High on the hog: behind the scenes at the Memphis BBQ World Championship
When Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe arrives at the Shed, the team stands in reverent silence. The judge is a legend for writing seven cookbooks and having an unmistakable long, white goatee that's a cross between Guy Fieri and Gandalf. No one expected such a high-profile judge, but head ShedHed Brad breaks the ice by joking about palmed $100 bills, then walks Dr. BBQ towards a 1954 Willys Jeep pimped out as a smoker.
Brad swings open the doors to reveal a whole hog standing in a bed of kale. The cherry-red hide is as smooth and uncut as Babe's butt. So confident are the defending world champions that they haven't even sliced into the pig.
“Why do we get up in the morning? For moments like this. Perfection.”
Brad uses a box cutter to carve a half-moon into the leathery shoulder, but, as he does, a gallon of juice erupts onto his freshly-ironed red Dickies work shirt. The Shed had done the unthinkable: they shocked Dr. BBQ.
The Memphis World Championship is the Superbowl of swine. Established in 1978 with 26 teams, it has grown into one of the three biggest competitions in the nation and the only one with a dedicated whole-hog category. Over the course of four days, 244 teams set up camp on the muddy banks of the Mississippi to compete for a six-figure purse and a place in the storied lore of the barbecue circuit. I've invited myself along for the ride with the defending hog champs, The Shed.
The Shed is a Mississippi BBQ and blues joint run by the Orrisons: Food Network's first family of barbecue. A segment on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives spun into a single season “reality” show that aired in Fall 2013. The clan has celebrity status on the circuit thanks to their TV spotlight, dedication to pork perfection, and because they're really fun to hang out with.
Since there are 15 "I"'s in this team, we've compiled a few quick graphics to introduce them all. Scroll over their names for more info.
The Ocean Springs ShedHeds
The Competition Crew
ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY WALK INTO BBQ FEST
Like hobbits to Mordor, one does not simply walk into BBQ Fest. None of the camps in the barbecue shanty-town have vending licenses, so selling food is prohibited. A $12 GA ticket buys you free smells and access to a fairway of vendors hawking overpriced half-racks. To touch a team's meat you need a personal connection, judging credentials, or serious sweet talking ability. If lacking all three, your narrator suggests applying for a media badge.
The festival is like Burning Man for BBQers, minus the mandatory sharing. Most teams aren't generous because this isn't a game, it's a very expensive sport. Entry fees can exceed $5,000 depending on the size of your territory. Plus the costs of roofing, flooring, smokers, meat, and enough liquid nourishment for four days of partying. Teams have a blank slate to build their BBQ oasis, and the overall cost is often more than a college education.
If you don't have BBQ friends or a spare stack of Benjamins for a VIP pass, your last option is judging. $40 and an eight-hour class earns you a seat in the blind box judging tent. The MWC is unique amongst barbecue competitions because in addition to this blind Kansas City Barbecue Society style of judging, there's also controversial on-site visits by highly experienced judges.
Once the scores have been tallied the top three teams in each categories (ribs, shoulder, whole hog) are announced. The finalists are given two hours to reset their camps before a lightning round visit by four judges at once. The top teams are separated by hundredths of a point, so everyone's very careful to dot their i's and curl their q's.
GETTIN' FED AT THE SHED
Grilled tri-tip. Pork wings. Baby back ribs. Rabbit muffins. Chicken muffins. Deviled crab. Bacon-woven beef kabobs. Filet mignon. Pulled pork. Garlic-jalapeño sausage. Butter-steamed tenderloin pulled straight from the gut. By the end of the fest I'd eaten myself silly, but I arrived Thursday morning with a serious appetite.
When I eat BBQ that means Texas brisket, but here in Memphis the hog is king. They like pig butts, and they cannot lie. You can't walk 10ft without seeing a pork pun or a snout Photoshopped onto everything from Uma Thurman (Team Pork Fiction) to a Transformer (Optimus Swine). More than one of the Shed guys have anatomical pig tattoos. By the end of the week, it's impossible to look anyone in the eye without first noticing the swine-like curvature of their snout.
