Next up at Memphis in May: World-class Barbecue
Rodney Ashley is a Memphis native. “Anytime you’re anywhere close to downtown the third week of May, the wind’s already carried the aroma of barbecue into the air,” he’ll tell you, referring to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC), scheduled this year for May 16-18. In its 36th iteration, the contest expects 250-plus international teams competing for $110,000 in cash prizes in downtown Memphis’ Tom Lee Park.
Growing up, Rodney remembers going down to the contest, walking around, and leaving curious about competitive cooking. He’d cook at home for family and friends, but in that setting, “Everybody tells you it’s good,” he says. Then he took the judges’ course. “Sampling world-class barbecue, you see where you are and where you want to be,” he admits. That was in the late 1990s. He’s been judging and cooking competitively ever since.
A few years ago, Rodney met Mike Godwin, head cook for the Paradise Porkers. Rodney had the competition experience; Mike, the flavor profile. Together with the tight-knit Porkers, they’ve taken 16th place in the WCBCC Shoulder category and ninth for Ribs. “After that, we hit the [competition] circuit hard,” Rodney says – as frequently as every other weekend – in hopes of improving their ranking at the 2013 WCBCC. What’s their strategy? “We’re going to be very consistent, and make sure that everything we do is fresh and of good quality – the rubs, the sauces – everything is going to be us.” Rodney, Mike and the Paradise Porkers have also chosen to focus on pork this year instead of the WCBCC’s ancillary categories, which range from wings to seafood to sauces.
Rodney’s advice for competitors? Set your product apart with a unique flavor profile, and remember that showmanship sells: “The judges are only going to have one or two bites [of your dish]. They need to understand the story of how you got there – tell them what they’re tasting and about the flavor profile. It moves you up a bit,” he suggests.
To visitors and locals interested in experiencing the WCBCC, he shares this:
1. Join the Cooker Caravan, a free guided tour featuring select teams (including the Paradise Porkers). The teams typically talk about their cookers (“rigs,” in competition-speak), their methods, and their passion. Cooker Caravan tours are typically given every half-hour between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday during the WCBCC.
2. Register for the Kingsford Tour of Champions. This is your opportunity to taste (and judge) competition-quality barbecue. You’ll try four samples prepared by selected teams; then vote for your favorite. It’ll cost you $10, though $2,500 is at stake for the winning team. As I’m writing this, shifts were still available Thursday from 2-4 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. Register online here.
3. Learn something new, or make a new friend. As I learned from Neil Gallagher, pit master for the WCBCC team “Too Sauced to Pork,” many of the teams are friendly and inviting. Rodney echoes this: “Take a genuine interest in a team. Just ask the questions. We want to show off,” he offers. That said, Saturday morning (when teams are feeling the ultimate crunch of competition) is probably not the right time to solicit conversation. But I find Thursday and Friday to be pretty mellow days – perfect for getting to know the teams and learn more about competitive cooking and barbecue done right.
1. It’s tough smelling all that competition barbecue and knowing you can’t partake. Fortunately, there will be licensed food vendors in Tom Lee Park throughout the WCBCC.
2. There will also be nightly live music (Robert “Wolfman” Belfour on Thursday; Jimmy Van Zant on Friday; Percy Sledge on Saturday). View the full schedule here.
3. The WCBCC is open to the public Thurs., May 16, 10 a.m. to midnight; Fri., May 17, 11 a.m. to midnight; and Sat., May 18, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets are available online for $8 ($9 at the gate; children six and under enter free). You can also go V.I.P. Personally, I like to go free – admission is complimentary 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
More Memphis in May to-dos:
Salute to Sweden events: Illuminating Sweden, Memphis in May’s designated honoree for 2013, you’ll find the country’s culture expressed through visual art, performances, cinema, and more happenings across town through the end of the month. View the full schedule here.
Sunset Symphony: Memphis in May’s closing event (May 25), with crowd-friendly selections performed by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra; fireworks; food vendors (plus a picnics-allowed policy) – all set on the Mississippi. Tickets available online for $8 or at the gate for $9 (children 6 and under enter free).
Were you among the muddy masses at Beale Street Music Fest earlier this month, or are you planning to attend the WCBCC or other Memphis in May events still to come? Share your experiences (or what you’re looking forward to) in the comments section below.