Memphis in May: Pork-a-Palooza

Michael Turek
by Wright Thompson - Tennessee - Oct/Nov 2011

A team of pit masters goes to Memphis in May to answer a burning question: Can great barbecue still win?

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Before a man with one leg got women to take their shirts off while he poured liquor into their mouths via an ice luge; before the wild-eyed guy who provides the pigs to the French Laundry walked around the party slipping packages in people’s hands, which at least two of us thought were drugs but turned out to be bacon; before Donald Link’s boudin for lunch and John Currence’s andouille for happy hour and Sean Brock’s soft-shell crab for dinner; before ten-year-old Jess Edge asked his daddy, the Southern food guru John T. Edge, “What’s a Jell-O shot?”; before we waited to hear if we’d made the finals of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest; before the revolutionary act of creating an all-star team that included four James Beard Award–winning chefs, three old-school Southern pit masters, and one boozehound writer; before any of that, there was a pretentious but earnest idea: Could we rescue a barbecue contest, and maybe even barbecue itself, from a crushing sameness?

The line was drawn. On one side, us: a cooking team called the Fatback Collective, organized by barbecue industrialist Nick Pihakis, who founded the Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q chain of restaurants. On the other, Memphis and its world-famous barbecue contest, entering its thirty-fourth year and drawing an estimated 100,000 fans. Now, Memphis in May is many things: a place for Parrotheads to gather between nautical-pun tours, a grown-up frat party with a hundred thousand pledges, a place where friends commune over a smoking pig, and, maybe most important, a driver of where our barbecue culture will go. Here’s what it isn’t: a reflection of where our barbecue has been. We wanted to turn back the clock.

Maybe that’s silly. Maybe that’s an idea
fueled by ten cases of whiskey and two thousand Jell-O shots, but from the belly of the beast, surrounded by what many of us consider to be a threat to authentic barbecue —lean pigs, tricked out with injections, cooked not as a reflection of a family or place, not as a connection to our past, but, rather, gamed to the strange tastes of the Memphis judges—we all realized the mission of the Fatback Collective: redemption.
Redemption and about seventeen thousand calories a day, most of them liquid.