When it comes to competitive barbecue contests, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is one of the big daddies. Last month more than a hundred thousand visitors descended upon Tom Lee Park alongside the Mississippi River to watch over 250 teams compete for over $110,000 in prize money at the 36th edition of the contest. I was lucky enough to be “embedded” with two competition teams for the week preceding the final judging on Saturday. While Memphis in May is a super event for barbecue aficionados to see some of their heroes as well as upstart teams cook for the big bucks, the most interesting stories take place inside the team tents, often during the late night and early morning hours when visitors aren’t allowed in the park. Pull back the tent flap and take a look inside>.
“When we came up with the name, we all agreed to cut off one of our legs to show our dedication to the team. I went first. Guess the joke’s on me…” The truth is that Bringle lost his leg to cancer while he was a teenager, but with his special replacement limb wrapped in a fiberglass sheath tattooed with images of pigs, it would be unwise to bet against him in an ass-kicking contest.
Bringle’s team of helpers trickled in over the course of the middle of the week, but when the back-breaking work of setting up the compound took place during the heat of Wednesday and Thursday, there were only about eight of us to handle the labor. A heavy newly fabricated smoker had to be rolled into position next to the larger trailer rig where most of the cooking took place and several coats of paint were applied to dress up their prototype cooker, which they hoped to sell more of after the event.
Metal shelves were assembled and stocked with pantry supplies in a very specific system. Or rather in four very specific systems since each volunteer seemed to have his own best idea as to where the vinegar and duct tape should be stashed. Part of the crew set about decorating the tent for visits by sponsors, friends, other competing teams and most importantly the judges on Saturday. This meant hanging pictures of team members and family on the walls, assembling a white picket fence complete with potted plants across the front opening of the tent and stringing festive Christmas lights along the ceiling. A 20-foot salad bar was also rolled into the middle of the tent, but more on that later…
Suddenly after several hours of back-breaking work, Bringle suddenly called out, “Boys, we’ve got some river watching to do,” and folding chairs were dragged out in front of the tent to sit alongside the pathway that featured a beautiful view of “The Old Man.” Two wireless microphones were also produced and the p/a system inside the tent was cranked up to eleven to share the Peg Leggers Spotify mix of ass-kicking Southern music with passers-by and to allow Bringle to provide a running commentary of the action like an acerbic clown in a dunking booth at the fair.
After a few hours of people watching and cooking an amazing meal of impossibly thick strip steaks for the team members, Bringle jumped on his motorized scooter to pay a quick visit to some of his favorite competing teams and make his way up the bluff to his hotel room in downtown Memphis.
The other team that I was working with was probably better known by most readers, if not necessarily within the world of barbecue. They were certainly better financed and accommodated. The Fatback Collective is the brain child of Nick Pihakis and Drew Robinson of Jim n’ Nick’s Bar-B-Q, John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and Donald Link, a James Beard Award-winning chef out of New Orleans. Jim n’ Nick’s is a very successful and well-run barbecue chain based out of Birmingham, AL and a big supporter of the SFA. As part of that support, the assembled crew decided over glasses of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon that they might be able to assemble a super-team of chefs and pitmasters to change the way that the world of competitive barbecue looks at cooking pigs, especially heritage breed hogs.
The team they put together included the four organizers plus a team of renowned chefs: Stephen Stryjewski, Link’s business partner from New Orleans, John Currence from Oxford, MS, Sean Brock of Charleston, SC, Ryan Prewitt from Herbsaint in New Orleans, Ashley Christensen from Raleigh, NC and Rob McDaniel from Lake Martin in Alabama. The team recognized that they needed some experienced pitmasters to teach these great chefs the way of the fire, so they recruited three of the best, Pat Martin from Nolensville, TN, Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC and Rodney Scott from Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC. Finally the roster was filled out with interested friends and family members like Pihakis’s son Nicholas, Edge’s son Jess and respected rancher Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, GA. Grantland.com writer Wright Thompson was added as the official scribe of the operation.
