Teams. Tents. T-shirts. Team stickers. Private Port-A-Potties. Multi-night parties (and even unofficial party nights).
These are now some very basic staples of the Memphis in May (MIM) World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. But they weren't always staples. Someone had to invent this stuff, right? You know who invented it? Rednecks.
Call them innovators. But Pete Gross and Woody Coleman self-identify as Rednecks first. They founded the Redneck BBQ Express, the very first team to ever compete at (what locals call) Barbecue Fest or, more simply, Barbecue.
When the Rednecks fire up their grills this weekend, it'll be the team's 39th appearance at the 39th annual Barbecue event. While they look like pros now, the first year in the lot in front of the Orpheum Theatre was very different.
They had a Dodge van with a canopy and a stereo, coolers, and a grill. They were cooking a whole hog so they had to get started on it Friday night to be ready for the competition Saturday. So, they did what they always did — they invited all their friends down to drink beers.
That night, some of the festival organizers dropped in to check the lot. They found Gross, Coleman, and all their pals " just having a ball," as then-MIM president Lyman Aldrich told Memphis magazine in 2006. Seeing those Rednecks, just doing what they do, sparked the idea in Lyman that Barbecue could be a multi-night event.
"They said, 'Who are you guys?'" Gross remembers. "What do you mean? We're just a bunch of guys called the Redneck BBQ Express. Y'all said you're having a barbecue contest. Well, we're here."
They were the only team. Everyone else registered as solo competitors. Thus, the first real Barbecue team — the prototype for what we all know today — was born.
Few rules governed that first festival, Coleman says. Samples were given out freely to everyone. And judging was done right by the grill, no formal sit-down necessary. Coleman took a "Redneck nap" in the van in full view of the judges that year, and, after a day of handing out samples, "our hog looked like a ravaged dog," Gross says. They came in 10th of 16.
The Rednecks had also decided to print up T-shirts for the festival. They printed more than they needed, decided to sell them, and, thus, Barbecue T-shirts were born.
The festival was moved to Tom Lee Park the next year, and all the teams for two years cooked under an enormous, circus-style tent. Tired of fighting the smoke and the haze, the Rednecks decided to get a tent of their own.
"Everybody was like, 'What are y'all doing out there?'" Gross recalls. "Then, they all moved out and got tents of their own, and then the big structures started."
The "sticker phenomena" — once a huge deal at Barbecue — came from the Rednecks. Even the idea of starting the party on Tuesday night began with the Express (though, partying commences nearly every night after Saturday load-in these days).
But it wasn't like they planned to innovate. It's just that when Gross and Coleman begin talking, they devise brand new ways to have fun. Hang out with them. You'll feel it and see it in action. As for fun, that's their main goal at Barbecue. Winning really does take a back seat with the Rednecks.
In their time, they've watched Barbecue change, and they wish MIM would create a commercial division for the die-hard, big-money, high-tech teams that show up to win. They praise the creation of the Patio Porker division, in which amateurs can compete on a smaller budget and scale.
What have they got to show for it all? Gross and Coleman can spin an absolutely true, absolutely hilarious, beer-soaked, high-volume, high-times, rough-and-rowdy tale of human celebration, as easy as breathing. Well, that, and the camaraderie of the 85-or-so Rednecks who have been on the team roster over the years.
Why do they do it?
"Because we can," Gross says.
How long will they do it?
"As long as I can," Coleman says.
— Toby Sells
The (Sorta) New
Mark Renaud is not exactly a newcomer to Barbecue Fest. He says that he's cooked at the contest and ones like it for 20 years. This year, however, he's bringing a new team with a new focus.
Whole hog had been the game at past contests — top 10 but never the grand prize. Under the corporate sponsorship of the St. Louis-based restaurant Pappy's Smokehouse, Uncle Charlie's Ribs will focus on ribs. Uncle Charlie is a nod to Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals pitcher who is a friend of Pappy's owner, Mike Emerson. (Uncle Charlie is slang for curveball, a Wainwright specialty.)
Pappy's is a Memphis-style barbecue restaurant specializing in ribs. According to Renaud, Pappy's introduced the Southern-style barbecue to a region where most barbecue was in the heavy-smoke Kansas City tradition. They turn out about 500 ribs a day.
Uncle Charlie's will be competing with Pappy's ribs.
"The only thing to do in Memphis," Renaud says, "is to compete against yourself. The ribs have to be absolutely perfect."
There's also what Renaud calls the "dog-and-pony show" aspect of the contest — the on-site judging. Renaud says he's particularly adept at presentation for the on-site.
"You have 15 minutes with that judge one-on-one," Renaud explains. "There are three facets to it. One is the actual visual as you walk into the spot. We want them to feel like they're sitting down in their own kitchen. Second thing is getting their attention, where they lock into you and aren't daydreaming. And then there's the product. When I do presentations, I start at the cooker, make them really hungry, and get them to the table about five minutes in, and then I basically hand feed them. My job is to make sure they don't forget me, no matter how many spots they go to."
