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.
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.”