Barbecue judging is great, so long as you're hungry, but get full and it becomes a task, torture even. Another rib to eat, some more shoulder to sample, the sight of a whole hog -- gutted, boned, and splayed out, legs akimbo on an elaborately garnished grill -- all become enough to make your stomach turn.
Parking at festivals is always scarce. Sunburns are de rigueur. Sunglasses on, sunglasses off, repetition, monotony. The judges' days are spent under the wedge of shade provided by a sun visor or the bill of a giveaway hat from a prior event. It's an existence of dusty gravel roads, shoddy carnival rides, marginally talented boy bands, and state fair-ish sibling gospel groups. Judges grow to expect the crunchy sound of public-address systems, bad weather, tummy aches, and screaming babies.
And they love it.
Committed barbecue judges live lives of comfortable shoes and farmer tans, Rolaids and palate cleansers. Different towns, different events, sometimes (though not usually) even different teams. Judges move from one weekend to the next, from contest to contest. And this weekend they're here in Memphis for the "Superbowl of Swine," the biggest event of them all -- the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
They've gathered here in Tom Lee Park, over 500 judges and 236 teams, drawn like polar-opposite magnets. On Wednesday, the teams started setting up their tents and assembling their gear. They've come from all over Ze nation. Using word-of-mouth, mailer updates, and a plethora of Web sites to learn of upcoming competitions, they pack up and go -- embarking on the never-ending quest for a more perfect rub, a tangier sauce, and meat that will pull -- but not shake -- off the bone. Despite all the beer and late-T--ght parties, the teams know this is serious business.
Even the teams' tents are impressive. Ranging from ramshackle afterthoughts to elaborate, two-story, lattice-trimmed and wrought-iron-fenced mini-homes, the tents will be the primary residences for many of the team members for the next four days. Come Sunday, they'll tear everything down, pack it up, and start planning for the next event. But make no mistake, this one is the biggie, truly the Superbowl of Swine -- the largest pork barbecue contest in the world and a testament to all the good a hog can do.
"Barbecue fest is one of the best weeks to be in Memphis," says Dan Fain, a motorcycle cop by day and a 20-year veteran judge for the event. "Everyone comes together to eat, drink, and have a good time."
On Wednesday night the park is open only to team members, but on Thursday non-cooking friends can come in, and that's when the party really begins. It's not uncommon for 200 people to be in a single tent at a time, and some of the barbecue teams don't even enter the contest. Rather, some of these "patio teams" just pull low-budget grills out of their garages and drag them riverside so they can be a part of the party. (There is a whole category just for patio teams, though.) There's live music, experimental barbecue, and beer -- lots and lots of beer. Team members feed their friends, listen to Southern rock, and enjoy the last few days of pleasant spring weather before Memphis morphs into the outdoor sauna of summer.
It's said that the Thursday night party tradition began because at least one person would have to stay up all night to watch the meat. Now, some 24 years after the barbecue festival began, Thursday night is a second- and third-winded college party, a chance to stay in the park until 4 a.m., drinking and carousing with several thousand strangers who will soon feel like close friends.
By Friday night, the event is in full swing, but for the teams it's time to get serious. While Thursday was an all-night keg party, Friday is crunch time. Judging begins Saturday morning, and these teams don't spend an average of $2,000 per contest -- even more for Memphis' big-league event -- to lose.
To many Memphians, the barbecue fest is Memphis in May. Forget the adolescent-patchouli-street-mosh of Music Fest; barbecue fest is the pinnacle of the month. But if you don't know the right people -- that is, people on a barbecue team -- it can be no fun at all.
And at times, it's no fun for the judges. They must adhere to somewhat Draconian rules.
"Q"-ing Up To Judge
"The teams want to see your eyes," an event organizer tells the judges at their organizing briefing. "So take off your sunglasses when you go in their tent. You all know the rules: no guests, no cameras, no briefcases, no smoking, no cell phones, no beepers, and no alcohol. Alcohol will kill your taste buds and your attention span. Most of the complaints we get from teams is that one of their judges was drunk."
Under the massive tent, this disjointed fraternity of like-minded souls gathers like flies at a Fourth of July picnic, swarming and buzzing morning greetings to each other. They help themselves to doughnuts and too-hot coffee with no apparent concern that a jelly-filled or chocolate-glazed breakfast might seem like a bad idea when that last plate piled high with steaming shoulder is set before them in a few hours. They're a mixed bag, these judges, and though Monday through Friday their lives are very different, this Saturday they are united in their passion for perfect barbecue.
"I usually fast the night before judging a contest," says Fain. "If you don't eat a lot when you're judging, the teams think you don't like their food."
Not surprisingly, most (though not Fain) seem to be carrying about 40 extra pounds, and a disproportionate number are wearing T-shirts that bear the images of various cartoon pigs. These people don't just eat pork, they live it.
