Next week, the streets of downtown Memphis will be filled with the delicious aroma of smoky barbecue wafting up from the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
World renowned as the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, Memphis, Tennessee, is a city just as famous — if not more so — for its eats as its music. The Bluff City is the undisputed barbecue capital of the world and known internationally for its unique barbecue style.
Appropriately, Memphis is the home of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC for short). Created 40 years ago, this event was celebrates barbecue around the world. Nowadays hundreds of teams compete annually for the coveted title of World Grand Champion. And this pig-centric event is a really big deal! One of the largest barbecue cooking contests of its kind, this event draws competitors and pork-loving aficionados from around the globe.
“This year there are more than 250 teams. The number of states and countries represented varies year to year, but this year there are teams from 25 states and 6 countries, including Mexico, Canada, Norway, Japan, England and Colombia,” says Robert Griffin, Memphis in May International Festival Director of Marketing.
That adds up to a lot of barbecue being cooked on the banks of the Mississippi River next week!
“The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest reinforces our city’s heritage and reputation as the global capital of barbecue cuisine, attracting competitors, media and patrons from across the country and around the world each year,” says James L. Holt, President & CEO of Memphis in May International Festival. “Part of our mission to ‘share Memphis with the world’ includes sharing its culinary trademark — barbecue.”
Participating in the WCBCC is a labor of love. It takes lots of planning, testing, man power, time and a fair amount of money to participate in this world-renowned competition. Teams must qualify in advance at one of the many Memphis in May sanctioned events throughout the year. Pigs and equipment need to be ordered, sauces and dry rubs perfected. And that’s all before load-in begins.
We turned to some past winners and seasoned judges to share a little insight into the excitement and deliciousness that makes WCBCC the barbecue cooking contest!
Melissa Cookston, chef and owner of Memphis Barbecue Company and team chef for Yazoo’s Delta Q, has won “Whole Hog Champion” four times and been the overall World Grand Champion twice since she started competing back in 2008.
How did this talented pit master get into competition barbecue? “My husband took me to a barbecue contest on one of our first dates. He had competed in contests before. I fell in love with it, and the rest is history,” says Melissa, whose Memphis Barbecue Company team is a very small group relative to most WCBCC teams. “It’s just myself and my husband, Pete. We rope our daughter Lauren into helping out as well.”
This award-winning team of four is awfully busy the week of the competition. “I have a 42-foot trailer with three smokers capable of cooking whole hogs up to 250 pounds. We use scaffolding to build a floor around the trailer, install carpet, tents, décor, trophies, banner, supplies and more,” she says. “Generally, setup starts eight days before the actual contest, and we have the booth fully set up by Wednesday. We bring the hogs in on Friday morning, work to prep them, and start cooking them around noon on Friday for judging beginning at noon on Saturday.”
“This year will be our 31st time to compete in the WCBCC,” says Ernie Mellor of Hog Wild, which is both the name of Ernie’s team and his Memphis-based barbecue catering company. Hog Wild, a team of 31 folks, has placed second in the “Shoulder” category three times and is one of those teams that pulls out all the stops each year.
Some teams have a fairly simple setup: a tent, flooring and smokers pulled in on a trailer. Others go all out and build multi-story structures in this popup tent city in Tom Lee Park. Hog Wild builds a two-story tent each year that offers breathtaking views of the mighty Mississippi. “We begin load-in on the Saturday before the event and are set up by Wednesday afternoon. It’s pretty much a four-day deal. Then a week later, we tear it all down and are out in one day!”
“We have four smokers in our booth,” Ernie adds. Serving lunch and dinner to friends and customers throughout the festival in addition to competing, Hog Wild will cook about 900 pounds of barbecue over the course of the weekend. That’s a lot of pork!
“I have competed for 27 years,” says Carey Bringle of the Peg Leg Porker team and popular Nashville eatery of the same name. “I got into it because my uncle taught me how to cook barbecue at an early age, and competing looked fun. He participated in the very first WCBCC.”
Carey and his team of about 20 compete in two categories: “Shoulder” and “Whole Hog.” “Last year was our first for Whole Hog and we took third,” he says with a proud grin. His team has also had a Top 10 finish in the “Shoulder” category.
“We spend about $25,000 on this event, and you need to take a lot of gear. With our new trailer, it is much easier, but you still end up taking several trailers of supplies,” he says. “My favorite thing about the Memphis in May competition? Seeing all of my good friends from around the country. There is a camaraderie that exists that is really electric.”
