My Last Memphis in May

The Memphis in May World BBQ Cooking Contest has been extremely good to me.  Though I have competed and won (and lost)  in many BBQ contests, Memphis in May, or MIM as we call it around here, has always been the pinnacle of BBQ in my life.  A large part of that is regional- in the Mid-South, MIM is the greatest contest around.  People from the Midwest will argue about the American Royal, and people from Texas will argue about the Houston Livestock show (but, name something people from Texas don’t argue about.) I grew up eating Memphis-style BBQ, and I believe it’s just the best BBQ.  I started competing at MIM in 2008, though I cooked contest for years before that.  Frankly, MIM is an expensive contest to enter, and we just couldn’t afford the time or effort to compete there.  But, since then, I competed for 15 straight years (excepting 2020 for Covid, of course.) After all the trials and tribulations of cooking there, I decided this was my last year to compete.

trimming whole hogs
Trimming hogs at Memphis in May

About The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

I started competing in 2008 at Memphis in May.  If you’ve never been to MIM, you really are missing out on one of the greatest culinary events in the world.  Teams from across the nation and internationally compete there every year.  MIM/Memphis-style BBQ Contests and other BBQ contests differ two-fold.  First, MIM-style events are pork only.  Pork is the king of meats in this area.  We also have a predilection for baby-back ribs as our pork rib of choice (vs St. Louis ribs in most of the nation.)  Yes, we know baby-back ribs have less fat, so they’re less “forgiving” than St. Louis ribs.  We just think y’all need to be better rib cooks!  Secondly, Memphis style contests integrate an “on-site judging” portion of the scoring.  Judges come to the team’s booth, listen to the pitmasters talk about their BBQ, and then score them on their experience.  This portion of the scoring is combined with a “blind box” score, where teams send in samples in unmarked boxes to be judged.

The onsite portion of the contest has led to a buildup of teams focusing on their appearance and their team setup.  So, go to many contests in the country, and you’ll see folks with a smoker.  Come to MIM, and you’ll see extravagant booths, beautifully decorated and exceptionally clean areas for the judges.  Of course, why make all of that area so pretty if you can’t have a party?  These teams bring the house down on Thursday and Friday nights with huge catering, DJs, big parties, and tons of people.  Quite the contrast to Saturday (judging time), where a church mouse would be considered loud.  It’s go time on Saturdays!

The top three teams in ribs, whole hog, and pork shoulders are notified they made the top three.  Then, one set of four judges journeys around the park at an assigned time and visits each of the finalists.  Those four judges determining the category winners and the grand champion.

Cooking Whole Hogs

cooked whole hog
my whole hog entry in 2023

I am a whole-hog cook.  Frankly, I’ve won more awards with ribs than hogs over my career.  But cooking whole hogs is the real reason I love BBQ.  It’s the challenge that you’ll never perfect.  Each hog is different- different fat contents, different muscle structures, and different weights.  I’ve cooked a lot of hogs and a lot of ribs.  I remember the times I screwed up on ribs.  With hogs, I remember each and every one.  The best hog I ever cooked?  A tie between the hog I cooked in Boliver, TN, where I thought it was perfect in preliminary judging, and it held all the way through finals judging for a perfect finals score, and my hog I cooked last year at Memphis in May.  I won a Grand Championship with the hog in Boliver; I missed finals last year by .04 for a 6th-place finish.  Them’s the breaks.

With a whole hog, you balance many factors; it is just crazy to think about.  Judges base their scores on three portions- shoulder, loin, and ham.  Ham is a large piece of meat- but it doesn’t have a lot of fat or collagen.  Therefore it cooks fairly quickly, and it can get dry.  Optimum finish temp- 175.  Loins- very lean, very exposed to heat, almost no connective tissue to break down internally and keep the meat juicy- optimum finish temp- 145.  Shoulders- large portions of muscles- thick with lots of fats, connective tissue, and collagens that must be broken down to get tender, juicy meat.  Optimum finish temp (depending on other factors such as cooker temperature, humidity, etc,) 185-195.  So, you have to balance all those factors out when you decide how you are going to cook your hog.  It’s a tough challenge to cook one perfectly.

My Time at Memphis in May

looking out over the Mighty Mississippi River from my booth. Pretty nice view!

I mentioned the elaborate set-ups, booths, etc, that teams have at Memphis in May.  It’s also important to mention that the event is held on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi River at Tom Lee Park.  Tom Lee Park is a park on the riverside in Memphis.  It’s basically on a reclaimed sand bank.  Therefore, it turns into a quagmire when it rains or gets wet.  There is one way in, one way out.  Loading in is a pain; loading out is a pain.  All of the hassle and expense goes away when you get to walk into the event with the teams set up, the flags flying, and the smell of smoked pork wafting through the air.  It’s really a magical place for a BBQ person.

I first entered MIM in 2008.  While teams around us had expensive, decorated booths, I brought two pop-up tents and no flooring.  I managed to “final,” or make the top three teams in whole hog that year.  From there, I competed in 15 straight Memphis in May contests and made a top 10 showing in each one.  I don’t think there’s an official record about that, but surely I hold the “unofficial” one.  During that time I managed 5 first places and two overall grand championships.  I’m very proud of my record in competing at Memphis in May.  MIM has

My Time Moving Forward

trophy time
Winners at the WJBL event in Guatemala

Competing at Memphis in May is not just a weekend, we plan for months in order to put our best foot forward.  It’s very expensive to compete there, both in money and time.  I’m to the point in my life where I just want to focus on different things.  First, my businesses- Memphis BBQ Company; The BBQ Allstars, selling my sauces and rubs, and shipping food across the nation.  But mainly, I want to do more work with my non-profit foundation- The World JR BBQ League.  The WJBL organized and sets up BBQ events for young people.  While we teach them cooking skills, the main focus are the life skills they learn cooking as a team and competing.  Leadership, teamwork, planning and preparation, focus, and many more skills that our young people need are the main drivers of my involvement.  It is so rewarding to see groups of young people coming together and learning these skills that they’ll need as they go through life.  Plus, they learn how to cook some amazing BBQ!  We’ve had international contests in The Caymans and Guatemala, and are trying to grow our organization in the US and the world.

I’m so thankful about my time competing at Memphis in May, and I so look forward to continuing on my BBQ journey.  Thanks Y’all!