As for the team's chances? "I'm extremely comfortable," Renaud says.
— Susan Ellis
Rob Reinhardt is a Canadian Prometheus. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement. He didn't bring fire to the Great White North, exactly, but Reinhardt, an award-winning pitmaster who's participating in his first Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, did introduce Saskatchewan to the manifold pleasures of Southern-style 'cue cooked low and slow over a hardwood fire.
"We do have certain traditions in Canada," Reinhardt says. "The West Coast Aboriginal community does smoked salmon. And we have lots of varieties of cured and smoked pork. But nothing resembling Southern barbecue existed here until enthusiasts and backyarders started spreading the word." Gas grills, Reinhardt adds, had previously been the tool of choice for cooking meat outdoors. "Now, barbecue and barbecue traditions are growing like crazy."
Reinhardt was always an avid and adventurous home chef, but until he made the switch to full-time barbecue cook and instructor four years ago, he was employed as a business analyst for a steel company. It was a good gig with a comfortable salary, nice benefits, and occasional travel opportunities, but something was missing. A work-related trip to Texas brought him into contact with open pit cooking and changed his life forever. "I stumbled across a real barbecue restaurant like I'd seen on TV and thought I'd try it out," he says. After an order of beef brisket and pork ribs, nothing would ever be the same.
In 2006, Reinhardt hired a retired welder from Beausejour, Manitoba, to build a trailer-mounted offset smoker. Two years later, he upgraded to a 22-foot catering rig, formed the Prairie Smoke & Spice company, and entered the world of competitive barbecue. In 2012, he left his job and became a full-time pitmaster.
In Canada, barbecue is a very seasonal career choice. "People only seem to be interested in this sort of thing during the summer, with almost no demand January through March," Reinhardt says. "But we've learned how to appreciate that." He's also learned how to appreciate the rapid growth of Canadian barbecue culture.
"In my hometown of 200,000 people, there are now five different businesses offering Southern-style barbecue catering," Reinhardt says. "A lot of people would look at that level of competition as a stress factor. But I think more people doing barbecue raises the awareness. Competition is a good thing. I keep my knives sharp and make sure I'm putting out a good product."
— Chris Davis
The Name Game
The Bastey Boys, The Count Bastie Porkestra, Magically Piglicious, Squeal Street, Crosstown Neighborhood BBQ Cooking Team ... Okay, so maybe not so much that last one, but you get the gist. A good barbecue team name, be it crude, punny, or funny, captures the joy of the contest.
The Usual Saucepects is one of those big operations: multi-level structure, huge banners. The team started last year with members from other teams, including Slab Yo Mama. They placed 10th in the rib category.
Matt Savard of the Usual Saucepects says, "We wanted to do it bigger and better. Push the limits — scaffold, lights, sound."
He says the name was his girlfriend's idea. He works in marketing and knows a good draw. Folks clamored for their T-shirts and other merchandise. Interest sparks more interest, which may, in turn, lead to more opportunities to help defray the $60,000 cost the team spends being in the contest.
Deeez Butts is made up of members from the local National Guard. Dale Burkett says that once they had enough members for the team, they set about for a name. One night, a team member and his wife were going through old '80s hair band CDs fishing about for ideas, according to Burkett. "Somehow, he went from '80s hair bands to Dr. Dre's The Chronic album, and on that album, there's this [comic skit] 'Deeez Nuuuts,' and he just replaced, obviously, 'nuuuts' with 'butts' for barbecue, and that's how we came to be."
It's a perfect fit, Burkett says.
"It reflects what our team is," Burkett says. "We like to let loose and party because we work really hard. We fly a lot of missions, so we don't like to take it too seriously. We like to have fun and eat good barbecue."
Last year, a video went viral of a man doing the "Deeez Nuuuts" routine. "That made our team get really noticed a lot more last year," Burkett says. "People were stopping by our tents and taking pictures with our banner and wanted to buy our T-shirts."
Yes, Deeez Butts is notorious. Says Burkett, "The funny thing is, this being our fifth year, every time I go to the team meetings to pick up our packages or go to Sam's Club, they may not remember me specifically, but once I tell them the team name, they're like, oh yeah, I know who you are." — SE
Who's the Piggiest of Them All?
The Swinos won last year's Miss Piggy Idol contest. They placed the previous two years.
"We try really hard to put on a very fun, very creative, very original show," says team president Matthew Heffington. "We don't play to the judges. We don't play to the competition. We like to do it our way."
The Swinos have a team band named Tender to the Bone, a rotating crew of six, who are charged with coming up with the performance. They keep everything quiet until the day of the show. Even fellow members of the Swinos don't know what will happen until the band is onstage.
Last year, it was a porkified version of the history of rap. One year, it was Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" ("Beanz and Slaw").
"The approach is to reach into the landscape of pop culture, take into account who's playing at Barbecue Fest," Heffington says. "We take into account our locality and, obviously, food. It's all about paying your respect to the pig gods and putting out your best artistic version of your team and how you feel about the year."
Heffington suggests we speak to Tender to the Bone's Justin Taylor for more insight.