There was no doubt that this group could cook, and in fact they had finished in third place last year in their first attempt at cooking a whole hog in competition. The pressure to move up in the standings was enormous, but you couldn’t tell it by looking at their tent area on Wednesday night. In fact, there was no tent at all as wires had gotten crossed between the team and the contractors who were supposed to assemble the site at what had been named “Camp Fatback.”
After several heated phone calls, what looked like a team from the Corps of Engineers descended upon the Fatback Collection’s designated area and worked all night under bright construction lights to erect a very handsome and commodious site to cook and play over the next few days. But as of midnight with only a short bit of fencing and some flooring completed, Sam Jones (who’s always good for a quote) described the site this way, “I thought we were setting up a petting zoo or something.”
Thursday morning arrived sooner than anyone hoped for, especially the workers who had been busting ass all night on the Fatback camp. But soon enough, decoration and organization began in earnest in the large tent. The group actually had a stylist who created a comfortable version of a campsite, complete with cots to rest on, a crafts table where visitors could make personalized leather bracelets and draw pictures to decorate the walls and a fully stocked bar complete with full time bartenders. Funny, I don’t remember that last detail at Camp Whippoorwill.
Competitors were required to attend cooks’ meetings in the morning for each category that they intended to enter. There they learned the timing of food inspection to ensure that their meat was stored at safe temperatures and had not been marinated in advance, judging procedures including the sequence of visits from three different judges and the scoring system. The final detail was a mass synchronization of watches with the official Memphis in May competition clock to ensure that entries would not be turned in late. For most competitors like Bringle, this was all old hat, but the Fatback team was still learning their way around the ropes and took copious notes.
Most of Thursday was spent entertaining and feeding VIP visitors and patrons who had purchased a “Pit Pass” that allowed access to the inner sanctums of some of the team tents. During the course of the day, members of the Fatback team began to descend on Memphis and Tom Lee Park from around the south, like the Superfriends being summoned to Justice League Headquarters. There were lots of hugs between old friends as plans for the weekend were shared with team members.
John Currence was a steadfast presence for the team, despite the fact that he had to return to Oxford on Thursday night to preside over the weekend-long 20th birthday celebration of his restaurant City Grocery. Fortunately Johnny Snack made some big bad chicken livers for all assembled in the Fatback tent before he left. Surrounded by a constant stream of delicious food being prepared and laid out by these amazing chefs, sometimes it seemed like Sean Brock’s sleeve tattoo of vegetables represented the only legumes in the tent.
Three Fatback team members who were taking the planning procedures in stride were the pitmaster law firm of Martin, Scott and Jones. The team actually had plans to cook three different hogs on Friday and Saturday, so the talents of this trio were definitely expected to be crucial.
In the late afternoon, Nick Pihakis gathered a traveling party of Fatbackers to visit some of the booths of their competitors. The group stopped by the tents of notable pitmasters like Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson’s award winning restaurant in Decatur, AL and Brad Orrison of The Shed in Ocean Springs, MS. As the large group crowded into their competitors’ tents that weren’t nearly as large as Camp Fatback, the atmosphere was still convivial, even as friends began to parley and Pihakis peppered Lilly with requests for advice.
Lilly was very open with his suggestions about cooking methods and sauces, but I imagine he was holding back more than a little bit when it cane down to the details. When the Fatback Collective made their way to the Peg Leg Porker’s tent it was after dark by the time worlds collided.
Remember that salad bar? It has quite a reputation around Memphis in May. During the day, it serves as a convenient place to put out trays of succulent pulled pork shoulder meat and tangy slaw and beans as side dishes for visitors who drop into the tent for a quick bite. But at night, that salad bar becomes the base for the biggest rolling party at Memphis in May: The Peg Leg Ice Luge.
