In 1979, the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was a big-top tent filled with more smoke than a four-alarm blaze. About 20 to 30 homegrown teams competed, many by digging an actual pit into the ground of their little section of Tom Lee Park.
Twenty-three years later, there are over 250 teams, many of which bear a corporate logo. Some of those teams even travel the country as their job, going from barbecue contest to barbecue contest. The barbecue itself is cooked on grills that often cost more than some small cars and weigh just about as much.
The teams that arent corporately sponsored smack of secret societies, fraternities for those who live by the sauce and die by the rub. In the months leading up to Memphis In May, they have secret weekly meetings to discuss strategy. Most do a few regional contests to practice creating their signature pork. On the Saturday after the Beale Street Music Festival ends, they load up and spend the week getting their booths and tents picture-perfect for the judging.
We looked at three of those local teams, groups of people that come together each year to cook a little hog, drink a little (or a lot of) beer, and have a good ol time. These are the teams that still have day jobs, that still pay for the honor of competing out of their own hip pockets. We learned that doing the Memphis In May barbecue contest takes months of hard work, organizational skills like the U.S. Army, and a willingness to get a little dirty. At barbecue fest, it s hard for those not on a team to get into a booth; its harder still to join a team. But if you get in, youve got a spot on the river for eight days of pork and beer and partying. And whats a little hard work compared to that?
"Weve been around 24 years, so were old ... then again, so are a lot of our members."
The Pit and the Pigulum is one of those teams thats been around almost since the very beginning; made up originally of a bunch of friends from Midtown, the team got together first for a church barbecue festival.
The team began one year after Memphis in May, so weve been around for 24 years so were old ... then again, so are a lot of our members, says Candice Eidson, the teams current treasurer.
The Pit and the Pigulum affectionately call their founding members geezers. For a barbecue team at one of the largest contests in the country, theyre all fairly laid-back. Theyve been cooking together for so long everyone knows exactly what their jobs are because they do the same one each year.
Everybody has their job and they know what theyre supposed to do. For years I helped with decorating and standing there with the judges, says Eidson.
Even so, it s not easy to do Memphis In May every single year for more than 20 years. During the 80s, the team went through some hard times but returned to create what the members call the second coming of their team. Thus the II added to their name.
It kind of fell apart a little bit, says Eidson, but it came back together with some of the beginning members and a lot of new members. That was before my time, but some people went, Oh, lets not do this anymore. Then you had a handful of other people who said, I still want to do this. That handful of people who still wanted to do it kept it going.
With so much history behind the team, Eidson says they can really finesse the judges. They ll tell them about the technique behind the barbecue and how many times theyve won and where ... and, of course, the judges will see a display of the teams many trophies.
A couple of them havent made it through the years, says Eidson. A couple of our team members havent made it through, either.
Another thing that didnt make it through the years was a wooden double-decker structure for their booth. After so many barbecues, Eidson says it got a bit rickety. Finally they tore it down. They toyed with the idea of rebuilding it, but it never happened. Now they do their cooking and serving in a gray tent with a raised and carpeted floor.
We make it look really pretty, says Eidson. Weve used sterling silver and candelabras in the past. Weve greeted the judges in tuxedos before. I don t think were going to do that this year, though; it s going to be pretty hot out there. Weve gotten a little more laid-back in our old age.
The team has about 20 members plus spouses. The membership committee is five of the old geezers. As the team has developed, small groups have pulled in other small groups to form a fairly diverse group.
If you think [someone is] a personality that will work well with the group and they want to join the barbecue team, says Eidson, you say, Ill nominate you. The old geezers always say it s okay. Ive never known them to say, No, we don t want them. Unless that was the meeting I missed ... but the only meeting I missed was the one that made me treasurer.
Were just a bunch of friends, she continues. We socialize together. We barbecue together. Members of the team also cook on a team at the annual Italian fest and the entire barbecue team goes to support them.
At Memphis In May, they havent fared too badly. During the past 10 years, the team has placed in the top 10 six times in the whole hog category, not a bad record for a small team. Just two weeks ago, the team took second place in the shoulders division in Southaven.
One year were going to win first. It may be this year, says Eidson. Through the years weve gotten close.
Eidson estimates the team has cooked at least 10,000 pounds of meat through the years, if not more. Thats a lot of meat, she says. Of course, the amount of beer they drink is more.But thats okay; it only makes the barbecue better.
Whats special about our barbecue? says Eidson. Its the best. It s the best and its cooked with a lot of love ... of beer.SWINE AND DINE
"My dad ... always made his own sauce."
Back then, family were the only people who had experienced it. Now people just clamor for it.
If the Pit and the Pigulum team has become more laid-back in their old age, the 24-year-old Swine and Dine team has become even more competitive.
We won our first barbecue [contest] in 88. We were always the type of team that was just out there to have fun, says Mike Armstrong, the teams leader. But when we won, it was like, Oh my God. We couldnt believe it. When they won first place in shoulders again a few years later, it sealed their reputation, as well as their competitive drive.
Swine and Dine originally began as two teams: the Saturday Night Group, which Armstrongs father helped found, and the Hobie Hogs, an early team his brother was on. But one year, as the barbecue contest grew faster than Tom Lee Park, the Hobie Hogs didnt get a spot. The two teams merged to form Swine and Dine.
