May 17th, 2011
01:00 AM ET
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Patrick Oppmann is a CNN All Platform Journalist and barbecue enthusiast.

Floods or no floods, in Memphis there was going to be a barbecue.

The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, a yearly celebration off all things BBQ, is usually held along the city’s scenic and winding riverfront.

The festival draws over 200 top practitioners of the art of barbecue and thousands of their devoted fans.

But there was one large added logistical complication this year: the rising Mississippi River dumped feet of water on the park where the festival has been held for over 30 years.

Unless pitmasters were going to don scuba suits, a new location needed to be found and quickly.

“It was a huge deal,” said organizer Jennifer Brand as planners raced to relocate the iconic competition. “If we had rescheduled it , it would have meant losing hundreds of hotel rooms, some of the teams wouldn’t have been able to travel back. Once it was decided to hold the competition in May anyway, it was ‘all systems go.’ ”

As soon as they secured a new venue on higher ground, organizers went about reassuring barbecue fans that despite the record floods on the banks of the Mississippi River, it was safe to come and chow down in Memphis.

“Memphis is cookin,’ come hell or high water,” read the festival’s new slogan over a mascot of a sunglasses-wearing pig sporting a life preserver. “S.O.S,” was scrawled across the pig’s flotation device for “Save Our Swine.”

Early Saturday, there was no sign that the change in location had disrupted the pitmasters’ craft. The sweet scent of hickory and oak smoke wafted across the open air festival.

Competitors included “Pork Fiction,” “Notorious P.I.G,” “Slab Yo Mama BBQ” and “The People's Republic of Swina.“ The names intended to amuse but that’s where the competitors’ joking stopped.

Grim-faced pitmasters labored for hours over tricked-out smokers the size and price of luxury SUVs. Competitors included hometown favorites from Memphis, a team of Chicago BBQers resembling a NASCAR pit crew with matching jumpsuits and endorsements and, traveling 4,700 miles to be there, the national barbecue team of Norway.

“Make way! Barbecue coming through!” yelled a woman carrying what looked like a pizza box as she cut past crowds of tourists. Inside were ribs for the judge’s blind tasting where food is rated without knowing which competitor prepared the barbecue.

Categories included pork shoulder, ribs and whole hog. At stake: $110,000 in prize money and validation for the team whose intricate methods of seasoning, smoking and saucing yielded the best barbecue.

“Everyone’s got a lot of pride out here,” said Heath Hall of Park Barrel BBQ. Hall and fellow pitmaster Brett Thompson decorated their mahogany brown smoked pork shoulder with pineapple and watermelon for the presentation section of the competition when judges visit the pitmasters’ booths.

Originally United States Senate staffers, in 2006 Hall and Thompson began talking barbecue during a marathon Capitol Hill budget battle when they only food they could find to eat was bad take–out. Soon after they vowed to break into the world of competitive barbecue.

“Barbecue is about passion and love,” Hall said, who slept in a beach chair during the competition so as to not leave the slow cooking meats. “You have to love to check on your fire at 3 AM. It’s done with love and it's not quick.”

Usually the food that competitors prepare is only for the judges but the Pork Barrel team lets a visiting reporter have a few bites of the pork shoulder they been slowly cooking for 17 hours. Just those few strands of crunchy sweet skin surrounding juicy white meat were sufficient to forever redefine for them what constitutes “good barbecue.”

As Thompson and Heath elaborate on the process they have developed to create the balance of smoky and sweet, a team member interrupts them.

“Tell anybody and we’ll kill you,” she threatened, perhaps jokingly.

The stressed nerves are not reserved for the newcomers to barbecue competitions. George “Tuffy” Stone won the pork shoulder category at the 2010 Memphis competition and has starred in reality-TV shows that chronicle the lives of veteran pitmasters.

Huddled over the cherry red smokers he custom builds, Tuffy issued commands to a team of helpers with the gravity of a chief surgeon mid-way through a tricky operation.

“Can’t talk now!” he responded when a visitor is introduced to him.

Later he comes over to chat, having changed his shirt and now pacing with the jitters of an expectant father.

“We did well last year but I am little out of my element,” said the Virginia-based Stone. “We’ll have three judges come through and then for the next few hours have nothing to do but wait and be nervous.”

As much as the pitmasters relish the competition and glory of victory, the real winners may be the judges who actually get to sample the final product.

“I spend the day eating barbecue,” said Bruce Smith, one of the judges. “Sometimes it’s all very good and that makes it tough to judge. Then you have ones that are horrible. Others are just outstanding.”