Bringle stores the salad bar on the driveway of his suburban Nashville home, much to the consternation of his wife and most probably his neighbors. “Three hundred and sixty days of the year that thing’s an eyesore, but here in Memphis it’s a damned rock star!” It doesn’t hurt that the Peg Leg team is sponsored by Jim Beam, so a seemingly endless supply of bottles of various liquor products were available to be poured down the trench that the team carved into a huge block of ice into the waiting mouths of anyone game enough to participate.
Invitations to the Ice Luge party have been extended to friends of the team, but most of them knew about it anyway. Ad hoc invitations were also offered via Bringle’s Mr. Microphone set-up to various comely barbecue fans taking a passeggiata along the river that might happen to bring them within range of the tent.
At 8:30, to the strains of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Bringle donned his signature shortie Dickie jumpsuit and climbed onto a folding chair astride the top of the luge while team members turned on the disco lights and push the salad bar to the front of the tent. Members of the Peg Leg team took the first ceremonial ice-cold shots of Beam poured down their gullets by their captain. In truth, the shots were pretty small, and the atmosphere and pumping music did more to excite the giddy crowd than the cumulative effect of a couple of turns at the bottom of the luge. Yes, I’m speaking from experience, I was a team member, remember?
Apparently in past years, this party was even wilder with more of a Mardi Gras attitude encouraging young ladies to share their “assets” while partaking of the luge. The guys still talked a good game, and piles of bills were stacked on the top of the ramp as a bounty for anyone willing to flash. In the end, it was pretty much a PG13 event with less exposure than a New Orleans balcony on Easter Sunday. One enterprising young lady did look at the $160 freezing to the ice and looked over her shoulder at her boyfriend standing behind her. He shrugged his shoulders and nodded, whereupon she gave a quick flash that the Mythbusters would have needed their high-speed camera to spot, grabbed the money and left the tent. General consensus was that everyone hoped they had a nice dinner out somewhere in town with their ill-gotten gains.
There were definitely members of the Fatback team at the bottom of the luge taking their turns, and in one case on top of the luge serving as a replacement pourer for Bringle. For at least a couple of hours, competitors let their guards down and remembered what good friends the Southern chef community was. Who had won previous Memphis in Mays and who was a James Beard winner was ignored in the name of camaraderie and the spirit of a damned good time. But deep down, everyone knew that on Friday the real work would begin.
Friday: Shit Gets Serious
Several members of the Peg Leg Porkers slept in the tent overnight on Friday, partially to guard the cooking equipment but mainly because they didn’t actually have a hotel room or the energy to make it up the hill to downtown Memphis after the evening’s festivities. As dawn broke a few souls took a quick bath in an inflatable kiddie pool which a nearby team had set up in front of their tent to stay cool during the hot days. Others simply took what they called “a golden shower.” Not the obscene x-rated event you might be thinking of, a Memphis in May golden shower is simply puffing a cloud of Gold Bond Medicated Powder in the air and walking through it to soak up the sweat and the grime that had accumulated from a few days of mid-south humidity.
By Friday, Tom Lee Park smelled like a frat house floor, but busy sanitation workers had at least managed to clean up the mountains of trash which had accumulated outside many of the tents overnight. Apparently, the Peg Leggers weren’t the only folks who threw a helluva party for friends and family the night before. The most important shoulder sandwich bribe of the day turned out not to be for a competition judge. A plate of tasty barbecue presented to the guys who pumped out the Port-O-Lets assured an extra visit for clean up every day.
Friday was the first real competition day, and the morning was spent cleaning up the detritus and dressing the tent for judges’ visits on Saturday. So much of competition barbecue cooking is about timing. When smoking a pork shoulder, the internal temperature will rise slowly to about 160 degrees and plateau there for hours while the internal fats render out and flavor the meat. Teams want that to happen as gently as possible, so vigilance is critical. After the fat is mostly rendered out and the collagen begins to break down, the temperature can quickly spike. At about 185 degrees, the pork should be perfect for pulling into the delicious strands of meat that typify perfect barbecue. Above that temperature, the meat can quickly turn gray and tough, so the fine line between perfect pork and inedible jerky is a matter of precise attention.
