Before the sizzle on the grill, the first sounds of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest heard in Tom Lee Park are hammers and nail guns.
Barbecue teams and fans cheer on contestants in the Miss Piggy Contest at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Tom Lee Park.
(Photos: Lance Murphey)
Over 36 years, the contest has become as much about the construction of the elaborate booths and their kitchens as it has been about barbecue.
Health Department teams inspect barbecue vendors and contestants, but local code enforcement officers were also busy in the days leading up to the Thursday opening of the barbecue contest making sure the booths, many of them two stories tall, were safe.
But in a mended 25-year-old red tent near the center of the park’s barbecue bustle this year was the longest-running team in the contest – Redneck Bar-B-Q Express.
The team, which this year had 19 members, has been competing at Memphis in May since the very first contest in 1977, claiming it was the first team to complete the very first entry form and the first to roll in a large grill with the team name on it and have matching T-shirts.
Two of the original founders remained on the team this year but others span three generations.
Marc Nelson, on the team for nine years after a number of years cooking for a firefighters team, estimated there are 80 people total who have been on the 36 editions of Redneck Bar-B-Q Express.
“We feel comfortable at 20 because we do everything on our own. We don’t ask for any corporate sponsorships,” said Nelson, his hands red from pulling pork on opening day last week. “We all pay out of our own pockets. It’s a team deal all the way.”
Over three days last week in Tom Lee Park, there were more than 250 barbecue teams competing for $110,000 in cash and prizes in what Memphis in May bills as the largest pork barbecue contest in the world.
There were 122 teams in the rib category, 55 in shoulder, 37 in the patio category and 36 in the whole hog category. The Redneck crew has always competed in the whole hog category.
“During the week it’s a big party, everybody’s having fun,” said Mark Kingsley, who has been on the team the last four years. “But come Friday afternoon, it’s time to start getting smart and getting that hog ready. Saturday is totally serious. We all wear red golf shirts and nice khaki pants and it is all presentation. And everybody has to shut their mouth and be on cue. The party’s over then.”
A member of the AdRibbers Team shows off a rib during the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. More than 250 teams competed.
The contest has changed over the years in more ways than simply the expansion of the park in the early 1990s.
Initially, the barbecue contest was free to spectators and the teams served barbecue to whoever they pleased as well as the judging teams. Because of health regulations, they have been barred from doing that for several years, but the contest includes tours of some select booths that offer a chance to sample the barbecue and even get some guidance on how the judges go about picking winners.
The rules have served to enhance and make getting invited into the booths an art form. Those practicing the art are looking for booths where the emphasis is on the party and not strictly on the competition. The difference is easy to spot at least to some.
“If you guys spent as much time on your food as you did on your sign, you might do better,” a man pulling a cart of food supplies said in another part of the park as he walked past one of the more elaborate multi-story booths with elaborate art work.
Kingsley and Nelson and others on the express team tended to a flat grill that has been modified several times over the years.
“Now they’ve got it computerized so they just throw a hog on there and shut the doors and it takes care of everything,” Kingsley said of other rigs. “We stoke it with raw charcoal and hickory and throw that joker on there and monitor it 24 hours making sure the temperature’s right and the fire’s right.”
There is an intensity in the preparations for judging at the booths where it is about winning, at least until the judges leave.
Barbecue can almost be a secondary concern at some of the booths where team members are looking for more people to join the party.
While the barbecue contest has live entertainment on a stage, the stage becomes the central focus of most in the crowd when the winners are announced.
The musical acts, unlike their brethren from the Beale Street Music Festival earlier in the month, competed with booths that boast some formidable sound systems.