There are few lip-smacking pleasures more satisfying than diving into a big, sticky, meaty plate of barbecued ribs or tender, juicy pulled pork. But to coax the perfect texture and flavor from that meat takes more instinct, experience, food science know-how, and just a little bit of luck than you can shake a wet-nap at.
“I think the misnomer is that we just throw meat in the smoker and everyone sits back, has a cold beer, and waits on a trophy,” laughs Melissa Cookston, two-time barbecue champ at the pork-centric Memphis in May World Grand Champion Competition. She's also the pitmaster and co-owner of the crave-worthy BBQ haunt Memphis Barbecue Company in Horn Lake, Miss. and Fayetteville, N.C. “It’s so much more work than you’d imagine. Since 2007, I’ve been living, sleeping, eating, and breathing barbecue 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
True enough – competitive barbecue competitions occur on a near weekly basis all year long, all across the country, and in some cases the winners are competing not just for a title, but big money. Cookston grabbed the number one spot in last year’s Kingsford Invitational to the tune of a $50,000 grand prize. But to get to that point takes years of practice, commitment, time, and no small amount of financial sacrifice, too.
Cookston, who also holds the distinction as being the highest winning female competitor in barbecue history, as well as a three-time champ in the Whole Hog category, began 17 years ago, when her husband squired her to a barbecue competition while they were dating.
“It was love at first sight,” says Cookston, who started trying her hand at smaller competitions immediately after. By 2007, she and her husband knew barbecue for them was serious business. They both quit their good, full-time jobs as directors of operation in the corporate restaurant world to compete full-time and lay the groundwork for opening Cookston’s duo of restaurants, Memphis Barbecue Company.
At the Memphis competition to take place May 16-18, around 300 contestants are broken down into 122 teams, all ‘cued up to compete in the championship’s main categories – ribs, whole hog (Cookston’s category of choice), and shoulder.
There are also ancillary competitions that go on during the three-day event as well, but it’s these main events that bring in the big prizes -- and cost the most to enter. Between the entry fee, the meat, the set-up, and just getting there, the price tag for Cookston’s entry this year will run about $8,000. If you win enough competitions, you’ll likely land a sponsor, as she has, to offset the costs. But, as she points out, barbecue can be a finicky mistress.
“It’s very serious – the people entering have spent big bucks to be there, so we take this as a very serious job,” says long-time barbecue judge Trish O’Connor. She says that there are many parameters for a judge to follow – everything from avoiding cigarette smoking or consuming alcohol or soda pre-competition to having no contact with contestants prior to judging, a ban on cell phone use during judging, or taking photographs in the judges’ tent.
And to wear a judge’s badge in the first place, one must be certified by a recognized national barbecue society and attend a six-hour training class, in which you learn everything from animal anatomy to how to properly judge entries.
“They give you criteria that you watch for, like texture. If it’s overcooked, it’ll be kind of like mush or peanut butter in roof of your mouth. You want to be able to pull it apart, squeeze, and get a little moisture. For ribs, you want a little moisture as well as a hint of a tug in the meat. Too hard or too mushy are bad.”
But for those who can’t resist the sweet smell of smoking meat, it’s all worth it; and even comes along with some more fundamental lessons, too.
“We would not be the people we are without those hard lessons on how to win and lose gracefully. It’s a labor of love,” Cookston offers. “It’s more than about the food – it takes a long time to cook low and slow. The things that happened during all those hours make it what it is.”
The 2013 Memphis in May Barbeque Championship is May 16 – 18 in Tom Lee Park, Memphis. For information or tickets, go to www.memphisinmay.org.