barbecue at Memphis in May. It was a great time to be a journalist. Many of the teams I talked to invited me to taste their product. And on Saturday I hit the mother lode. For the blind tasting, which is a key element in the final score, each team sent a sample to the judges' tent, a Styrofoam platter heaped with pounds of tender, flavorful pork, more than even the most famished judge could finish. Consequently the judging tent was awash in these platters. Packs of hungry volunteers -- and a stray journalist or two -- descended on them like hyenas devouring carrion. The platters were identified by number only, and every so often, a buzz would travel through the pack: Such-and-such number was especially delectable. In minutes, it would be gone, picked clean.

With all this eating, I was getting a gastronomic education. By Saturday, I was beginning to discern the subtle line that divided the uncanny and the merely delicious. I found plenty of connoisseurs happy to tutor me. One of the most articulate was Phil Minyard, a thick-limbed, likable man who has been organizing, judging and entering barbecue contests for 20 years.

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An occupational therapist who lives in Memphis, Minyard was here this year as a competitor, cooking with his wife and son under the name True Blue Barbecue. "You're looking for something that has a little smoke on it," he told me as we sat at a kitchen table under his canopied rig, drinking Pink Penny Pulldowns, a kind of gin-flavored lemonade. "You want enough spice so that it's got that burst of taste to it, but the pork itself has a taste, and you don't want to kill it. That's the worst thing you can do. If you wanna do that, just get somebody a bottle of spice and have 'em chug it."

Even more than with most foods, Minyard said, texture is key: "You wanna be able to pull out a nice piece of meat that you can take and mash with your fingers, and a little liquid runs out. You pull the fibers apart, you see angel hairs, little fine treadles. That means it's tender."

Most cooks are just as obsessed with cookers as they are with the process of barbecuing. This is, after all, a mostly male pursuit, and not surprisingly, machinery plays a central role. Many even design and build their own cookers. Cliff Weddington is typical. Like most participants, Weddington, an amiable 72-year-old auctioneer from Tullahoma, Tenn., grew up in the country, the sort of place where people tend to tinker with machines.

"These here, they're propane running tanks off an old Coca-Cola truck," Weddington told me, pointing to his two rib-filled furnaces. "Coca-Cola converted from propane to just regular gas, and I had a friend that worked at the plant, he got three of 'em, and I made him one for two of the tanks. They got old lawn mower wheels under 'em. Some of it is scrap metal; some of it I bought the metal. I just started welding." Using his homemade cookers, Mr. Cliff, as he is known, came in fourth (out of 84 entries) in the rib category.

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This do-it-yourself spirit pervades the whole event. No one here is a culinary school graduate. "We got to cooking ribs around my shop," said Pat Burke, leader of the Tower Rock BBQ team, "and I said, 'You know, I believe we've got the best ribs I've ever tasted.' We decided: Well, we'll come on down to Memphis, and even if we get 50th place, it'll be great."

That year Burke won his first overall championship. A legendary barbecuer from Murphysboro, Ill. (a pork-producing area that is more Dixon than Mason -- southern Illinois is a barbecue hotbed), Burke, who owns a small construction company, has won three overall MIM championships in the past eight years. In 1994, after winning his second straight championship, Burke retired from the circuit. He returned last year, drawn back, he says, "for the love of barbecue, and the people we met."

I heard sentiments like this more than once. The "circuit," as the nearly year-round series of barbecue contests is known, has created a community of competitive pork cookers. Especially late at night, when the parties have quieted down and at least one person has to stay up tending the meat, people make the rounds. "After midnight, it gets kinda quiet and peaceful," says Marshall Burgess, a longtime competitive barbecuer. "You can walk around and talk to everybody; you don't have all this hassle. You go in and you see how their cookers work, we talk about this and that, how they do this, and how they do that."

The affection extends to the pig itself. Cooks speak of their hogs with an odd fondness, as if the creature were a partner in the undertaking. Whole hog cooks invariably refer to their charges as "he." "He's a pretty hog," Jimmy Blackford told me as he looked tenderly at his entry. If you think about it, though, this attitude makes sense. Spend 24 hours straight with anyone and you'll end up having a personal bond with them.