The pork affinity dates to the 1800s when slaves would slow-smoke the less desirable cuts, then pull off strips of meat while it was still cooking. Hence, the term pulled pork. The most commonly pulled cut is shoulder, which is also called “butt” because of the type of barrel originally used to package it. Call a ham a butt, and you'll certainly look like an ass.
At 11am, I arrive at the Shed and am greeted with a handshake from Gus the Pimp in front of the ramshackle Rolling Joint. The trailer is covered in “reclaimed” materials, but there's no Brooklyn barnwood; the primary design element is junkyard tin. It's decorated in license plates and laminated Shed philosophies (“Sorry I'm late, I'll leave early to make up for it.”).
Brad welcomes me with a handshake turned hug. His beet-red face and elastic smile are shaded by a straw hat patched with the Shed's musclebound pig logo. Brad is the type of guy who tried to wear new socks every day for a year. Before I can get a word in, he's strung together three manic punchlines. TV cameras stick to him like fire to charcoal.
He introduces me to the rest of the team as “the Thrillist guy”, then unveils the smoking arsenal. There's two upright Assassin brand, gravity-fed smokers and a pair of pellet-fed grills, but the big gun is a custom stick-burning Willys Jeep. Next to the grills are three bottomless beer coolers. At 11:17am, Brooke, Brad, and the Thrillist Guy pop Bud Lights and toast the first beers of the festival.
I came to learn that Bud Light is a beer that tastes much better in the AM. The Team is on a slow drip of canned beer, but nobody ever seems drunk. One year they partied too hard and got 22nd place. The next year they went stone sober and placed 24th. “So now we drink all we want!”
The laid-back attitude is a direct contrast to their neighbor Jack's Old South. The Shed guys rope off a dividing line between their camps out of both respect and fear. Of the 32 whole-hog teams, Jack's are perhaps the most intimidating opponents. Their leader Myron Mixon is a gray-bearded figure, dressed in all black, who judged TLC's Pitmasters and has proclaimed himself the winningest man and biggest a**hole in BBQ. If the Shed are the Mighty Ducks, Old South are the Hawks, Team Iceland, and Varsity Warriors rolled into one.
Myron closes his camp with a privacy awning on judging day, but on Thursday I braved an interview. Friendly small talk leads to a rant about the controversial on-site judges. They cut slack to their friends, are swayed more by flair than flavor, and ultimately reward the best ass-kissers.
Luckily the Shed excels in all of these dimensions.
THE WHOLE HOG AND NOTHING BUT THE HOG
“Things get real real quick,” says Brad.
They hope to repeat their 2012 Kingsford Invitational win and defend first place in poultry with prosciutto-wrapped chicken cupcakes, but these ancillary contests are just gravy. Everyone's mind is on the whole hog.
With the smell of grilled beef kabobs and fried crustaceans in the air, the team begins the arduous process of cooking the pig. They start with two heavily marbled 200lb Compart Durocs butterflied down their bellies. These pigs had better lives than most pets, but they're still swine.
The veiny carcass is dotted with sharp black hairs that keep growing after death. Chef Sara hacks them with a disposable razor. Meanwhile Hobson injects the muscles with 5gal of spiced apple juice flowing from a backpack that looks on loan from Peter Venkman. Billy from Brooklyn is massaging the pig's insides with a mop bucket's worth of spice, and George muddles sausage links into the ribs.
Then the hog is christened with a can of Naked Pig Pale Ale and hoisted onto the Shed's patent-pending Robohog. Crowned BBQ Innovation of the Year, the gadget supports the pig's backbone and helps it stand upright. Below the hog, there's a chamber filled with chicken stock, butter, and bonus sausages that steams through pounds of bonus bacon.
The main goal is to keep the temperature hovering around 225. You don't touch it until it blushes mahogany, then it's rubbed with oil and wrapped in foil to keep the smoke from blackening the skin. “I had three kids in three years,” says Brad. “I learned how important it is to wrap it up!”
