Memphis in May: Pork-a-Palooza
Gaming the System
The more I learn, the more I realize that winning this thing has less to do with great barbecue and more to do with anticipating the judges. They like sweet. They don’t like spice. They like tenderloin. They don’t like belly. On and on. So competitors study past winners, then go Mr. Wizard on the pigs. They fill the cavity with bricks of cold butter. They pack iced pillowcases around their tenderloins to stop the cooking. Some pigs are souped up with culinary nitrous oxide: liquid fat–laden injections.
This isn’t happening in a vacuum. For many, these traveling cooking teams are the face of Southern barbecue. Not the guys, like the pit masters on our team, who cook pigs in the same pit three hundred days a year. The most wonderful thing about barbecue has always been its regional differences. Each pig told a story. Rodney Scott, pit master at Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, uses wood he chops himself. Pat Martin was born in Mississippi but worked as a bond trader in Charlotte before realizing his calling, and his Beach Road 12 sauce, with the Carolina tang and a touch of the Memphis sweet, is a reflection of his own journey to the pit. Barbecue changes from town to town, an entire style morphing at the Tennessee River, or at the Piedmont, or when you sweep down onto Highway 61 from Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Memphis in May, the most important barbecue event in the world, rewards homogeneity. If you live in the South, maybe you’ve noticed how hard it’s becoming to find a good, simple barbecue sandwich. Traditional barbecue is fading as competition barbecue is rewarding smoke and mirrors.
So while we do cut away some of the fat, more than the chefs would have liked, there is still plenty left on the hog. I’ve never seen a pig like this. It’s marbled, laced with thin lines of fat. It looks like a rib eye steak. There are fewer than a thousand Mangalitsas in North America, and this is the first time, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, that one has ever been barbecued. (We’re putting two on the coals.) It could put a new face on barbecue or, more accurately, give barbecue its old face back. The guys shake on a rub, the extent of the doctoring, and look down at the pit-ready pig.
“I think we should do a shot of bourbon,” says Drew Robinson from Jim ’N Nick’s.
There are murmurs of agreement. Hell, yeah. Breakfast.
“I’ll get the Pappy Van Winkle,” says Brock, chef/owner of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina.
Pappy is poured into those flimsy cone-shaped water cups. I hold mine over the pig and knock it back.
“Bourbon and pigs,” Link says.
The Wee Hours
Bourbon and pigs. That fairly sums up my next twenty hours. The pit doors shut and smoke rolls out. Nothing to do but wait. The chefs and pit masters hold little summits, conversations that food nerds would freak out over. There is laughter. There is boudin and soft-shell crabs and oysters and crawfish. There are trays of Jell-O shots, and big cups of bourbon, and people dance until the speakers overheat. There is some drama at the pig; the fire gets too hot, but Rodney Scott finesses the coals, brings the temperature down. There’s no pit problem he can’t fix. You’ve seen Pulp Fiction? He’s the Mr. Wolfe of pork.
I fall asleep in a chair by the pit and later move to a couch. I wake up at 4:30 a.m. to find Scott and Brock still awake. Brock and I tag out, and I settle in next to Scott. He’s bulletproof. I’m not. The Pappy is gone. There’s a dead tall boy of Pabst and a cashed bottle of Patrón on a table, along with the empty shell casings of Jell-O shots.
“We look rough,” says Sarah Johnson from Jim ’N Nick’s.
“I feel rough,” Brock says.
Scott puts R&B on the speakers. Al Green brings us back to life. We’ve been goofballs for the past two days, but when the end comes, it’s all business.
“Do you feel good about this?” Nick Pihakis asks.
It’s time to create the Box. We’ve talked about the Box endlessly, lending it the importance of an advanced policy initiative, which seems slightly ridiculous, given that the Box is a Styrofoam container of cooked pig. But the Box is for the most important part of judging, the blind taste test, so there are four Beard-winning chefs on the Jim ’N Nick’s mobile smoking rig. Everyone is calm, quiet, with a few jokes and short, precise comments. The Box has to go at noon. Link has a knife in his hand. Some of the Beach Road 12 sauce is in a jug; abstract ideas and theories are great, but these guys didn’t become who they are by trying to lose. Some of my snark evaporates as I realize every team is doing this exact same thing.
“It’s 11:50, guys,” John Currence, from City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, says quietly.
What follows is a damn impressive ten minutes. My boys are stone cold. Nobody ever raises his voice or appears to rush, and I realize that before these guys were famous, they spent their lives in hot kitchens, cranking out dinner night after night. All thirty-four other whole hog teams are equally concerned with sticking the landing.
The Box is off, and three in-person judges are coming through. They are given the Gospel According to Fatback. Pat Martin does most of the talking. They hear about the Mangalitsas, about the pit masters and the chefs, about Martin’s dream of a win at Memphis in May changing the arc of the pig industry, replacing the flavorless factory hogs with ones more like our grandparents ate. His son, he testifies, might one day enjoy the results of our work today. Finally, the last judge leaves, and Scott walks back to the pit. Sam Jones, whose joint, the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, grew out of a family barbecue tradition that dates back two hundred years, is standing there.
“We are so full of it,” Scott says.
“Full of what?” Jones asks.
“Truth,” Scott says.