At the briefing the judges are instructed to go over the list of teams they'll be judging to look for potential conflicts of interest.
"Conflicts are not if you partied with the team last night," the judges are instructed, "but if a team member fired you last week. Then you'd have a conflict. Also, if a team offers you a gift, you can't accept it until after the contest."
Most of the judges are white, most are over 40. There's a pretty fair mix of both sexes, and all -- absolutely all of them -- love barbecue with a zeal normally reserved for religious deities. Even so, compared to the zeal shown by the teams they judge, the judges seem positively lukewarm.
For the "On-Site" judging competition, where the judges see the grills and score the teams on presentation, the competitors pull out all the stops. The judges can expect royal treatment. Some teams will bring in window-unit air conditioners just to cool them off. They often will be invited to sit at tables covered in white linens and set with fine china. Some teams even hire professional servers who will offer the judges a choice of wines to accompany their barbecue, though the judges are instructed to shun alcohol while judging.
Each judge arrives at each tent with an "ambassador," another volunteer who will time the judge to ensure that 12 to 15 minutes are spent in each tent. The ambassadors usually won't go in with the judge, and, sticklers that they are, many go out of their way to avoid influencing the judges.
"If Ann [a judge] had even asked me to hold her clipboard or something so that she could finish filling out her form, I'd have to tell her, No, because it could appear that I was trying to influence her," says Mike Case, an ambassador. (Case used to be a judge until his doctor recommended that he quit eating pork due to health problems.)
The head cook will give a separate presentation to each of the three on-site judges. He'll (head cooks are almost exclusively male) tell them about his grill, charcoal, rubs, cuts of meat, cooking times, and sauce. He'll show them the meat still on the grill, typically surrounded by garnish so colorful it looks like a salad bar. Other team members, usually in matching outfits, will hang back, sometimes staying completely out of sight.
"It's fun to listen to their spiels," says Fain, "because none of it has to be true and these people are real enthusiastic. One year, I judged 25 contests -- that's a lot of road trips. Some of the judges are retired or are teachers who don't have to work in the summertime -- they're almost professional."
But judging 25 events in a year is hardly typical. Most judges will go to five to 10 contests a year. However, many of the teams will compete in 25. Twenty-five weekends a year means that these team members devote roughly four of every 10 days to barbecue. And, with the big, corporate-sponsored teams, it's a safe bet that the head cook will spend even his days off experimenting with rubs, sauces, temperatures, and cooking times. For some, barbecue actually is their full-time, year-round job. Contests take place throughout the year, and in some places you'll see the cookers spitting out smoke while surrounded by snow.
The teams' rigs are equally staggering. One competing team has a simple grill made from a converted Memphis Light, Gas and Water oil pipe; another has a $300,000 mobile cooking unit the size of an efficiency apartment. But the amount of money spent on the equipment tends to have no effect on the taste of the meat. Besides, no matter how much gear they have, they haul it all from contest to contest, and when there's no contest to go to, they take their rigs to auto races and tailgate parties. In their customized RVs, towing elaborate cooking rigs from fairground to fairground, the teams live a vagrant life of chemical toilets, keg beer, and 10-years-since-their-last-hit bands. And they wouldn't have it any other way.
With the teams taking "Q" so seriously, it can only be expected that the judges would be equally somber (and sober) during the judging itself. For the privilege of judging the Memphis in May World Championship the judges actually have to pay, plus they have to have graduated from "Barbecue School" and must have already judged three smaller events before they are considered worthy of tackling the Superbowl of Swine.
"Barbecue School" is a one-day seminar on all things pork. Participants are given an anatomy course on pigs: Each cut of meat is laboriously explained, each bone dissected, each classification detailed. They are taught the difference between Spare Ribs, St. Louis-style Ribs, Loin (Baby Back) Ribs, and Country-style Ribs. And that's just the rib-grouping.
The judges are taught how to evaluate each team's entry using six criteria: Area and Personal Appearance of the team; Presentation of the Entry; Appearance of the Entry; the Tenderness of the Entry; Flavor of the Entry; and the judge's Overall Impression of the entry. Likewise, the team gets to score the judge's knowledge, attentiveness, and time spent with them. Each judge must write their Social Security number on their judging ballot and on the ballot the team completes. All of the judges' scores are tallied and recorded. Using specially created software, MIM officials log every score and use the Social Security numbers to track an individual judge's record. If a judge is thought to be "playing God" by scoring one team really high and scoring all the others really low, it's likely that judge won't be invited back.
"Blind Judging" -- judging several numbered entries without knowing which teams prepared them -- influences a team's score more than on-site judging does. The judges know this and take their blind-judging duties even more seriously. No one speaks during blind-judging, and any who do are apt to be shushed. The judges are given paper plates divided into several pie-shaped sections. Each team's entry is placed in a different section and judged using the aforementioned categories. If an entry is served with a sauce or rub, the entry is judged as a whole. No additional points are awarded for serving a sauce or rub.
