Southerners love to barbecue.
I know quite a few men--some related to me, in fact, who are crazy serious about it.
They--and thousands like them-- have turned this traditional cooking technique into part art form, part science project, and almost a professional sporting event.
But I still wasn't quite prepared for the Memphis in May World Barbecue Cooking contest.
Nearly 250 highly-competitive teams were spread out around Fairgrounds stadium. The regular location, abutting the Mississippi River at Tom Lee Park, was pretty flooded out by rising water.
But a little deluge wasn't going to stop this contest.
It was appropriately re-named, "Come Hell or High water"--with t-shirts to that effect.
I arrived on a blustery day, and I quickly learned that weather was just one of the factors these top barbecuers consider. Wind, you see, was one of the top worries, and the festival flags were snapping in the strong breeze. If you opened your cooker--doing its slow cook magic at 250 degrees--and the wind got in...well, that was it: your cooking temps could plummet. It's a danger that could wreak havoc on cook times--and even make your final BBQ positively inedible.
The mantra of various teams I visited with was low and slow. That means low cooking temps--not the 300-plus degree heat of grilling--and long slow cook times. How slow? The pork shoulders could take up to 18 hours; the whole hogs would take at least 20.
Of course, we saw some wonderful cookers--the old jeep from "The Shed" team and the modified racing car from "Victory Lane." But most notable was the intense barbecuing fraternity that took root on the Mid-South fairgrounds; these were folks who had found a love and were going after the biggest title in barbecuing but they were in it together.
Throughout the afternoon there were blind tastings of the three meat categories--ribs, shoulder, and whole hog--as well as judges' visits to the cookers. Watching a master BBQ competitor like Chris Lilley of Big Bob Gibson BBQ restaurant was an education. The restaurant started back in 1925, and Chris married into the family--lucky for both of them, since he's got the touch of a pork whisperer. He's a true master, "painting" those pork shoulders with two types of sauce before parking them for a final glazing in its 250 degree "garage."
"I love to mix flavors," Chris says, and after he snaps off his rubber gloves he will gently and deftly pull apart his pork shoulder for a judge to taste.
As it turned out, Chris' team from Big Bob Gibson BBQ got to take the ginormous grand champion trophy back home to Decatur, Alabama--along with the knowledge that, at least for this weekend, they had cooked about the best darn pork BBQ on the planet.
I tasted it, and I can tell you--it's sweet and good and slow-cooked with mastery.
More info on BBQ? Try Grilling with Rich.
For some great Yahoo BBQ recipes, click here.
And don't forget a cooker.