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Perhaps this affinity explains the fact that a large proportion of people involved in the contest, from officials to judges to contestants to spectators, could be described as, er, meaty. Memphis in May is packed with people who don't seem overly concerned about fat grams. At one point, I was talking with John Willingham, the leader of one of the all-time great teams, Willingham's River City Rooters, when he mentioned that he had gotten into competitive barbecuing after his heart attack, when a doctor recommended that he lower his stress level by finding a hobby. I asked him whether eating large amounts of barbecued pork might not be the best therapy for a heart problem. He became indignant.

"That's a mythical thing," he said, gesticulating unsteadily with his beer. "That's wrong. Pork is the other white meat." At this point, Burgess, Willingham's first lieutenant and one of the beefiest men I met all weekend, chimed in. It was, he suggested, a conspiracy: "It's the beef industry trying to put that over. The way we cook it, we render the fat out of the meat as we cook it. It drips on down."

(I had an odd experience with Burgess: As I was talking with him, I realized that something smelled wonderful. After a few minutes, I realized with a start that it was Burgess himself: This large, sweaty, grease-spattered man smelled delicious, exactly like a pungent pork shoulder. He was permeated with the smell of meat, smoke and spice. It was just wafting out of his pores, and he smelled good enough to eat.)

From Thursday night, when it began, to Saturday morning, Memphis in May often resembled a frat party: loud music blasting from overtaxed speakers, crowds of shirtless guys with beer bellies standing around drinking beer, drunken couples dancing rhythmlessly in public, costume contests featuring hairy men wearing pig snouts, rouge and dresses. But on Saturday morning, the tenor of the park changed dramatically. Saturday was judgment day, when all the hard work hung in the balance. Everything became quieter, cleaner and generally more buttoned-up.

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Starting at 11 a.m., the judges fanned out to meet the teams and taste their pork. Each judge would rate three teams, and each team would be evaluated by three different judges (in addition to the blind tasting). By dusk, there would be three winners, one for each category: ribs, shoulders and whole hog. From those three an overall champion would be chosen.

At the Custom Cookers rig, the sense of tension was as palpable as the smell of smoke. The Custom Cookers were a group of seven friends from the suburbs east of Memphis. Most are employed at a Memphis metalworking shop, Custom Projects. Although it included several contest veterans, the team had been together less than a year, and had never before cooked at Memphis in May. The shop's owner bankrolled the team; he and his employees built the rig themselves, at a cost of $40,000. Like many teams, the Custom Cookers built their rig onto a trailer, which allows them to drive easily to contests outside Memphis. Among its features are a second-floor terrace, three built-in cookers and a soft ice-cream machine. They entertain customers at the contests, but the enterprise is basically a hobby.

"Five minutes!" an official yelled to the team from the walkway, a warning that judgment was imminent. The Custom Cookers huddled around team member John Maki, who was giving a frantic last-minute pep talk. "We know what to do onsite," said Maki, his voice vibrating with adrenaline. "We're the best!" They put their hands together in the center of the circle, and like football players before a big game, shouted in unison.

They had worked for this. Head cook Ron Haney, who would be the emcee during the judge's visit, had his speech memorized. Everyone was dressed in identical uniforms: black knee-length shorts, and short-sleeved white button-down shirts, with first names embroidered above one pocket and Custom Cookers Barbecue Team above the other.

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The table, placed carefully in the shade under a canopy, was laid out in a manner befitting a four-star restaurant, with real china, brass silverware and a clean white tablecloth. The yard was spotless, with no sign of the previous night's partying. To add a distinctive touch, a painting of boats in a harbor had been set up on an easel. Appearance, of the rig, the team and the meat, counts for a sixth of the point total, and in a tight race, this could make the crucial difference.

And then there was the star of the show: the 115-pound pig, who had been cooking for 22 hours and was as ready as he'd ever be for his moment in the spotlight. Surrounded by a garnish of gourds, the glistening whole hog reclined regally in the cooker, calmly awaiting his visitors.

