They were cooking everything but the squeal last weekend at Memphis in May, for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
At the Magically Piglicious tent, UM alum and cook Jack Koban was smoking ribs in a brand new smoker, from Tucker Cooker Co.
“If someone knows how to make a smoker, surely someone from Memphis does,” Koban said.
The team’s past cooks, who co-own The Joint in New Orleans, hauled a smoker to the competition in recent years.
The travel time, coupled with losing a week of revenue and an assistant manager who quit, made it too difficult to make the trip two years ago. So Koban stepped in.
The barbecue contest started back in 1978, next to the Orpheum Theatre in a vacant lot. Twenty teams cooked in that first competition; now, 250 teams or more regularly fill up the space at Tom Lee Park that’s empty for much of the year.
And the $1,000 in prize money has now reached more than $110,000 in prizes and money, turning a tiny cooking competition into the world’s largest.
Magically Piglicious cooks up about 15 racks of ribs a day, during its practice run Friday and then for the big dance Saturday.
In the team’s best year, the seven judges gave their ribs three perfect 10s, high nines and one eight. That judge sank them in the ranks.
“With ribs, it’s such a crap shoot,” Koban said, adding that as a native of Memphis, he prefers a good dry rub. Judges, however, are from across the U.S. and usually like their ribs heavily sauced and super sweet.
There’s no certain profile for the members of a championship barbecue team. Koban is working on a PhD in geology at the University of Memphis, and said his team may be the most educated at the contest: three are engineers, there are architects, and seven or eight doctors.
For their team, with 20-40 members contributing funds at any time and a core group of 10-12, the championship is always about having a good time and enjoying good food.
“We may do this for 100 years and never win first place,” he said. The good times include a lot of traditions, and for Magically Piglicious that means taking shots in the cooler and boiling crawfish after the judging Saturday.
Keeping the team sober enough to cook is important to the final outcome too.
Magically Piglicious almost came to a grinding halt in its second year, when the cook – someone Koban is quick to point out was a friend of a friend of a friend – was banned from the competition for life. That happens when a contestant gets drunk, drops $5,000 at a local Memphis strip club and crashes his car. It wasn’t the sort of public relations image Memphis in May wanted for the team, so that’s how they ended up with the owners from The Joint.
It’s Not Just a Pork Contest
While Koban was smoking ribs for fun, the Slapjo Mama BBQ Hog Cooking Team was working on a chicken display for the poultry contest. The chicken, dripping with moisture, was paired with a spicy white barbecue sauce.
Slapjo Mama uses two Backwoods Smokers, one for smaller cuts and a bigger smoker for whole hogs. The smokers are some of the most popular on the Memphis Barbecue Network circuit.
Keith Obert, one of the team captains and an Ole Miss Law grad, said about 50 percent of Memphis in May teams use Backwood Smokers, although it’s probably more like 75 percent on the circuit.
The team was busy placing chicken breasts and pulled chicken on a bed of kale, because perfect presentation is required for the judges. Even if a team’s meat tastes better than everyone else’s that day, it will get low scores without attractive packaging.
The team has cooked for some pretty impressive Oxford-area judges in the recent past: Jill Freeze, wife of Coach Hugh Freeze, University of Mississippi head football coach; Allison Nix, wife of Coach Derrick Nix, UM running backs coach; and Leslie Wommack, wife of Coach Dave Wommack, UM defensive coordinator.
They were in attendance at Operation BBQ Relief, in Louisville, Miss., to benefit tornado victims across the country. By texting the word “Relief” to 79774, anyone can donate money to a general fund for barbecue experts to feed victims in devastated areas. And tons of people come out in support.
Circuit-wide Barbecue Champions
Over at a two-story, scaffolded barbecue tent, replete with several balconies, sat the team from “10 Bones” BBQ. They weren’t cooking Friday, but were waiting for the Saturday whole hog competition.
“10 Bones” BBQ is a true championship barbecue team.
According to cook Mark West, they have a long list of wins: about 75 or so grand champion titles, first-place sauce a couple of times on Memphis circuit, two second-place finishes in whole hog and a fifth-place shoulder finish in Memphis.
At one time, the team was state champion in six states: Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. The team has been competing for about 16 years.
All that winning is based on one thing, West said. Fresh sauces and dry rubs, made right before they go on the hog. That flavor profile is what makes each hog or other smoked meat so unique.
“It’s just like a coffee bean in a grinder,” West said. “You’ve got to be fresh.”
West, a lifelong Ole Miss fan, spent one semester at UM before going on to graduate from Delta State. His daughter will be a junior at the University next year and many of his family members are alumni.
West only cooks for the whole hog competition, and planned to put his hog on at 4 o’clock that evening, to slowly smoke for about 20 hours.
After a few drinks, West was certain that his abilities were greater than many other teams on the roster.
“The rest of those people can’t even hold our apron,” he said.
Smoking at Home
For those of us who don’t have $1,800 to $10,00 to drop on a new smoker, and that’s the price before customization, options still exist.
For about $30, a Brinkman “R2D2” will get the job done right and leave you with delicious smoked meat, at home.
If you want to step up one level, buy a Weber Kettle and a Smokenator accessory, a setup that should cost you somewhere around $150. Be warned, you’ll need one of the larger Webers to smoke full racks of ribs.
Our own Pork Belly Slim gave us the inside scoop on smoking the perfect ribs at home every time. Click Here to read that article and get smokin’!
Also, mark your calendars for May 30-31. SlapJo Mama will be putting on the 13th Annual Heavenly Hogs BBQ Contest, which is now part of the First Annual Ques, Blues and Cruise, a new spring festival held on the grounds of the Chapel of the Cross in Madison, Miss. The contest benefits the Madison County soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread.
– Gretchen Stone is HottyToddy.com associate editor. Gretchen can be contacted about this story at Gretchen.Stone@HottyToddy.com
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