With many ancillary categories such as poultry, tomato and vinegar sauces, hot wings, seafood and “exotic” all coming due for judge turn-in with a couple of hours on Friday afternoon, the action around the smokers was like a complicated dance as meats went on and came off the grills as teams sought to minimize the time that the smoker doors were open, which would let out the crucial flavoring smoke.
Peg Leg Team captain Carey Bringle often allows other team members and sponsors to prepare their own dishes for these ancillary categories as he concentrates on the pork shoulder which is the team’s official entry into the Championship division. The Peg Leg Porkers intended to enter the poultry, hot wings, seafood, sauce and exotic categories. When I asked him what his exotic entry would be, he replied, “I don’t know yet. We might have to run to Publix or something.” Seat of the pants cooking at its best.
Over at Camp Fatback, the plans for the exotic division were much more concrete. As the only category that they planned to enter on Friday, the team members were concentrating on a truly special piece of meat. Craig Rogers runs Border Springs Farm in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. There he produces some of the most delicious lamb available and is a favorite among the chef members of the Fatback Collective who have bestowed him with the nickname “Shepherd.”
Rogers brought one of his finest specimens of lamb for the team to prepare in a very special way. Many of the team members took a field trip to Uruguay last year as part of a cultural exchange to learn the asado cooking methods that local cooks use to prepare whole steers. The team constructed a steel cross asado device over an open pit at the back of Camp Fatback and mounted the beautiful lamb crucifixion-style for a dramatic presentation. The lamb cooked slowly over the fire under the watchful eyes of the master chefs and pitmasters of the Fatback Collective until it produced what they agreed was some of the most succulent and flavorful meat they had ever tasted.
Ultimately, the exotic category was won by a team named Crosstown Neighborhood Barbecue who submitted a dish they called “Rat Bastards,” basically a cheese-stuffed jalapeño pepper wrapped with bacon and grilled. Apparently it is possible to overthink some of these categories.
Teams cooking in the whole hog category needed to get their big pigs on the smoker by at least noon on Friday in order to ensure that they would have at least 24 hours before their trial by fire. Some teams cooking whole hog for the first time were puzzled figuring out the logistics of wrestling a 150-lb. carcass covered in slippery sauce and rub through the door of their smoker which seemed so big when the designed it.
The Fatback Collective had plenty of manpower and experience thanks to their pitmasters who cook as many as twenty hogs a day in their own restaurants. One hog was positioned on the asado frame, while one each was placed in Pat Martin’s smoker and the Jim n’ Nick’s competition rig. Then began the serious business of sauce selection.
Each chef and pitmaster member of the Fatback team contributed at least one sauce to the trial. With three hogs all cooking using slightly different methods, the desired taste profile was still up in the air at cooking time. The chefs met around a large table to taste each sauce and their talented palates led the way through a spirited discussion about what they individually liked and what the judges might ultimately prefer. After much deliberation, a preliminary decision was made by the Collective, with the fallback position that they might change their minds when they tasted the pork when it finally came out of the fire.
The rest of the day was spent feeding VIP visitors and sponsors to both the Fatback and Peg Leg tents. After three days of wandering around the complicated maze of tents and booths with landmarks that were so hard to distinguish between since every team has some punny name referring to pork or pigs, the best solution was just to keep walking around and soaking up the sights and sites until you lucked upon your ultimate destination.
Taking the direct route from point A to point B would have denied me from discovering that the preferred artists of choice among competition barbeque cookers soundtracks are definitely Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown. And I might have missed the entertaining sight of a few miscreants driving golf balls off of the levee into the Mississippi until they were shut down by a Coast Guard boat cruising by.