On Friday the mood is decidedly more serious than previous nights. The team isn't throwing back George Dickle Pickles with the president of Compart, downing late-night Wagyu with 3 Taxi Guys, or kicking it with the Danish National BBQ Team. Most of the crew sticks to home base. Things wind down earlier.
The sky darkens, and the weather sours. Storm clouds creep from over the Mississippi and now it's raining. Up to this point, there's been drizzles, but this is an honest storm. Winds pick up, humidity drops, and the grassy ground of the Shed's camp turns muddy as a pig pen. The all-night hog-watching shifts now suck even more.
JUDGE HOT, LEST YOU BE JUDGED
When I arrive on Saturday morning, The Shed is caked in mud. Brooke is announcing the time every few minutes. I'm warned not to take offense if I'm shoved away and told to shut up. Everyone's just trying to stay in their lanes.
In order to keep the meat as fresh as possible the first hog remains untouched until 30 minutes before turn-in time. When the foil is removed everyone is in awe. Hobson and Brad butcher it dutifully, stripping back the skin and pulling ropes of fatty shoulder, soft loin, and flakey ham. It's the most beautiful hog anyone has ever seen, and the championship looks within reach.
As they're about to put the meat into the Styrofoam blind box, disaster strikes.
The box has cracked.
Everyone's panicking. It's only a hair-line crease, but it's enough to dock points. Several people are on their phones trying to secure a new box. Brad continues prepping the damaged container.
Then a bottle of Spicy Original sauce placed directly in the microwave explodes. The prep counter is dripping and the clock is ticking. Buggy shoves me out of the trailer and shuts the door.
The rest of the team is busy beautifying the camp for the judges. The inside of the Joint is mopped. Mud is scraped from the wooden flooring in front of the Jeep. A table is set with a frosty pitcher of water and stemmed glassware. The women of the team slice bell peppers to look like flowers, carve the team name into melons, and garnish the base of the Robohog with enough raw kale to feed the entire staff of an American Apparel.
The clock strikes 1pm and Brooke storms back into the prep trailer reminding Brad of the time, and I can see through the open door that he isn't smiling. With gloved hands and a paper towel he sculpts loin medallions into a cascade in the center of the box, framed by strips of darkly glazed belly and banks of shoulder and ham.
When the Shed finally sends out their runner the team erupts in a cheer, a sound that's shortly echoed by their neighbors Jack's Old South.
MOMENTS OF TOOTH
Cell phones are set to silent, and the first judge arrives. She's an adorable middle-aged woman, Southern as sweet tea and tickled pink by the Shed's family circus. She shakes hands with each of the dozen team members, including me. My shirt is labeled Carl, but my name is not Carl. When she says, “Nice to meet you, Carl”, I don't dare correct her.
Brad launches full-force into his championship pitch. He emphasizes the smoke, but also the steam. The Jeep's undercarriage houses an 80gal water tank filled with a soup stock of 3lbs of carrots and handfuls of oregano, tarragon, and rosemary. “In the South we know a thing or two about humidity,” says Brad. “We've got to make the sweat taste good.”
She literally and figuratively eats it up. As she leaves, a camera crew swarms her. The Shed quickly resets: dishes are washed, the floor is swept, and the second uncut pig is moved center-stage. Nobody talks much.
Within five minutes the second judge arrives. Gus meets him outside the camp with a handshake. Everyone starts whispering the same thing: “Dr. BBQ.”
The Shed repeats the same pageant, but this time it feels much more insidery. Dr. BBQ admires their smokers, but you can tell he's weighing them against the entire canon of meat-cooking devices. Their pork is measured against seven cookbooks of perfect bites.
Brad cuts into the second hog, and it erupts with an unprecedented amount of juice. The front of his shirt is drenched. The floor below him slicks, he almost slips and falls. For a moment it seems like the Shed's luck has run out.
“I've never seen anything like that before in my life,” says Dr. BBQ.
And when all seemed lost, it wasn't.
Dr. BBQ was astonished. He asked about their injection and wood. Hobson kept his apple juice formula a secret, but with the pride of a newborn father described the forest of different woods: peach, pear, pecan, applewood, and then sugarwood for a sweet finish. They load an oversized cutting board shaped like a pig with the fruits of the animal. I'm too afraid to watch the judge eat, but it sure does sound like we've got his 10s.