As the judge -- trailed by an assistant whose job it was to guide him around from booth to booth -- came to the gate, the team formed a receiving line to welcome him. Each person greeted him, politely, with a firm handshake and a straightforward gaze. The last person he met was Haney, who led him back to the trailer where the cooker was. As the other members stood silently at predetermined positions around the yard, Haney explained how this particular pig had been cooked to perfection.

Haney had labored over this presentation, running it by team members over and over until everyone was happy with it. He related how he had found the sauce recipe by chance in his grandfather's scrapbook. (When I asked him about this later, he admitted cheerfully to having made this up.) The narrative was designed to impress upon the judge the care and originality with which this pig had been prepared: "We put him in a cellophane bag to sweat him ... If you notice it's got little bits of onion in it ... indirect heat ... We cook him the first six hours at 260 degrees, and then after that for the next 18 at 225 ... score down each side of the backbone to expose the tenderloin, and the smoke can penetrate ..."

Then the moment of truth. Haney led the judge and his assistant to the carefully shaded table. Maki's wife, Connie, brought each man his meal. This was a Manhattan nouvelle chef's version of barbecue: a plate gilded artfully with bits of meat from various sections of the pig. (During the "onsite," judges don't actually eat that much, since they want to save room for their other visits.) When Haney, a barrel-chested retired fireman, poured his homemade sauce onto the visitors' plates, his hands trembled. The team stood around the table, watching silently while the two men ate. If the diners were thirsty, each had a glass of ice water garnished with a slice of lemon. If their hands got too greasy, each had a pink bowl filled with water in which to rinse off. In each bowl was another slice of lemon.

When Taylor had finished tasting, he stood to go. He shook hands again with everyone on the team. "It was an honor," he said. When he left, everyone on the team started cheering and clapping to show their enthusiasm. Once he was outside the gate, team members quickly cleared the table and swept out the yard again. They had five minutes before the next judge arrived.

By evening, it was all over. The Custom Cookers ended up a respectable eighth in the whole hog division, which was won by Pat Burke. The Other Team, a rib-cooking squad from outside Memphis, won the overall championship. When I talked to Haney later, he was philosophical. "The meat was the best we've done. You've got to remember this is the toughest competition of all. That's why I say don't get upset if you don't make the finals."

On Sunday, with the contest over, I was still hungry. Many people had warned me that after I'd experienced a barbecue contest, it would be impossible to enjoy eating at a barbecue restaurant, even one in Memphis. "I've gone to some of the known, famous restaurants, and you will throw rocks at 'em after you try this," Terry Brewer, a veteran judge from Columbus, Miss., told me. To save time and money, she said, barbecue restaurants will cut corners, parboiling their product, or cooking it partially with gas.

I decided to take my chances. My fiancie and I chose Interstate Barbecue, one of Memphis's many known, famous places. An unremarkable storefront on a rundown shopping strip in a black part of town, Interstate, so named because it is near an interstate, offered barbecue without frills or ambiance. We ordered a couple of sandwiches and ate in the car on the way to Graceland.

It was, in a word, delicious. The meat was tender and smoky, and the sauce added a nice little sting. Maybe it wasn't quite as delicious as the best I'd had at Memphis in May (my personal favorite: Burke's sublime apple-smoked pork), but it was still delicious. And it was miles ahead of anything I'd eaten in New York.

Which brings us back east. A few days after we returned home, we went to a birthday party at a downtown restaurant known for its barbecue. Maybe, I thought, it will be like Memphis. As soon as I took my first bite of rib, however, I knew for sure that Memphis was a distant memory. The meat (what there was of it, anyway -- great swaths of rubbery fat took up most of the territory) was glued to the bone. To free it, I had to grip firmly with my front teeth and pull like a ravenous wolf. But why even take the trouble? Slathered with unsubtly sweet sauce, the meat was as tasteless as gruel.

How had this meat been cooked? It wasn't, you can bet, slow and low. I nibbled for a bit, paid my $50 (that's 15 shoulder sandwiches at Interstate -- my new measure for every cost), and went off into the New York night, hungry and disheartened. My fiancie has ruled out moving to Memphis, so I'm making plans to attend judging school.


David Kohn

David Kohn is a producer for CBS.com. He lives in New York.

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