Sunday, May 20, 2012

Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition

The event I attended at Tom Lee Park Downtown on Thursday and Friday is technically called the Memphis in May Worlds Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Memphians just refer to it as BBQ Fest. For serious barbecue competitors it is a serious competition. For the vast majority of the people in attendance it is spring break for grown ups.

I didn't feel like keeping up with a real camera so I just have a few pics from my flashless cellphone. So I don't have any photos from after dark when it really gets packed and wild.

Since this blog has a fair share of readers who live in other areas I wanted to give them a brief overview of BBQ Fest. There are three main types of booths at the event and I don't mean ribs, shoulder and whole hog; which are the categories the booths are divided into around the park.

There are hobbyist booths. Competing in BBQ Fest is expensive so these booths normally have a couple dedicated barbecue cooking enthusiasts on the team along with a bunch of friends who are there to lend a hand, pitch in money and enjoy the massive party. These are also the booths where you are generally welcome to stop and share some of the food and booze as long as you are friends with some of the people in the booth. Donations to the cause are usually welcomed.

Then you have the business booths. Its impossible to gauge the real impact of BBQ Fest on the local economy because there is no way of calculating just how many deals are born out of the networking that occurs there. Like other cities, the golf course is an important place to do business here. But there are plenty of important connections made over ribs and beer next to the Mississippi River here in May. Businesses spend piles of money putting up elaborate multilevel booths with professional DJs, bartenders and mountains of food. Getting into these booths generally requires a wristband, which requires a connection with someone associated with the booth. 

And finally you have the serous competitor booths. These are the smaller booths that never have more than a handful of people in them and they are usually lined with trophies from previous barbecue competitions. The people inside them aren't there to party. They are there because they think they've mastered the arts of smoked pork and sauce and they want to prove it to the judges.

Serious competitors have learned what the judges are looking for over the years and cater to them. Unfortunately, according to an article in Garden and Gun magazine, most of the judges historically seem to love sweet flavors while being embarrassingly squeamish about spiciness and fat. If a visitor wants to sample barbecue, they can pay to be one of the People's Choice judges. That's probably the best way for an out-of-town visitor to experience the event. While there are plenty of vendors selling food and drinks, the reason locals attend is to visit friends at various booths where food and drinks are provided.

It's really impossible to photograph the event in a way that provides any sense of scale for just how physically huge it is. You literally walk for miles if you are visiting a lot of booths.

This blog spends a lot of time touting the health benefits of pork fat. Meanwhile, when humans are stressed our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. Continually elevated cortisol levels brought on by chronic stress are very bad for the body. There is a lot of wisdom in this sign that was hanging in a competitors booth. 

One of my friends had a booth with a great view of the Mississippi River. I was sitting on the edge of the river enjoying a beer and a full stomach watching the sun go down when Otis Redding's (Sittin on') the Dock of the Bay, which was recorded at Stax Records in South Memphis, came on a nearby stereo system. The most purely Memphis moments aren't planned, they just happen. 

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