Get ‘Sauced’ at Memphis’s World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest
Y’all know I love it when you comment on my blog here at Tennessee TripTales. So when Neil Gallagher, Pit Master of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest team “Too Sauced to Pork” commented on my post about Memphis in May, I commented back…and got an invitation to come down and meet the team during this weekend’s contest.
I wasn’t surprised to find a crew from Travel Channel inside the Too Sauced tent when I arrived. Neil’s just that outgoing, and despite the fact that he lives in Buffalo, New York these days, his hospitality gives his Southern roots away. Which leads me to his story: Neil’s first Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was 21 years ago – when he was 12 years old. “I picked it up from mom and dad,” he told me. Neil’s parents still live in Memphis, and his dad is a member of the Too Sauced team. While we were talking, someone yelled, “Neil – your grandma’s here.”
But when Neil says that his team “is a big family,” he means it literally and figuratively: Counting him and his dad, Too Sauced is a 54-person network of enthusiasts from across the country (in a flash, Neil pointed to members from Missouri, Wisconsin, Washington, South Carolina and Florida) united by online meat-smoking and barbecue forums. Some, like Neil, arrived a week early to begin setting up. Many camped out onsite during the event. And everyone pitched in to fund the cost of competing (Neil said that’s around $11,000 for the three-day affair).
Yet it’s obvious, walking around Tom Lee Park on the Mississippi River every third weekend in May: It’s totally worth it.
There is prize money at stake. But beyond that, it’s the rigs, the team names and t-shirts, the parties, the music. It’s just plain fun. And even if you’re not on a team, you can have fun, too. Here’s how:
- Join a team, or make friends with one. Too Sauced to Pork, for example, encourages anyone who’s interested to apply as a team member or keep a conversation going with the team – which could score you an invitation inside their tent. (Remember that health and contest regulations prohibit teams from serving food to the public, and allow only team members and their guests to enter the tents.)
- Hang out, day or night, during the event. This year, there were four hours of free admission across two days (outside of those periods, tickets cost $8 in advance and $9 at the gate). Once you’re in, be as thrifty or as extravagant as you wannabe. For free, you can gawk at the elaborate rigs (even tour a few of them – just ask about the Cooker’s Caravan) and enjoy nightly entertainment like the Ms. Piggie Idol Contest (as well as legitimate musicians). Bring a few bucks to buy barbecue from a vendor, and inquire about paid tastings (this year’s Kingsford Tour of Champions cost $10 for tastes from top-10 teams). For a splurge, consider going “V.I.Pit.”
But back to the tent: It smelled like heaven and looked like a restaurant line – butter was melting; the smoker was smoking; and Too Sauced team member David Mundis was calling out for cilantro. David was working on Too Sauced’s seafood entry: chile lime shrimp tacos dressed with coleslaw. (Friday of the contest is an “Anything But” day, meaning that anything but pork is judged – including hot wings, an exotic category, beef, seafood, poultry and three varieties of sauce: tomato, vinegar and mustard).
That makes Saturday pork day. Teams choose one category to compete in: whole hog, ribs or shoulder. Too Sauced is a ribs team, and Neil was forthcoming with his secrets: He starts with peach and pecan woods, and makes a chipotle-honey glaze using smoked paprika, chile pepper and cinnamon. The balance of his formula is practice. “I barbecue every weekend [at home]. My wife’s getting sick of it,” he laughed.
How did the practice pay off? Too Sauced took second place for its tomato sauce and eighth for its vinegar sauce. The team also placed well in the exotic and beef categories – 13th and 21st, respectively, and with hundreds of teams competing, that’s reason to smile. But Too Sauced’s ribs didn’t make the coveted top 10. Looks like it’s another year of weekend barbecues at Neil’s house.
Did you compete or hang around the contest this weekend? Share your story. And don’t forget Sunset Symphony – the event will end Memphis in May with a bang (including fireworks, an air show and concert by The Bar-Kays and Memphis Symphony Orchestra – all on that legendary river).