Back in January, USA Today told the rest of the country something people around here have known for decades: Memphis In May is the best barbecue competition in America.
Other competitions may have size on our swine soirée, but competitive cookers say Memphis has that "something" that makes it the undoubted, unrivaled Super Bowl of barbecues.
It's formally called the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC). Locals call it "Barbecue Fest" or, simply, "barbecue." (As in, "Are y'all going to barbecue tonight?")
At its heart, WCBCC is a competition. Each team is judged on their food, of course, but judges also score them on the decorations of their tents, T-shirts, and a series of on-site visits where judges are expected to be wooed with hospitality. Winners get bragging rights, a big-ass trophy, and, of course, a slice of the $110,000 prize money.
But Barbecue Fest is more than a competition. It's a way for friends, families, companies, unions and more to stay in touch, unwind, and network. It's also a pep rally for one of America's oldest traditions.
The competition will also tout a touch of celebrity this year. The Destination America television show BBQ Pitmasters has given competitive barbecue a national profile. Myron Mixon, the outspoken show judge and author, will field his team, Jack's Old South, at WCBCC. So will show contestants Peg Leg Porkers, 10 Bones BBQ, and Central Smokers, the team from Memphis favorite Central BBQ.
We caught up with three teams on the WCBCC roster to just ask why (and how) they'll be smoking on the river this year.
For the Love of the Game
This is the year Killer Hogs will win it all at Memphis In May.
That's how Malcom Reed sees it. It's a dream for his team that is steeped in pit master braggadocio, of course. But it's a goal backed up with years behind the grill, a primed-and-practiced game plan, and Reed's gift of gab when it comes to courting judges (his favorite part of the contest).
The Killer Hogs competition schedule has taken the Southaven-based barbecue team to Kentucky, Mississippi, and other parts of Tennessee already this year, and they've placed in every single one. But Reed wants that Memphis In May trophy.
"When you win at Memphis, you're automatically on top, the best in the world for cooking barbecue," Reed said. "There's other sanctioned bodies that have the American Royal BBQ Contest, and the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue, and Houston has theirs but they don't compare to the pork that's cooked at Memphis In May on that third weekend."
It's the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup, "the big show," Reed said, and anybody who's anybody in the sport of barbecue wants to win it. And, yes, Reed calls it a sport.
"I don't know if ESPN would call it a sport, but down here, we take it pretty seriously," he said with a laugh.
Reed made the head-first dive into full-time barbecue a few years ago. It was a now-or-never move for the former commercial architect who now runs the Killer Hogs website, another called How To BBQ Right, making and selling Killer Hogs rubs and sauces (even in the Netherlands), and running barbecue cooking classes with his brother, Waylon, and Mark Lambert, pit master from 2013 WCBCC champion team Sweet Swine O' Mine.
Killer Hogs gets plenty of practice by competing in about 30 contests a year. But getting to WCBCC is hard work, Reed said, and takes months of planning. Also, tents, scaffolding, cookers, meat, entry fees, drinks, decorations, and everything else get expensive, he said, and his team offsets the cost by cooking dinners and lunches for clients during the event and after it.
But Reed will keep on doing what it takes. He loves the sport, and Memphis In May is the biggest event and the one closest to his heart. He's hoping his team's hard work this year will pay off and that they'll at least hear their name called on the stage on Saturday night. But he's already planned for more than that.
"We're due to win it all this year; I've already told everybody," Reed said with a big laugh. "I've already worked on my acceptance speech. It's Killer Hogs' year. It's got to be."
For the Fraternity of the Flame
Fire House 5 has competed at WCBCC just about as long as the contest has been around.
It's the house team for the Memphis Fire Fighters Association, and the union's vice president, Joe Norman, thinks this is the team's 36th year to compete.
For them, it's not all about winning barbecue glory — hearing their name called on Saturday and walking across the stage to get a trophy. The contest gives the union an opportunity to entertain its membership, their friends, and their families.
"We don't travel the barbecue circuit," Norman said. "These are your [Memphis] firefighters. They're down there [cooking at WCBCC] for a few days, and then they're right back to the fire station."But that doesn't mean Fire House 5 doesn't compete. The squad of volunteer pit masters usually takes vacation days during the contest so they can put forth a full competitive effort, Norman said. The team has traveled to contests in Atoka and Covington, but Memphis In May is the only one they do consistently, Norman said.
And getting to Memphis In May is no small feat. Cooking on the river in May begins with an entry deadline in early March that comes with a fee as high as $4,300 this year.
