One thing I love about people in New Orleans is the way they treat every seasonal event like a holiday. It's totally normal, even custom, to be greeted with a "Happy Mardi Gras!" "Happy Jazz Fest!" or simply "WHO DAT!" depending on the season. Along with a trunkful of craft beers and several bags of locally-made tortilla chips my husband loves, I've decided to bring the tradition home with me after my most recent trip to that other river city.
So, Happy Barbecue Fest, errrbody!
Though the air feels a little less electric (and a lot less polluted by yellow towel lint) without a Grizzly contribution to downtown's bustle and buzz, this time of year is peak Memphis. Barbecue Fest combines several of my favorite things: people watching, smoked meats, and pig puns galore.
Barbecue Fest is a time to take inventory of personal relationships. It's about catching up with old friends, whom you may not have seen since the last drunken Thursday night spent at the terrifyingly wobbly three-story tent with the slushie machines. It's best to send a text a few days or even weeks in advance so as not to seem too obvious, but there's no room for shame when you're on the prowl for wristbands. Those things are currency more precious than gold. If you can't get into a tent, you might as well stay home. Once, I saw a woman salvage a discarded wristband from the dirt like she was Gollum and the One Ring was forged from a flimsy piece of paper from Oriental Trading Company. Now that's shameless.
Speaking of tents, it's a time to redefine what constitutes a "tent." Fifty-one weeks out of the year, a tent is a 10x10-ish nylon dome you camp in. During Barbecue Fest, a tent is a massive structure with scaffolding, plywood floors, and two flights of steel stairs that ought to require a waiver to climb. Some have nicer televisions with bigger screens than the one in my living room. Some have sound systems that could fill a large nightclub's dance floor with sound.
Barbecue Fest is a time for adventure and stepping out of your comfort zone. Try something new — like an entry in the "Anything But" category! Or a shot of Fireball, poured down an unsanitary block of ice, into the mouths of you and the new best friend you just met. It's a time for hopeful optimism, as you say a quick prayer that the porta potty you choose is suitable for human occupancy.
Sometimes, Barbecue Fest introduces you to a new side of people. You might learn a longtime friend is actually a gifted barbecue chef who's been holding out on you for years. Most people only reveal their drunk side, though. How many of us have watched in bemused admiration as Jane from accounting finally let her hair down after a few Jell-O shots? (Sorry, Jane — you only made me swear I wouldn't tell your supervisor.)
It's a time to create the memories that either last forever, or that are conveniently erased by the combined effects of power-drinking and neglecting to take advantage of the omnipresent pulled pork, ribs, and sausage that comprise the entire raison d'être for that glorious event. Maybe you're on a team, and Barbecue Fest is about finally showing off the results of months spent testing temperatures and tweaking rub recipes. It's about taking a few days off from the 9-to-5 grind of your day job to build a "tent" and enjoy some time down by the river.
I hate to use the term "only in Memphis," but does any of the above sound like a good time anywhere else? Maybe not on paper. But there's something about that view of the river, the aromatic haze that clouds several downtown blocks, and the growing assortment of clever civic-minded bootleg T-shirts. The sight of a lone flip-flop in the mud, left behind by someone who obviously enjoyed her first Barbecue Fest, evokes the comfortable familiarity of home.
So I'm looking forward to seeing y'all down by the river. Or if I don't, remember to check the weather forecast before you head out. Bring toilet paper, just in case. Carefully consider your choice of footwear. Keep tabs on your Jell-O shot/mystery punch/brown liquor/all of the above consumption, and drink some water. Don't forget to eat something: You're surrounded by food, for heaven's sake. Be prepared to spend big bucks on an Uber. It's still cheaper than a DUI. Just take it all in, cut loose, and enjoy yourself. Happy Barbecue Fest.
Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and digital marketing strategist.