Teams knew that they would be up all night tending to their smokers and meat, so the partying on Friday was at least a little more subdued. But jello shots did emerge at the Fatback tent as experienced chefs engaged in some juvenile silliness to take the edge off of the day of judgment that was coming on Saturday. Sleep, when it came, was fitful at best.
Saturday: Judgment Day
Even more so than on Friday, Saturday was all about timing. If the fire is too hot, your meat may be ready too soon or it may be overcooked, ensuring a dry, stringy offering for the styrofoam trays which go to the blind judging in the massive tent near the main stage. Conversely, if teams tried to time things too exactly, they might be faced with undercooked pork which is a non-starter in competition barbecue.
The morning was spent tidying up the team tents (again!), but for real this time. After the blind judging, each team would be visited by three judges, each making their own individual trip to three tents like Diogenes seeking the ultimate barbecue truth. The appearance of the cooking area and the presentation of the meat is an important part of the final score, so teams scurried around, tidying up and rearranging furniture like a college student before parents weekend.
The cleaning process was made more difficult by the fact that most team members were working on only a few hours of sleep after an evening of firewatcher duty. Tablecloths were spread across empty kegs to make end tables, and at one point the Peg Leg Porker team made the brilliant decision to simply roll their new smoker into the middle of the tent and drop a fake canvas wall behind it to hide all their junk.
Meat must be presented to the judges on the grill, and the Peg Leg rig was difficult to access at the very back of their cook site behind the pantry. So this was a much better solution than trying to maneuver around with the judges, who might very well be older or, shall we say, full-figured thanks to their affection for barbecue.
At the judging tent, volunteers waited to see if they had been selected for blind judging in the tent or would be making the site visits. Both positions had their advantages. If you were a blind judge, you probably got to taste more great meat and could participate in more categories. On-site judges, however, were treated to the pig and pony show where they were applauded by the team upon entering and exiting the tent and given the royal treatment while they sat at the table to taste the pitmasters’ wares.
The judge presentations were choreographed but not necessarily rehearsed. Carey Bringle was a master at the process, having competed in numerous competitions and given his spiel to many barbecue fans who visited his tent or who he encountered at catering gigs. His easy style and Southern charm made him a natural as he asked and answered questions about the judges’ preferences and even happened to mention that his sauce, rub and not to mention the smoker right in front of you are all available for purchase.
Over at the Fatback Collective tent, the tension was rising as final preparations were made. With no established team leader with the judge presentation experience of Bringle, the team decided on Pat Martin and Ashley Christensen to be their primary spokespeople. The plan was for Martin and Christensen to greet the judges like Ward and June Cleaver at the front of the tent and show them around the cooking area. After introducing them to all the team members, Martin and Christensen would sit down at a picnic table and share their passion for heritage hogs and traditional cooking methods.
Of the three hogs that the Fatback Collective cooked, Donald Link’s asado-style pig was intended mainly for show and to feed the team at a banquet after the awards ceremony. The real competition pig was going to come from either the Jim n’ Nick’s rig or Martin’s smaller smoker. In the end, the team selected the pig from the big rig. They stood around and picked meat from various parts of the animal to build the perfect box for judging, and their eyes rolled back as they commented on the depth of flavors and textures that they had drawn out of the pig. After another quick team consultation, a final sauce preparation was chosen to accompany the meat.
Bringle’s decisions were much more autocratic, including the last-minute application of a spicy-sweet Asian glaze. “Sometimes we just make this shit up as we go.” Pulling a single shoulder for judging is much less time-consuming than picking a whole pig, but the Peg Leg team exercised just as much care. Memphis in May judges have very particular opinions about fat to meat ratios and the flavor profile of championship-winning sauces, so experience counts. “It’s a crap shoot,” said Bringle. “You can think that you have the winning entry, but then some random judge in a tent somewhere can decide that they just don’t like your style.”
