In Southern culinary circles, pork barbecue might reign supreme, but fried catfish and grilled hot wings are quickly gaining ground.
Case in point: former barbecue champ Randall Hearn, who, now that summer's over, is spending a lot of time with two good friends: fellow cooking enthusiast Doug McGee and his Presto Fry Daddy deep fryer.
As the Bohicas, Hearn and McGee have been entering food competitions for nearly two decades, first making the rounds at barbecue cook-offs, then moving to catfish, chili, and hot-wings challenges. This week, the duo will be showing off their cooking talents at the 150th annual Mid-South Fair.
"Our name is an acronym for 'Bend over, here it comes again,'" says McGee, who explains that they borrowed the term from black conservative radio host Ken Hamblin. "We called and told him that we're gonna make him the honorary president of our team, but since he's a Yankee, we're not gonna let him cook."
"We won the Memphis In May Barbecue Cooking Contest in '96," says Hearn, who admits that frying catfish is much easier than sweating over a barbecue pit for days on end.
"There were a lot of extra hassles about cooking barbecue and way too many politics," McGee says, citing presentation requirements and out-of-pocket expenses as the two main reasons they abandoned the pit for the deep fryer.
The rules of the game at the Mid-South Fair seem rudimentary in comparison to the elaborate rituals that surround Memphis In May. For starters, the competition at the fair is determined by blind judging, meaning that there is no presentation involved. To further level the playing field, each team is given the same product -- Pride of the Pond catfish filets or store-bought chicken wings. What combination of seasonings they decide to use and how they choose to cook their entries are the only variables.
"Flavor matters," Eddie Harmon bluntly states. A judge in the hot-wings, chili, and catfish competitions for the last 10 years, Harmon says that he's seen a little bit of everything at the fair.
"It's all according to taste. With the catfish batter, some people make it hot, some make it mild. I'm always looking for a good flaky catfish that has a clean taste. If a fish tastes like fish, it's not gonna be any good. With the wings, it's the flavor of the sauce. Once again, everybody cooks 'em different. Some are sopping with sauce, and others are barely wet. Some people bake 'em, some fry 'em, and some brown 'em in a skillet. Some people put greenery around their entries, but most judges will immediately discard every bit of that. We eat a small cup of food from each competitor, and in between, we'll eat cheese or grapes to cleanse our palates," he explains.
Hearn uses the same recipe every year -- cornmeal instead of flour, salt, a little bit of spice, and a secret ingredient which, he says, "gives a little kick" to the mix. He forgoes a buttermilk soaking to dredge the fish filets in the batter and instead immediately plop them into the Fry Daddy, which is bubbling with regular vegetable oil.
"It's pretty much how my dad cooks it," he says. "Most people don't put enough salt in the batter, and they get bland fish. Or they don't cook it long enough -- you've got to keep it in there until it floats."
For the hot-wings contest, McGee will bypass the deep fryer for a charcoal grill. "I take the skin off and then marinate the wings in a special sauce," he says, refusing to elaborate on the ingredients. "When they're cooking, I put more sauce on. They'll stay on there for 15 or so minutes. I have it down pat," he says.
Each contest has a total purse of $600 to be split between first, second, and third place winners, but for most competitors, it's all about the camaraderie.
"You'll see a lot of couples cooking together. The women doing all the prep work, and the men standing over the grease," Harmon says.
"I like to win, but it's more about hanging out," McGee confirms.
"It's the same folks every year, which is fun," says Hearn, who confesses that at home he'll only fry catfish once or twice a year, usually in the weeks leading up to the Mid-South Fair competition.
"It's a lot of trouble," he says. "Most of the time, we'll drive out to Millington to eat at Miss Sipp's."