The memories of that outstanding barbecue cause a smile to flash across Smith’s lips.

“I have to say,” he said. “I enjoy what I do.”

Read an interview with the contest's winner Chris Lilly

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Filed under: Barbecue • Bite • Competitive BBQ • Cuisines

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Cathy

    Pulled pork sandwich topped with homemade slaw. New England is now a hotbed of BBQ competitions. Go Pigsdone!!!

    May 18, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  2. Drew

    I like to go to Chili's to slap the cooks.

    May 17, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  3. Drew

    Born and raised in Texas and on Texas BBQ. But damn, that stuff y'all make in Memphis is excellent. Never thought I would like slaw on a sandwich.

    May 17, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  4. Leucadia Bob

    Funnyest Bacon Video Ever:

    May 17, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  5. Martin

    Good for Memphis. An important part of recovery is carrying on business as usual as much as possible.

    May 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  6. white blaze

    i want to go NOW!! (i know it is over...)

    May 17, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  7. Chris

    What suckers some of these people are. To travel all that distance when there is a Chili's right around the corner. Now that is one tasty rib.

    May 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Robert

      Chillis baby back ribs are not BBQ. They are steamed, not smoked, with some BBQ sauce slopped on at the end. Big, big taste dfference from a smoked rib. Try some real smoked BBQ ribs and you will never go back for the Chilis version.

      May 17, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
      • ...

        Robert you have it backwards. All of these contestants are trying to master the secret recipe to those delicious Chili's BAYBEEBACKS. There is a song and many many commercials that support this truth.

        May 17, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • MalaDee@Chris

      Chili's? Really? Are you trolling or do you really feel that way?

      May 17, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  8. Robert

    Had the pork of my life with the neighbor's wife at the BBQ....

    May 17, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  9. WasabiPotPie

    You are correct CarolinaQ, I am sorry I painted with a broad brush. But let us not turn this into a battle over which is correct- cream slaw or vinegar slaw.

    May 17, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Dixie Sugarbaker, of the Savannah Sugarbakers@Wasabi

      Cream slaw.

      May 17, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Robert

      Vinegar-based sauce vinegar slaw with pork BBQ

      May 17, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  10. tivo

    I must say, I've lived in Texas, Kansas City, and now Memphis, and Memphis does have the best BBQ. Not much elseis good about this place, but the BBQ is outstanding.

    May 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  11. WasabiPotPie

    For those of you who do not know or understand BBQ it is a process not a meat. There is Texas BBQ (beef), Memphis BBQ (pork), Owensboro KY BBQ (mutton), and then there is BBQ chicken. You cannot slather a piece of meat with Hunts BBQ sauce and call it BBQ. There is a science, art and emotion to it that few understand.

    May 17, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • CarolinaQ

      Well if all pork BBQ is Memphis BBQ then shoot I better tell everybody in both North and South Carolina cuz we thought we were making Carolina BBQ all along!

      May 17, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Whorhay

      BBQ is more about the cooking process than the meat that is being prepared. Different regions are known for their particular take on it, including what meats and seasonings to use. For instance Texas is where you will see more beef used than pork, the Carolina's tend towards vinegar based sauces, and Memphis I believe is known for sweeter BBQ (think Sweet Baby Ray's sauce).

      Personally I like to hickory smoke Pork Spare Ribs using just a dry rub until glazing with a sweet BBQ sauce in the last 30 minutes.

      May 17, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Actually it's both

      bar·be·cue (bärb-ky)
      1. A grill, pit, or outdoor fireplace for roasting meat.
      a. A whole animal carcass or section thereof roasted or broiled over an open fire or on a spit.
      b. A social gathering, usually held outdoors, at which food is cooked over an open flame.
      tr.v. bar·be·cued, bar·be·cu·ing, bar·be·cues
      To roast, broil, or grill (meat or seafood) over live coals or an open fire, often basting with a seasoned sauce.

      May 17, 2011 at 5:57 pm |


    May 17, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Darth Cheney

      Mmm, Steve Jobs are you out there? How about an iFat?

      May 17, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  13. Farran

    I would LOVE to be a judge for that competition. I love all kinds of flavors and sauces, though I grew up with eastern NC BBQ and a dad who could 'smoke' all of them for cooking a pig!

    May 17, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  14. Shirley U Jest


    May 17, 2011 at 1:50 am |
  15. Shirley U Jest

    Um, I'm going to hold off on the catfish right now. I bet they taste a bit muddy

    May 17, 2011 at 1:49 am |
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