The third judge is a curveball. Nobody recognizes him, he doesn't laugh at Brad's jokes. He says it's a shame that the retired Jeep isn't used for hunting. Brad quips that he's a horrible driver, and he may have actually saved the Jeep's life. It doesn't phase the judge. Big Hoss steps from the shadows and quickly saves grace by relaying a hunting anecdote. Big Hoss later points this out to me. “Country knows country.”
THE SWINAL HOUR
A golf cart driven by a close friend of the Shed circles the grounds to announce the finalists. When it passes their camp, the driver doesn't look in our direction. She just shakes her head.
It's a crushing blow. We haven't made the finals, and the team is in shock. Word trickles in that the finalists are Cotton Pickin Porkers, three-time grand-champion Yazoo's Delta Q, and a true long-shot – a first time team from the UK named British Bulldog BBQ. It was unheard of for a virgin team to make finals, let alone foreigners cooking on borrowed equipment.
They are hopelessly unprepared for another round of judges. Brooke steps into immediate action, rallying the team to send their unused garnishes to the Brits. It's inspiring to watch the pure altruism of the gesture.
When I ask the Bulldog captain what's going through his mind, he keeps repeating in the Queen's English that he's lit-rally speechless.
Two hours and a bottle of whiskey later the Shed walks to the award ceremony. Thousands of people eagerly await the announcement of the winners. The team is already shut-out of the Anything But categories, at this point the Kingsford and Top 10 are their only chances to walk the stage.
The announcer is a Troy McClure stand-in from News 13, who wears exceptionally bulgy Wranglers. His raspy voice rattles through bad one-liners with relentless confidence. Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is announced as winner of the Kingsford Invitational. Momma Shed and I lock eyes with a look of distress.
10 Bones BBQ is announced in fourth place, and the Shed's shoulders collectively sink an inch. 10 Bones thanks Cattlemen's BBQ Sauce (they double your prize money!) and launch into an emotional acceptance speech, but there's unrest in the crowd. The announcer was supposed to name the top 10 teams. A staffer alerts Troy McClure that he must indeed read five more names, now with the weight of having revealed the fourth-place finisher.
10th is Whole Hog Cafe. They take entirely too long to make it to the stage. 9th is the Shed's dastardly neighbors Jack's Old South. The announcer mistakenly introduces Myron as Jack, and the ShedHeds chuckle. 8th is Victory Lane. 7th is Will-Be-Que. 6th is Dixie Que.
Based on the announcer's gaff, the only way the Shed can walk the stage is if they make fifth. The air is thicker than inside that Willys Jeep.
“And now in fifth place, whole-hog division, a team whose name I've called a lot this weekend. We've heard their name a ton of times...”
The team is distraught. The Shed name had been uttered exactly as many times as I'd eaten a vegetable. Not once.
“Here are your fifth-place winners.... THE SHED!”
The team explodes like a firecracker. Everyone's jumping, dancing, slapping hands. They run to the stage and the crowd showers them with cheers. Brad is handed a surprisingly large trophy and sprints through an acceptance speech, then they pose for photos backstage before returning to the crowd.
This is no consolation prize. The team is ecstatic. They commandeer a stranger's bottle of Fireball and even 85-year-old Gus is taking dangerously long pulls. Momma Shed gives me a motherly hug and tells me in no uncertain terms that I am coming back next year.
But of all the ShedHeds, Hobson responds the strongest. He's been bawling uncontrollably since they hit the stage. His face is flooded and the tears just keep pouring out, it's been over 15 minutes. I didn't think a grown man could physically cry for so long. A revolving door of familiar faces from throughout the week approach Hobson, hugging and congratulating him. Telling him how impressed they are, how proud. He clutches the trophy to his breast, nodding through the tears. No-one in history has ever been happier to win fifth place.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He'd like to extend a big thank you to everyone at the Shed and hopes he's still invited back next year. Follow him to triumphant fifth-place finishes at @Dannosphere.