Take a cue from us: There's no better time to visit this river city. Come for the music, culture, and world-class barbecue.
The smoke doesn't curl up from Tom Lee Park--it billows. For three days, a blue-gray fog hovers above an encampment of the
most talented barbecue gurus in the country.
And this is just one of the city's festivals in May. From wailing guitar riffs to the multicolored glares of fireworks, you'll know the event by what swirls in the air above it.
Barbecue artists stuff their grills and smokers like cornucopias when the judges come around.
Every pit boss you meet at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest will vehemently swear his or her technique is the best. One pays homage to the fruit woods--peach or apple--and will snub hickory like it just walked barefoot through The Peabody. At the booth right next door, the cooker loads a smoker with hickory and then squirts apple juice onto his whole hog. Above the hiss on the grill, he casually dismisses his competitor. "This is all you need for good flavor," he says.
Of the more than 200 teams spread throughout the park, most of them have earned the right to be here, rising through the ranks by winning at various Memphis in May-sanctioned barbecue contests throughout the South. They've nearly perfected the art of cooking pork shoulders, ribs, or whole hogs. They've invested half-a-year's worth of weekends and a small fortune just to make it this far. Many barbecue fanatics can only dream of getting here to the Super Bowl of Swine, the largest pork barbecue cooking contest in the world.
Surrounded by their towers of trophies, the Booths, from Southaven, Mississippi, compete as one of the few husband-and-wife
Make no bones, Memphis in May (MIM) is serious business in the barbecue world. But part of the business is pleasure, and all you have to do is stroll a few steps on barbecue mile, reading the team names, to know they don't take themselves too seriously. Notorious P.I.G. Getting Piggy With It. Pork Me Tender. Serial Grillers. Swine-O-Mite. The Good, the Bad & the Swine.
The teams are as varied as their names, grills, and secret sauces. On one end of the spectrum, you have Piped for Pork, with pit boss Billy Power at the helm. You can't make this guy up. Shouting above speakers blaring Jimmy Buffett tunes, Billy says that in his former life he was a professional wrestler. He wears his sunglasses at night and hides an infectious laugh behind a ZZ Top-size beard. As he manhandles a shoulder, he cracks, "A flat butt doesn't look good." He flips it, suplex style, and asks, "You know how you can tell it's ready? It jiggles like Jell-O." Billy embodies the barbecue universe: belly laughs, great food, and a little rousing.
Then there's Linda and Wayne Booth, the Red Hot Smokers. "I rub my grill every now and then like there's a genie in there," Wayne says, patting his red grill. He snags his wife around the waist, and they both grin genuine Cleaver-esque smiles. As a two-person team, they face the disadvantage of early fatigue, considering many split the 24-hour grill watch among 8 or even 10 people. However, the walls of shiny trophies flanking the Booths' quiet tent prove they have absolutely no trouble holding their own in this competition.
From a visitors' standpoint, the team booths remain technically off-limits. Any MIM veteran will tell you, though, that you'll be hard-pressed to find a pit boss unwilling to show off his smoker. "First-timers don't realize that if you're inquisitive and polite, most teams are more than happy to talk to you about what they're doing," says Diane Hampton, executive vice president of MIM. Wear out your welcome, however, and big Billy may just have to show you the door.
The Pink Ladies, one of the only all-female teams, compete in the rib category each year.
Let's say you're smooth with your shoulders, rock on your ribs, or hold your own cooking a whole hog. Being a winner at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest takes an extensive knowledge of grilling and smoking meats. But a little creativity, whether with sauces or even your team's name, goes a long way. When judges and visitors make their way down barbecue mile, you want them to smile, right? Here are some of our favorite team names from last year's competition.
During Saturday's judging, the thousands who have whooped and hollered for the last few days all speak in whispers.
"Let me tell you what we've been doing for the last 16 hours." The cooker invites the judge into the tent and thus begins the 15 minutes of truth--the on-site judging. A lifetime of learning and a week of prepping end in these precious minutes on Saturday. Gone are the whoops, hollers, and humor of the preceding days. Everyone speaks in whispers as the park cloaks itself in the reverence of a church service.
"For 15 minutes, they're praying pretty hard," says Wayne Lohman, a certified judge who has 15 years experience with MIM. He and his wife, Maria, judge more than 30 barbecue competitions annually, from Tennessee to Northern Europe. "It's like an addiction," Maria says with a laugh.
The teams have 15 minutes to plead their cases to the judge.
The spokesperson explains every twist of the team's technique before sitting down to serve. In turn, the judge asks several detailed questions. "There is a bit of a dance between the judge and the cooker," says MIM-certified judge Bill Gage. "Both are extremely serious and desire to be the very best at what they do." After a tasting of the barbecue and sauce, the presentation ends and then the teams nervously bide their time until the announcement of results late in the afternoon.
Many argue the best way to eat barbecue is to pull it straight from the shoulder.
Until last year, the judges held a monopoly on tasting all that great barbecue. Now, with the Lawry's People's Choice Awards, the masses of festivalgoers choose the winner of this new category. Fifty teams that cook pork shoulder vie for this honor. For a mere $3, you receive a ballot and five samples of their barbecue. Just like the certified judges, you must carefully consider the characteristics of appearance, tenderness, flavor, and the barbecue's overall impression before you cast your vote.
Walk the paths of Tom Lee Park long enough, and you will likely lose yourself in the fervent passion that identifies these barbecue masters. Just peer through the smoky haze, though, and you'll soon find the downtown skyline, the point of The Pyramid, and the double humps of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which arrest any doubt in your mind of where and when you stand.
Thousands pack picnics and blankets before descending on Tom Lee Park for the Sunset Symphony.
As dusk approaches on the last Saturday in May, thousands spread blankets and unfold chairs on the grounds. Candelabras and clinking wineglasses emerge, while sublime sounds of contemporary and classical music rise above the crowd. It's all part of the Sunset Symphony, the oldest of the Memphis in May events.
A barge eases its way near the park and anchors in the dark waters. As the Mississippi gently laps against the banks and the symphony rolls into its finale, rockets fill the sky with a kaleidoscope of fireworks.
Vince Danner, associate conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, led the Sunset Symphony last year.
Crowds flock to this town on the Mississippi four times this month for Memphis in May festivities.
We asked Diane Hampton, executive vice president of Memphis in May, for the inside scoop on the festivals.