"Per our attorney's advice, we are the Band Formerly Known as Tender to the Bone," Taylor says.
"We are triple-crown champions. We have nothing to prove anymore. This is about the people. Pork the record industry, and long live Prince," Taylor continues.
Taylor says they start about two weeks in advance of the contest, picking a theme by throwing rib bones at a target on the wall.
And the choreography? "Tight undergarments and man fat," Taylor answers.
He then reiterates what the attorney has said about the Band Formerly Known as Tender to the Bone. And "Pork the record industry."
Is this a hint? "Absolutely not," Taylor says. "No. No one in their right mind would touch Prince." — SE
Music to Barbecue By
No real barbecue experience is complete without some tunes. From Frayser Boy to Tom T. Hall, here's a collection of songs to get your party started this Thursday night at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Deep Purple — "Smoke on the Water": Okay, this one was pretty obvious, and the folks running the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest must have thought the same thing, as this was the slogan for the competition a few years ago. Nevertheless, if the opening riff of this Deep Purple song doesn't get you pumped to eat some 'cue, you might be vegetarian.
Oblivians — "Call the Police": "We don't give a damn where you're from," sings Greg Cartwright on this cover of the Stephanie McDee classic. Let those lyrics serve as the welcome anthem to all travelers hitting Barbecue Fest, because you're all Mid-Southerners this weekend. There are references to plenty of Southern and Cajun food, including chicken wings, crawfish, and jambalaya, and when Cartwright sings "You better call your wife, call your bossman, cuz we ain't ever comin' home," you better believe he means it.
Creedence Clearwater Revival — "Proud Mary": No barbecue is complete without a little Creedence. While many of their songs would fit perfectly in a pork-centric playlist, this one is especially fitting for cleaning a plate down by the mighty Mississippi.
Wendy Rene — "BBQ": "I like barbecue, you like barbecue, we all like barbecue," sings Wendy Rene on this Stax Records single from 1964, and sometimes it's just that simple. This classic Rene track was made for every summer cookout, so add some Memphis flavor to your party and dig in.
Frayser Boy — "It's Da Summa Tyme": This might be a "deep track" from Frayser Boy's catalog, but it's arguably one of the best songs about spending the summer in Memphis. His line "Y'all about to barbecue, shit, I'm 'bout to roll through" perfectly captures the sentiment felt by most, if not all attendees at this year's World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Ted Nugent — "I Love My BBQ": I'm only including this song in the playlist because it is so completely terrible that it must be heard to be believed. The Nuge loves his barbecue, so let him have it, I guess? Pull up a chair because ol' uncle Ted has a beer for you, just don't try to talk to him about animal rights while he's eating. Best line: "A tossed salad might make you weak. I like to kill 'em and grill 'em." Whatever you say, Ted.
Tom T. Hall — "That's How I Got to Memphis": This classic Tom T. Hall song is fitting for any trip to the Bluff City, but the lines "I haven't eaten a bite or slept in three days and nights" are especially relevant to this weekend's festivities. While I'm not suggesting you fast until the competition begins this Thursday, it may be good to lay off the barbecue while you wait for the gates to open at Tom Lee Park.
— Chris Shaw
Shop Like a Pro
Mid-South pitmasters shop off the beaten path, a sort of Diagon Alley in the magical world of Memphis meatcraft. But those shops are mostly wide open to regular customers, too.
Memphis Barbeque Supply
The shelves at Memphis Barbeque Supply are stocked with bottles of local sauce and dry rubs, most of which is from local barbecue teams with names you know if you pay attention to Memphis in May results: Sweet Swine O' Mine, Killer Hogs, Porkstars, and others. The latest and greatest (and biggest) smokers are presented on the showroom floor like upscale automobiles.
A wall of wood ensures you can get any smoke flavor profile you'd like, from standards like apple, mesquite, and cherry to blends like "Memphis Smoke," a mixture of pecan and hickory. The wall on the other side is covered in any piece of cooking hardware you can imagine, from high-tech digital meat thermometers to spatulas emblazoned with the LSU logo.
Jimmy Shotwell and his business partner, Chris West, opened the store two years ago because, well, it just made sense in Memphis.
"We had furniture places [that sold smokers] and had outdoor fireplaces and your big box stores, but we did not have [a store with] everything but the meat — charcoal, wood, run, sauces — just a place dedicated to barbecue," Shotwell said.
The Charcoal Store
Pert Whitehead has been involved in the charcoal business since about 1975 and has run the Charcoal Store in its current location on Florida Street since 1999.
"I've had people standing right here from Norway, Belgium, Denmark, a bunch of people from California, probably about every state," Whitehead said.
He said "all the tops" in Memphis will cook with his Chef's Delite brand, but he also carries lump charcoal, blended briquettes, and wood of all types.
He sells mostly to restaurants (noting Tops Bar-B-Q and the Rendezvous as customers) and to shops like Memphis Barbeque Supply. He does sell to individuals and some barbecue teams, but he doesn't push that part of the business, he said. — TS