This year, over 100,000 barbecue fans will descend on the banks of the Mississippi river for the 38th Annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the world’s largest all-pork barbecue contest.
Between May 14 and 16, Tom Lee Park in Memphis will be transformed into the ultimate celebration of barbecue, with an astonishing 55,000 pounds of meat being cooked on the premise. Along with the smoke, fire, and food is a non-stop flow of music and adult beverages coming from competitors’ sites, some of which are as large as a small city block and a towering three stories in height. Mixed in are must-sees like the over-the-top Miss Piggy Idol lip-synching contest and the Kingsford Tour of Champions, during which visitors can taste and vote on food from a select number of teams.
Come Friday evening, however, the parties die down significantly, as more than 250 teams from around the world begin the daunting task of trying to best their competitors in one of three primary categories — whole hog, pork shoulder, and pork ribs — in order to walk away with a portion of the $111,000 in prize money and, perhaps, the title of Memphis in May 2015 Grand World Champion.
Unlike the majority of barbecue contests held around the country, in which competitors are only required to turn in to the judges a blind (unmarked) box filled with their best barbecue of the day, Memphis in May employs a multi-stage judging process in order to separate the pretenders from the contenders. Saturday morning starts with teams turning in unadorned Styrofoam boxes filled with either ribs, shoulder, or a selection of meat from the whole hog, as well as an optional accompanying sauce.
Teams must then quickly return to their sites and prepare for a well-rehearsed dog-and-pony (or, more appropriately, a hog-and-pony) show to be performed for three separate judges. As the onsite judging begins, a hush falls upon the crowd and one or more designated team members begin serving up their meat of choice while sharing tales of preferred cooking methods, personal anecdotes, and a good dose of BBQ B.S.
After on-site judging has been completed, teams can be seen anxiously pacing as they wait to find out which three teams will move on to the final round of judging for each category. For those nine fortunate teams, making finals means one more hog-and-pony show for an esteemed group of judges.
Later that evening, all of the competitors and fans congregate in front of the event’s main stage for the awards ceremony. Top 10 teams in each category are then called to the stage from tenth to first for their trophies and checks, and once the overall winner in each category has been named, all three return to the stage one last time to find out which will walk away with the title that deserves ultimate bragging rights: the overall Memphis in May World Champion.
There have been 15 overall winners from the pork rib category, including Ms. Bessie Louise Cathey, who beat out 27 other teams at the first Memphis in May contest in 1978; 13 from the whole hog category, including Melissa Cookston of Yazoo’s Delta Q, who has won the category an astonishing four times and overall Grand Champion twice; and nine for pork shoulder, including last year’s winners Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, who also hold the title for most overall wins, with four.
So who will walk away as the winner of this year’s contest? Only the pork gods know, but be sure to stay tuned for a full recap as soon as the festivities are over.