According to one judge, "If they give you a rub and a sauce then you judge the rub alone, then the rub with the meat, then the meat with the sauce, then just the sauce, then just the meat, then the sauce, the rub, and meat all together."
Judges for the final round have it the best, or the worst, depending on how full they are. These four judges must sample each of the nine finalists: three in the shoulder competition, three in ribs, three in whole hog. They travel from tent to tent by golf cart on Saturday afternoon and have the final word on which teams produce the best barbecued pork in the world.
Of all the barbecue contests sanctioned nationwide by the Memphis in May organization, the one in the Bluff City is the only one where the judges have to pay. But the $30 fee is pretty reasonable considering they'll be munching on the world's best barbecue. With all the time, effort, grade of meat, spices, and sauces the teams put into their product, a single rack of these contest-caliber ribs would cost upwards of $50 in a restaurant.
Besides, the $30 buys an invite to the judges' dinner and it gets them an apron, and in barbecue circles aprons equal credibility. The teams and the judges like to brag about how many aprons they have and from which festivals. Aprons are what separate the amateurs from the pros, and for some of the judges, the apron alone is worth $30.
Likewise, a stroll down "Rib Row" at Memphis' event illustrates that for the teams aprons are more than just silk-screened cloths. They are trophies -- proof that they came, sweated, and sometimes even conquered.
Tom Jenkins, the organizer of Lakeland's Fun Fest and a veteran Memphis in May-sanctioned judge, says that when he first began his Lakeland festival 21 years ago, the primary draw was a 10K "Fun Run."
"But runners don't drink," Jenkins says, laughing. "Runners don't eat the Pronto Pups, and they don't party. They just run and then they leave. We wanted to find something that would draw and keep the crowd and get everyone partying, so we brought in barbecue."
Now with other sanctioning groups springing up all over the country to compete with Memphis in May, people everywhere are coming to Jenkins' realization. There are now sanctioning groups based in Kansas City, Seattle, Texas, and Boston. And each of these regions boasts its own unique events. In Boston, they grill shellfish. In Kansas City, they judge chicken, beef, and pork. And in Texas -- you guessed it -- it's beef. Even here in Memphis, the proverbial sow of all contests, teams can be judged in the "Everything But" category. This often includes exotic meats like ostrich, emu, or as Fain recalls from one year, "a perfectly cooked road-kill possum that no one would eat but everyone agreed should win -- and it did."
Still, despite the competition from other competitions, the Memphis in May trophy is still the most coveted. You might keep that in mind this year when you're walking down Rib Row drinking keg beer courtesy of one team and eating ribs from another. Know that there are people there charged with picking a winner. It's a messy, messy job -- but somebody's got to do it.
Some people can't leave it at putting a pig on the grill. Long before the first flank sizzles, some participants get busy cooking up an outrageous team name. Some of those names are listed below (in alphabetical order). Please note the ingenious use of the double meaning of "pork." Subtly delicious! -- RG
Any Pork in a Storm
Barefoot in the Pork
The Beverly Pigbillies
Eller Swign's Natural Born Grillers
(Makin' Easy Money
Pimpin Hogs In Style)
P-Funk and the Fat Back Allstars
Pigs in Zen
The Pit & Pigulum II
Pork Me Tender
Pork, Sweat & Beers
Snoop Hoggy Hog
Sweet Swine O' Mine
The Ten That Grilled Elvis
Wolves in Pig's Clothing
You Be the Judge
Memphis in May offers several barbecue judging seminars (BBQ School) each year. For more information on Memphis in May-sanctioned events and to learn how to become a judge yourself, go to the Memphis in May Web site, www.memphisinmay.org, or call Pam Hetsel at (901) 525-4611.
Definitions used in Memphis in May-sanctioned events:
Whole Hog -- an entire hog, whose dressed weight is 85 pounds or more prior to the removal of the head, feet, and skin, which must be cooked as one unit on one grill surface. No portion or portions of the whole hog may be separated prior to or during the cooking process.
Shoulder -- the portion containing the arm bone, shank bone, and a portion of the blade bone. The pork ham, considered a shoulder entry, contains the hind-leg bone. Boston butts or picnic shoulders are not valid entries.
Ribs -- that portion containing the ribs and further classified as a spare rib or a loin-rib portion. Country-style ribs are not a valid entry. See below.
Spare Ribs -- the rib section from the belly, with or without the brisket.
St. Louis-style Ribs -- spare ribs with brisket and skirt meat removed.
Loin Ribs (Baby Back Ribs) -- prepared from blade and center sections of the loin.
Country-style Ribs -- prepared from the blade end of the loin. -- RG