Our cooking is a 28-hour process. In 28 hours, a lot of things can happen, says Armstrong. There are a thousand variables and the guys who are repeat winners really are championship quality, because theres no way thats a fluke. So when we won again in 91, it verified that we were a world-championship class team.
As the team picked up steam over the years, its gained more members (about 85 at last count) and become competitive in a lot of the ancillary contests. In fact, their Miss Piggy offerings (the teams signature move is to remove an article of clothing) has won them first prize the last two years in a row.
Every year we have people who want to get in. Every year we have to turn people away, says Armstrong.
Swine and Dine is also fairly well known for its elaborate booths: a big ship with a working cannon (no ammunition, only streamers) for Portugal, a Taj Mahal for India, a big outdoor patio with a working fountain the year the festival saluted Morocco. But the heart of the team is probably the sauce, created by Armstrongs father.
One of the elder Armstrongs first jobs was in 1938 at a barbecue stand in North Carolina. It was here, Armstrong believes, that the Swine and Dine sauce began.
My dad always liked to barbecue, says Armstrong. He was not at that time famous for his barbecue, but he did like to barbecue and he always made his own sauce. Back then, family were the only people who had experienced his sauce. Now, as the team has grown, a lot more people have come in contact with his sauce. People just clamor for it.
But having a good sauce is not enough to win the entire contest. In an ongoing quest for excellence, several Swine and Dine members have also been through barbecue judging school.
There was a period where we were saying, Gosh, we havent won. What are we doing wrong? What are we not doing? says Armstrong. We said, Why dont we go through the judging school and see what theyre looking for?
It hasnt brought the first-place trophy for shoulders back to them yet, but they think it could soon.
We do a mean rib. We really could compete in ribs, but were kind of afraid to change. We really feel that any year could be our year in shoulders, says Armstrong. It would be like starting again from scratch if we changed categories.
But above all else, Armstrong strives to keep his team having fun. He stresses it at every meeting and every few minutes as he talks about the team.
I dont want to say that we re not trying to win, because we are, but we emphasize fun over everything else, says Armstrong. Because if its not fun, it s just too much work.BARBECUE REPUBLIC
"This is not the Newbys team."
Not that Swine and Dine has the lock on fun.
Barbecue Republic boasts that for years people told them their double-decker booth was the best party: the loudest music, the most people, the prettiest girls.
Im not saying thats changed 100 percent, says Barbecue Republic president Gordon Stark. I think we still are known for throwing a pretty good party down there.
Former president Patrick Green agrees. Were getting older, but were not dead, he says.
Barbecue Republic is a relatively young team. Started in 1993, the team comprises about 25-35 people, all somewhere around 30 years old. Some of the guys dads were on teams and the sons wanted to try their own hand at it.
We used to all hang out at Newbys, says Green. This is not the Newbys team. The first year we did it we just did it for the heck of it. Here we are 10 years later still doing it for the heck of it.
Over the past ten years, a few things have changed. For one thing, Stark says when the team began he could barely cook a hamburger. Now he mans the teams barbecue offering, an 85- to 110-pound whole hog.
When we started, he says, we were nearly 100 percent single. There was maybe one married guy. Now about 50 percent of us are married with at least one child. Its hard to balance it, but everybody likes the production down there so much, they just keep coming back.
To cook their whole hog, Barbecue Republic has a self-designed custom-built cooker that cost them about $10,000.
We started out with a colleagues cooker and we decided we needed to make some changes to it, says Stark. That resulted in a lot of discussion how to build the thing up.
In the end, they decided it was going to cost so much money to remodel the cooker that they might as well design and build their own. That way, they could really have exactly what they wanted and needed for their own brand of barbecue.
Theyve never raised their own pig for Memphis In May although some of the team members seem to think otherwise but they do harvest their own hickory off about 30 acres in Arlington. They say they need about one tree for the barbecue fest.
It sounds a little far-fetched, but its true, says Green.
Sadly, neither the cooker, nor the hickory, nor the mythical self-raised pig have helped them take home a first-place trophy.
The year we got sixth place--I kid you not, we cremated that pig, says Green. It was our second year to do it. Everybody down there was drunk. Everybody wanted to show some chick our pig on the grill, so everybodys over there opening the grill up. All the heat is coming out, so were trying to compensate and restoke the fire while all this is going on. It was the one year they said there was no way they were going to win; theyve never done better.
What does make the group stand out is their technology. Their music--1,500 songs-- are preprogrammed MP3s. And theyre the only team with a live Webcast of their tent, so even if youre not on the team, you can still see all the fun youre missing.
To get somebody on the team is about as easy as squeezing blood from a stone, says Stark. Were not going to let any old Jim-Bob off the street onto our team. You have to be selective about who you put on. You like to have people who will help carry the weight and participate.
Chris Patteson was one of the first new members the team ever took. He doesnt mention the word hazing when he talks about his experience, but other members of the team do.
I got on in 99, he says. I had to come down in 98 and pick up as much trash and shovel as much coal as I could and make sure all the team members had everything they needed. He even slept with the cook-- not in the way you think-- to guarantee himself a spot on the team.
On Sunday, after it s all said and done, they all head on over to the Butcher Shop for dinner and to lick the wounds of their barbecue battle.
Asked what makes his team do Memphis In May each year, Patteson would have you believe that Barbecue Republic is just a bunch of guys with a common interest in cooking. Green clarifies it thus: We have a common interest in drinking and drinking tends to lead to eating.
Spoken like a true old-timer.