Nick Nicolas and his crew of five will be headed up from Atlanta to compete as the Atlanta’s Swinest team.“Being in the Patio Porkers division, our main entry is pork ribs, which is our specialty. I make my own rub that I bottle and offer to my clients. I also make my own sauce and bottle it as well. While all my friends tell me I should sell my sauce, I just make it as a hobby and offer it as bribes or thank you presents,” says Nick.
“Setup is pretty simple for us. We don’t do an elaborate booth or stage. We will bring material to make a floor as well as a tent, but we won’t go overboard. We are really excited to see the other booths that go all out though,” adds Nick, who had a five-foot long smoker made for competing and cooking for friends. “I have been competing for only a few years, but I have been barbecuing my whole life. It is a pastime that I really enjoy.”
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
“Patio Porkers” Division
Patio Porkers is the perfect segue into competition for barbecue aficionados. The team or its head cook must not have competed in the regular division at the WCBCC. And just like on a home patio, the grill cooking area can be no larger than 15 square feet, and teams must cook with wood or charcoal only. Teams may participate in the Patio Porkers division for a maximum of three years, after which they must elevate to the general competition.
“One complaint about the WCBCC is that unless you know a team, you can’t enjoy the barbecue you’re smelling in the park,” says Robert Griffin from Memphis in May. “This year, we’re introducing BBQ Alley, where guests can purchase for an additional $15 a pass that gets them into the Alley, where they will enjoy sample portions of barbecue shoulder, ribs, beef and poultry along with sides like beans and mac ’n’ cheese, prepared by three well-known barbecue restaurants — Memphis BBQ Company, B’s Cracklin’ BBQ and Grand Champion BBQ, plus barbecue eats from BBQ Alley sponsor, Big Green Egg.”
This year, Melissa Cookston and her team are helping to bring a taste of Memphis barbecue to festival attendees at BBQ Alley. “Every year, people come down to see the sheer audacious pageantry of this event. It’s really spectacular to just walk through the event and see the booths, the people, the cookers, just everything,” she says. “The whole park smells wonderful! And this is just what Memphis in May needed — to give the public the opportunity to sample some really great barbecue, whether or not they know anybody on a team.”
The Judging Process
Why do most folks become a judge? “It’s the ONLY way to truly enjoy championship pork,” says longtime judge Frank Horner. “As for me, I started out on a team, and my job was helping to load all the things needed for the contest, helping to set it up, tear it down and haul it back to storage. After about five years, I decided there had to be a better way to go enjoy the contest and eat great pork, so off to the judge class I went!” Frank has been a judge for 20 years. He’s also taught or helped teach the Memphis in May judges class for the last 13 years.
How does one become a judge? First and foremost, anybody can apply if they just like to eat some good barbecue. “Memphis in May now conducts one class each year in November. It’s a day-long class teaching you about the various cuts of meat and how to identify them, what to look for in a perfectly cooked sample of each, and how to properly score it in each of the judged categories,”says Ron Childers, who has been judging barbecue for 18 years.
For the judges and everyone in attendance at the WCBCC, it all comes down to appreciating good barbecue. “My favorite part of the judging process would be as an on-site judge, seeing all the hard work and dedication the teams took to make my job as a judge a really hard one,” explains Frank.
Ron agrees, saying, “I absolutely enjoy the on-site judging. I get the opportunity to meet the people competing for a chance to take home that Grand Champion trophy, and I get a firsthand look at where the BBQ magic happens for that team. The grill the pork is cooked on, the spices used to season it, the time taken to cook it and the roles of everyone involved. They share with me the detailed process of how they took that pork from the package to the plate now sitting in front of me waiting to be judged. On-site judging has given me a true appreciation of what it takes to produce championship barbecue and the people who do it. And ultimately, the most thrilling moment can come later that day when you hear the name of a team you judged called to the awards stage. You go home knowing you sampled some of the best barbecue in the park that day.”
“In the 18 years that I’ve been judging I’ve learned a lot about how to cook pork and other meats from the teams that I’ve judged, but I still can’t do it like the best ones do,” Ron adds. “The ability to cook championship-worthy barbecue is truly an art, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to taste it.”
If you love pork and all things barbecue, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest needs to be on your calendar! Come hungry — it’s the greatest barbecue show on earth!
The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest is May 17 through 20 at Tom Lee Park in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. For more information and tickets, visit memphisinmay.org.
Thank you to Memphis in May for the images of the WCBCC!
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