The potential capriciousness of the judges began to weigh on the Fatback Team as they awaited their judges’ visits. Where last year their first effort thrust them into the finals, it was beginning to sink in that they could do everything exactly the same way this year, or even better, and still not finish higher in the standings. The pressure started to mount on Martin as he powered down a frosty can of liquid courage and cranked up a few songs by his musical muse, Waylon Jennings, to pump himself up. In deference to nearby teams that weren’t as rambunctious as the Fatback Team, eventually the music was turned off and Martin declared himself ready.
Bringle charmed all three of the judges that visited his tent, and they all seemed to leave happy and no longer hungry. Even after the visits were over, there was no time to relax or celebrate since competitors do not know for about an hour if they have made the finals. As much as teams would have like to finally let their hair down after a tense day, the possibility of one more visit from three finalist judges necessitated that the tent remain clean and set for one more presentation. So there was nothing to do but sit in front of the tent and watch the river roll by while waiting for a visit from a golf cart from the judges’ tent to notify the three lucky finalists. Perhaps some beer was drunk too.
The cart stopped two tents to the left of the Peg Leg Porkers to give the Red Hot Smokers the happy news. Their cooking area was already festooned with trophies, so this was no surprise. The Peg Leggers could still hear the cheers from the finalists as the golf cart moved past without slowing on their way to deliver the finalist notification to another team. “Well, that’s it boys,” consoled Bringle. They may not have won the category, but they didn’t lose the party.
Eventually, it was their neighbors at the Red Hot Smokers tent that brought home the huge trophy in the pork shoulder division. Even though they finished a very close second in the preliminary round of judging, their performance in the final presentation apparently was enough to vault them over The People’s Republic of Swina.
At Camp Fatback, the first judge arrived at the tent and walked through a receiving line of applauding Jim n’ Nick’s employees and friends of the team. She was a small woman whose entire hand was swallowed up by Martin’s hearty handshake. The judge was very quiet and seemed a little bit uncomfortable as she was introduced to all of these celebrated chefs who were standing around the smokers and the flaming flying asado pig. While she might not have known the details of the cooking resumés of the team members, there was no mistaking the passion they felt for the process or the care that they had put into the preparation of the best possible whole hog.
When she sat down at the table with her hosts, the judge talked very little and asked few questions, preferring to nibble at small bits of the lovely plate that had been presented in front of her. Martin preached about the importance of supporting local farmers and the reverence that the entire team felt toward the protectors of heritage hog breeds like Berkshires and Mangalitsas. Christensen was softer in her interaction with the judge, but neither of them could read her experienced judge’s poker face. After using up all of her allotted visit time, the judge retreated timidly and quickly from the tent while the team rushed around resetting the tableau and making quick adjustments to their sales pitch. None of the Fatback Collective members noticed the woman standing in the shadow of a tree just outside the tent flaps with her head bowed over her judging sheets scrawling notes and entering her scores. I saw her working and immediately decided that her vibe was not good.
After two more judges’ visits, the Fatback team found themselves in the same waiting game as the Peg Leg Porkers had been in an hour earlier. Nerves had been replaced by relief and pride in a job well done, but everyone was still scanning for golf carts in their peripheral vision. A buffet of Gus’s Spicy Fried Chicken was quickly set up, and team members, volunteers, friends and family gorged themselves on the delicious crispy poultry.
I asked Sean Brock what he was thinking. He said, “all of us together could not have made that pig taste better than it did, and that’s amazing.” The Fatback Collective was assembled with the specific purpose of promoting the use of heritage hogs, cooking the most delicious pig that they could and to have a helluva good time while accomplishing the first two charges. In the end, they certainly succeeded at all three.
Unfortunately, they did not improve on last year’s finish in the Whole Hog category at Memphis in May, or even make the finals again. They finished 14th out of 38 teams, but only a few points out of the top 10. Melissa Cookston and her Yazoo Delta Q team won Whole Hog for an incredible third year in a row. Clearly, Cookston knows what the judges are looking for. The members of the Fatback Collective promise that they will return to see if they can figure that out next year. Don’t bet against them.