In late August 2007, Memphis In May sent out a letter explaining that in order to focus its resources on recruiting teams from around the world for its World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the organization would no longer be sanctioning the 40 or so smaller barbecue contests across the country. These contests served as a minor league for the Memphis In May contest, sending its winning teams to the big show in Tom Lee Park. Sanctioning involves having a Memphis In May representative at the event and providing logistical support, such as overseeing the judging process and making sure that Memphis In May's rules are being followed.
The announcement caused some concern among volunteers who had worked as barbecue contest representatives, and shortly after receiving the news, they formed the Memphis Barbecue Network.
"We met two weeks later to decide: Can we do this? Do we want to do this?" says Memphis Barbecue Network president Randy McGee. He adds with a laugh, "We're still asking ourselves that."
While the Memphis Barbecue Network is new, it already has signed up more than 500 judges and roughly 90 teams from across the country and has been enlisted to work 32 contests so far this year. Members of the network already have begun performing the tasks associated with sanctioning. They provide these smaller contests with a list of judges and teams for recruiting. They help with scoring and introduce newer teams looking for guidance to teams with more experience.
The Memphis Barbecue Network is also training judges. "We're taking it very seriously about the caliber of judges for these teams," says network vice president Henry Evans. "They spend a lot of money. It's not inexpensive for these barbecue teams. It's $1,000 a weekend for them, easy. And they expect to have judges who know what they're doing. Consistent, competent judges."
McGee says the network works hard to serve as ambassadors of good barbecue and good will. Members have raised money for tornado victims, and they helped with the recent hot-wings contest on South Main.
According to McGee, there was some discussion between the Memphis Barbecue Network and Memphis In May to have an official association, but terms could not be ironed out. Representatives from both parties agree that they share an aim of promoting Memphis-style barbecue, and many of the network's members still volunteer with Memphis In May.
"We would prefer to have an official association with Memphis In May," McGee says. "We're in the process of exploring associations with different barbecue contests that have approached us."
In the meantime, McGee and his fellow networkers are focused on the job at hand. "We're just trying to grow," he says, "and trying to support Memphis-style barbecue."
This year's Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is Thursday-Saturday, May 15-17 at Tom Lee Park.
For more information on the Memphis Barbecue Network, visit their website.
by Susan Ellis