Planning begins almost immediately, Norman said. Meat has to be purchased. Scaffolding and tents have to be ordered. Ice machines and port-a-potties have to be delivered. Then there's ordering food, drinks, paper goods, tables, chairs, and enough adult beverages to fill a pond (including 120 cases of beer last year, Norman said).
But it's worth it for the firefighters union. For that much work, it has to be.
"It really gives us an opportunity to unwind for a few days, and then it's back to business as usual," Norman said.
For International Acclaim
Giovanni Dorati's road to the WCBCC began in Panama City — the one in Panama, not Florida.
Each year, Memphis In May organizers find a chef or team from the year's honored country and invites them to compete in the WCBCC against the powerhouse pig smokers from the U.S.
But if those American pit masters were based in Panama, they'd have their eyes fixed on Panama BBQ Fest, a contest that Dorati and his team, Panama Knock-Out Competitive Cooking Team, have placed in consecutively over the past three years.
Dorati and his team have been training for the Panama contest (and now the WCBCC) for the past four months. Yes, he calls it "training," and that's likely because he applies the same discipline to cooking as he does to boxing. When he's not training for barbecue contests, or running his Buns 'n Burger food truck franchise, Dorati hits the gym as part owner of Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran's Boxing Academy.
"We've seen [the WCBCC] on TV and other social media," Dorati said. "We even used to joke about entering and how cool it would be to enter and represent Panama in such an event."
While he's here, Dorati hopes to pick up pointers on technique, patience, and "of course, style" from Memphis cooks, who he said have a reputation for being some of the "most inventive and resourceful cooks."
But he's also going to bring the diverse Panamanian culture with him.
"That is what we hope to accomplish, bringing out some of that mixed and diverse cuisine — fusion cuisine — that Panama has to offer," Dorati said.
Panamanian barbecue contests have been heating up over the past few years, he said, with more teams each year. A video from the Panama BBQ Fest last year will look familiar to anyone at WCBCC — cookers, aprons, slowly cooking meat, and beers, of course.
"[WCBCC] is definitely another league, and we are deeply honored for the opportunity," Dorati said.
The ABCs of BBQ Fest
* Official name: Memphis In May
World Championship Barbecue
* Founded: 1978
* 1978 entry fee: $12
* 2014 entry fee: $500-$4,300
* 1978: 26 teams
* 2014: 250-300 teams
* Original location: Beale and Main (parking lot in front of the Orpheum Theatre)
* Current location: Tom Lee Park
* Guinness World Record: "Largest barbecue-cooking competition in the world" (1990)
* Main categories: pork ribs, pork shoulder, and whole hog
* Other categories: beef, poultry, seafood, hot wings, and "exotic"
Sauce categories: tomato, mustard, vinegar
* 2013 clean-up costs: $65,000
* 1978 prizes: about $900
* 2014 prizes: more than $110,000
* 1978 attendance: about 5,000
* 2013 attendance: about 70,000
A Newbie's Guide to WCBCC
Official name: Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
Local name: Barbecue Fest, or just "barbecue"
What's cooking? Pork shoulders, ribs, whole hog, chicken wings, beef, and more
Eating barbecue: Health codes prohibit barbecue teams from sharing their food with the general public. So, buying a ticket does not ensure you'll eat any barbecue. To party with a team, you have to know someone on a team.
General admission tickets: $9.25, children do not get in free
V.I.P.it Pass: $425 gets you admission, a barbecue guide, invitations to hang with six teams, drinks, snacks, a private party area, and more. $525 gets you all this and nearby parking privileges.
Wanna eat like a barbecue judge? The Kingsford Tour of Champions lets you taste pork shoulder entries on Thursday and Friday. Also, you'll get insider information on barbecue judging. Cost is $12 on top of general admission.
Getting around: Team tents have addresses that begin with either R (for ribs), H (for whole hog), and S (for shoulder). Rib teams are generally on the north end of Tom Lee Park. Whole-hog teams are in the middle. Shoulder teams are on the south. Once you're in the right neighborhood, use the numbers after the letter like a street address.
Food and drink: Beer and food vendors are open throughout the park. Expect cold tallboys and carnival fare like turkey legs, funnel cakes, and fried everything.
More info: Download the Memphis In May app, available for iPhone and Android devices.
Miss Piggy Idol. Barbecue team members perform skits, usually in pig drag. (6-7 p.m.)
Webb Wilder (8:30-9:40 p.m.)
Bottom of the Bottle (8-8:50 p.m.)
Molly Hatchet (9:15-10:30 p.m.)
Awards ceremony (6:30 p.m.)
The Dazz Band (8 p.m.)