Picture this: You arrive in Memphis, Tennessee on a Thursday morning in May. In the airport you see a few quick service BBQ restaurants; Sun Cafe and Interstate. Even though you are quite famished after your 6 a.m. flight, you of course pass these stale airport outlets in favor of the fresh smoked love that Memphis has to offer.
Hailing a cab, you tell your driver to high-tail it downtown. Stepping out of the cab at your hotel, your sinuses are assaulted by the smell of roast pork, spices, and sweet smoke. You walk through the revolving door and into the Grand Lobby of the Peabody Hotel, taking notice of the ducks splashing around in the center fountain, and the tux clad jazz pianist in the bar.
Checking in at your hotel, you can’t help but notice the hazy blue fog drifting and dancing about the alleys and byways of downtown. You drop your luggage and proceed to relive your own version of “Walking in Memphis”, pretending those Nike’s are blue suede, you are walking with your feet 10 feet off of Beale. You grab a “Big Ass Beer” from a vendor on Beale Street, watch the Beale Street Flippers do 27 continuous backward handsprings down the middle of the road; then follow the crowds, and your nose, towards the Mississippi River. Walking down the long brick-clad street, Ole Man River comes into view and so does the crowd. There are about a thousand or so people here, all calmly walking to the gates of what many consider to be the Super Bowl of Swine.
As you walk through the huge gates of the contest, the sweet smell of hickory hangs thick in the air. Over 250 BBQ team booths (some 3 levels tall) line the over one mile long park. Over 100,000 people flock to this Mecca of BBQ every year to eat, drink, and worship at the altar of swine. This is the Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest. Held every year on the third weekend in May, Thursday through Saturday, it is certified by Guinness as the “World’s Largest Pork BBQ Contest.” In three days, over 84 tons of pork are cooked and consumed.
Before founding our Barbecue family, Too Sauced To Pork, many of us cooked on different teams in the contest. We were guests of barbecue teams for many years before that. Some of us on Too Sauced To Pork have been a part of this amazing contest in one form or another for over 25 years
There is one huge drawback to the festival: you can’t buy the competing team’s barbecue. Due to Memphis Health Department regulations, teams are not allowed to sell or give out samples to the general public…BUT…BBQ teams can give food and beverages to “invited guests.” An “invited guest” is defined in the rules as anyone inside the fence of your team booth. There are bbq vendors and a few of them are teams, but the best way to experience this contest is on a team, or at least in a team booth, otherwise you will be on the outside looking in. You can join a team; there are many that offer everyday people a chance to experience this swinetastic soiree. You can also buy a VIP Pit pass, participate in the Kingsford Tour of Champions and judge the teams BBQ, or tour team booths in the Cooker Caravan. But the easiest thing you can do is simply talk to teams, ask us about our smokers, our meat or our process…most of us will invite you in and give you a little tour.
The days are full of contests, 16 different categories over 3 days. The nights are full of raging parties, many of which have huge buffet dinners, DJ’s, light shows, dance floors and multiple bars on multiple stories of a BBQ booth. When I say booth, I know you picture a ten foot by ten foot EZ-up with a table and some smokers. Nope. These monstrosities are larger than most people’s houses. Many are 26 feet wide by 50 feet deep, 1,300 square feet, before you start adding levels to them. Some of these scaffolding-boned portable structures are three stories tall, 3,900 square feet of pure pork party.
Thursday is the Best Booth, Best T-shirt, and the Ms. Piggie Idol contest. First two are self-explanatory, the third is, well, more complicated. Performers wear elaborate costumes, many featuring full-figured men in pig drag, singing porked-up versions of popular songs. Winners have included “Rib in a Box,” “Grills, Grills, Grills,” “Sweet Swine O’ Mine,” and the “Swine Warp.” The best time to connect with teams is on this day. Go around and ask about their cookers. No team can resist showing off. Awards are in the early evening and then a band is called in to finish out the night.
Friday is chock full of competition cooking with the ancillary division contests. Categories include Tomato, Mustard and Vinegar Sauces; meat categories which include Beef, Poultry, Exotic, and Seafood, as well as the Hot Wings contest. A band plays before the awards, and then another after.
Many cooking teams throw down the party on Thursday but are very much reserved on Friday night in anticipation for Saturday’s turn-ins. Of course that is just the cooking crew, about five people. The rest of the team, up to 200 members for some teams, live high on the hog and party till the cops shut them down for quiet time at midnight.
Saturday dawns with the reverence of a Sunday morning Baptist church. There are no loud stereos, no parties, and no sign of the Carnival-like atmosphere of the previous days. This is the Church of Cochon.
Today we celebrate and piously reflect upon the main pork categories of Ribs, Shoulder, and Whole Hog. Every team has a blind box to turn in, and three onsite judges to schmooze. Booths are dolled up prettier than a 5th Avenue fine dining restaurant. Silver platters hold racks of ribs, exotic lettuces and fruits ornately decorate grilles and smokers, and you could even spot a team or two wearing tuxes, and greeting judges with a maitre d’.
After all is said and done the long wait begins. Only three teams from each category make the finals. We all wait for a smiling guy in a golf cart to attach a sign to your fence, signaling you are a finalist. When this happens, a hueg cheer erupts, then you go into panic mode. That sign means four judges are coming to your booth to judge your pork.
Fast forward to 6:30 p.m. Everyone gathers at the main stage for the awards. The MC comes on and announces 10th through 1st place. If you didn’t final, you pray for 4th-10th, each prize a huge honor in a field of 250.
I love this contest, one of the highlights of my year, because of the excitement, pure and simple. Where else can you find a BBQ contest two football fields wide and a full mile long with the majestic Mississippi as a backdrop? Where else can you meet BBQ enthusiasts from across the globe, like the Danish national BBQ team, Norwegian national BBQ team, or the Black Pig team from Canada? Where else can you rub hoofs with some of the best in BBQ, people like Myron Mixon, Melissa Cookston, Johnny Trigg, Tuffy Stone, Moe Cason, the Orrisons, and Chris Lilly, just to name a few.
Every year, as that warm orange sun sinks into the Big Muddy, casting its amber hues over 100,000 swine worshippers, competitors reflect upon its beauty with true reverence. Dreams are realized and shattered here, blood and tears are spilt, deep friendships are cemented, and lifelong dreams are granted. There is no place on earth like Memphis in May.