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"It's all in the rubbing."

Day of Pigs
by Ben Applebaum

Memphis BBQ Cook-Off

"A vegetable has not passed through my lips all week." It's a cool May day in Memphis, and a thoroughly sated AJ Rollins is licking the sauce from under his fingernails. As a judge in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, it's part of Rollins' job to steer clear of all that is heart-healthy. But for the thousands of other zealous carnivores who have assembled in Elvis Town from May 16 to 18, the championship is akin to a pilgrimage to Mecca.

And what better place than Memphis? "This town is obsessed with barbecue," Rollins declares. "Hell, they made dry rub a religion." 

As part of its month-long Memphis in May festival, the city dedicates 34 acres along the mighty Mississippi to this Preakness of Pork, this Super Bowl of Swine. The Barbecue Championship is an event so gluttonous that its place in the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the planet's largest barbecue celebration is secure for years to come.

Pig Shindig
It's Monday, and upon the sacred ground, 250 teams -- with names like South Pork, Pork Me Tender and Notorious P.I.G. -- begin to build their booths. The contest won't officially kick off until Thursday, but this is more than a mere cook-off; it's a huge party. Each booth doubles as a temporary frat house -- some even have multiple levels for drinking, dancing and gorging. And as with frat houses, you need to know a member to get into the best parties. Once inside, you're golden, with free-flowing beers and pig out the ying-yang.

With anywhere from two to 20-plus members, the cooking teams are well-oiled machines. As the cooks baby-sit the baby backs, the rest of the team tosses back a few. Or they toss back many -- even with the cold weather, the Bar-B-Que Bluffers of Memphis get in a groove and down 16 kegs over the three days. Between the pork and pilsners, the scene is a Bacchanalian feast that's equal parts county fair and gladiator battle. It's NASCAR meets "Iron Chef." Throw in a Miss Piggie competition (men in snouts and tutus) and it's more "Two Fat Ladies" than "Iron Chef."

Still, as freaky and rowdy as the scene gets, these people are serious about their barbecue. Before the event is over, they'll prepare more than 54 tons of pig -- enough swine to choke a pre-op Carnie Wilson. Everything is smoked Southern style: slow and low. Ribs cook for about three hours and the whole piggy sweats for an entire day. If there's meat on the grill, someone's tending to the firebox -- that, my friends, is pork love. Only charcoal and hardwoods -- hickory, pecan and cherry -- are allowed to fuel the fire. And thank God, because the sweet smoke triggers a craving that broccoli could never satisfy.

Pig a Winner
Now comes the hard part. The teams are judged in three categories: pork shoulder, pork ribs and whole hog. While there are restrictions on the meats and the fuels, the cookers, seasonings and prep styles vary widely. The equipment ranges from the common backyard grill (used by the Patio Porkers division) to giant rigs costing more than $30K. But judges look past the trappings and focus on the flavor. And the teams pull no punches in seasoning these oinkers with spicy dry rubs, tangy bastes and, of course, top-secret table sauces. These meats get more attention than Patrick Ewing at a strip club. In most cases, the results are impressive: succulent, juicy and chock-full of smokiness. "These teams are the best of the best," declares judge Brian Harhai. "And even the worst entry towers over what you'd get at most restaurants."

So who's the winner? Aren't they all? Actually, Memphis homies the Pyropigmaniacs win, with a rib entry that can only be described as sublime. But a more difficult question remains: Why would anyone drop bank on a giant grill, tend to a smoking pig for 25 hours and subject himself to the scrutiny of nitpicky judges? It's not the cash -- after you divide the $60K in prizes among the different categories, the money barely covers the cost of beer and handy wipes. Maybe it's the bragging rights or a satisfying sense of accomplishment. Right?

Uh, no. "It's really all about how well you prepare smoked meat," says Kevin Jones of the Huff-N-Puff Porkers.
Huff 'n Puff 2002 Hog Entry WCBCC
Serves us right for trying to over-intellectualize barbecue. Still, it seems this is a spiritual journey. It's just one that doesn't venture past the grill, much less reach Mecca. And there ain't nothing wrong with that. Pass the hog.

Huff 'n Puff 2001 First Place Sauce WCBCC Kevin and AngelPig WCBCC

Coming soon: "Babe: Pig with a Glaze." 

Becoming a Rib Snob

Here are some tips from judges that you can use when rating the ribs at your buddy's next cookout.

Eyes Before Teeth
If it doesn't look appetizing, don't eat it. The slab shouldn't have too much visible fat or gristle. The pros also look for the pink smoke ring.

Love Me Tender
Cook too short and you get tough, dry meat. Too long and the slab falls apart. Pull the bones apart. They should give a little resistance before giving way to moist meaty goodness.

The Flavor
The best way to judge the flavor is to compare it to many others. So keep eating for the next five years and you'll be able to spot the best.

Brew with Your Q?

With what beers do the Memphis revelers choose to wash down a 105-pound squealer? Andy Hamm, of the Bar-B-Que Bluffers, says lighter beers are a must. "I usually recommend Warsteiner or Bud Light," says Hamm. Good suggestions. The lighter beers help cut through the heaviness of the meat and the stickiness of the sauces. They also leave plenty of room in your stomach for the reason you came in the first place.

Do You Smell Smoke?

May was National Barbecue Month in the U.S., but the rest of the summer is shaping up nicely for grillin'-and-chillin' events. Consult the Barbecue News for contact info and mark your calendar.

  • June 7-8, 15th Annual Great Pork BarbeQlossal, Des Moines, Iowa
  • June 14-15, 9th Annual Blue Ridge BBQ Festival, Tryon, N.C.
  • June 21-22, 21st Annual Great Lenexa Barbeque Battle, Lenexa, Kan.
  • July 27-28, New England Regional BBQ Championship, Harpoon Brewery, Windsor, Vt.
  • August 23-24, National Championship BBQ Cook-off, Meridian, Texas