Memphis in May

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Scouting Trip

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The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is held annually as part of the Memphis in May International Festival.

The event is huge, with around 250 teams from all over the country and a sprinkling of international teams as well. During the three days of the competition, around 100,000 people come through Tom Lee Park, and around $100,000 in prize money is at stake. The focus is on pork, with three separate contests: one for "whole hog," one for "whole shoulder," and one for "ribs." These teams are big, with tractor trailer-sized smoking rigs and large investments in booths. Fortunately, there is a fourth category, called Patio Porkers; these are smaller, "semi-pro" teams who compete with each other on ribs.

We visited the WCBCC in 2008, and based on our observations and encouragement from friends, decided to compete in Patio Porkers in 2009. We got continuing positive feedback at events such as our AT&T Pebble Beach Open House and our William Shatner tutorial.

Wini and I attended a seminar where we learned how the contest judges evaluate barbecue entries: appearance, texture, taste, and overall impression.

Of course, we visited Graceland on this trip, a mandatory stop for all red-blooded Americans.

It is impossible to compete without a team. We were fortunate to have the "Marc Marasco Alumni Association" to help us out.

Aimee and Mike Aver went to college with Marc. They now live outside of Nashville, and trucked their "Miss Piggy" across the state for the event.

On the right is Jim Sciarra, who worked with Marc at Kadiri and then later with me at Ravenflow. Jim flew in from San Francisco to complete the team.

Mike was the chief assistant cook, while Jim took photos and tended bar. Aimee helped out in dealing with the public.

Traeger Industries was kind enough to provide sponsorship for our team.

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Rookie Season

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2009 Observations and Results

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As this was our "rookie year," we made many rookie mistakes. None of us had ever done this event before, and the team  was a bit too small. We competed in too many events; besides the mandatory rib event on Saturday, we did a competition called People's Choice (not judged by an expert panel) and a category called "Anything But." It turned out that these other events distracted us from our main objective. Lesson learned.

In the Patio Porker ribs event, we finished 31st out of 44, scoring 446.2 points; the winning entry scored 480 points.

Here is how we made out on the detailed judges’ scorecard. In the first three categories, you are scored in whole integers on a scale of 5 to 10. In the last category, overall impression, you are scored in tenths on a scale of 5 to 10. In each case, they drop the score of the lowest judge, which I have indicated below by an asterisk (*).

  Judge 1 Judge 2 Judge 3 Judge 4
Appearance 9 8 7* 10
Taste 9 8* 9 10
Tenderness 9 8* 9 10
Overall Impression 9.6 8* 8.8 10

Note that extensive precautions are taken to ensure that the judging is completely "blind."

On Sunday I visited another Memphis institution, Sun Studios.

In 2010 we continued with Jim Sciarra as co-pilot, and added Stan and Arlene Weinrich, who took over for the Avers, who could not attend. Stan is a fraternity brother from the Cooper Union days (1962-1966). Stan and Arlene resided in Memphis for many years, although they were in the process of moving to the coast of North Carolina at the time of the event.

We would like to thank Traeger dealer Pat Russell, of the BBQ Shop in Scottsboro Alabama, for providing us with our competition grill this year. I guess all Miss Piggys look alike!

Stan was our director of environmental engineering, and Arlene helped out in a myriad of ways. As usual, Jim did a bang-up job, handling the bartending, photographic, and all other miscellaneous duties with typical aplomb.

For lots of really great photos of the event, see Jim's collection here.

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Reverse Sophomore Jinx?

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2010 Observations and Results

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We were a lot more organized this year, and having two participants with even one year of experience made a huge difference. By concentrating on ribs only, we were able to improve our performance. Stan and I had a wonderful time reminiscing about our college days, and the weather was warm without much rain and mud.

Many of our fellow Patio Porkers were glad to see us return. We began to appreciate the camaraderie of this group: On Saturday it's a competition, but all week long there is an incredible spirit of cooperation and friendliness. Some of it has to do with the South, but more generally barbecue people just tend to be a touch more relaxed. Perhaps maintaining a reasonable level of sobriety and not getting too plastered before lunch helps. It is still the best three-day party in the country.

We finished 16th out of 39 teams, moving up 15 places; we are still awaiting the judges' detailed report to see how. We did change our recipe from "sweet and sticky" to "dry and spicy," improving our score from 446.2 (92.96%) to 459.7 (95.77%). Needless to say, the competition at this World Championship level continued to be fierce!

This Sunday I revisited Sun Studios and could have done the tour better than our guide did it.

2011 saw Jim unable to join us, but the Weinriches came all the way from Wilmington North Carolina. They were joined by Jeff Wahl from Denver, and "Nice" Joe Greene from Carmel California. As in previous years, the team arrived in staggered fashion and left somewhat staggering as well.

This year the Mississippi decided to crest at Memphis at a height not seen since 1937. A week before the event, the entire festival was moved inland to the parking lot complex surrounding the Liberty Bowl. That turned out to be a good idea, as much of Tom Lee Park was under water the week of the event.

This year everyone took photos, and the triage and collation took a while. Most of the photos are captioned, so they give you an idea of this year's doings.

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The Year of the Great Flood

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Observations and Results

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We had a wonderful time. We are now accepted as one of the "repeat offender" teams, and share in the spirit of the event. Both Jeff and Joe were quite taken by the good fellowship and general ambiance.

Alton Brown from the Food Network stopped by our booth and videotaped a segment featuring Miss Piggy. We signed all the necessary release forms, but we have yet to appear on the air. On the other hand, we haven't seen any other teams that he interviewed either.

The competition results this year were disappointing. We finished 25th out of 37, worse than last year. Our score was 593.5 out of 640, which indicates that the scoring system was different this year. The details of the judges' evaluation follows; note the inconsistency between judge 2 and judge 3: judge 2 gives us 2 9's and a 10, with an overall of 9.9, whereas judge 3 gives us 2 10's and a 9, but only 9.5 overall. Go figure!

As usual, the lowest score, indicated by an asterisk (*), is dropped.

  Judge 1 Judge 2 Judge 3 Judge 4
Appearance 9 9 10 9*
Taste 9 10 9 9*
Tenderness 9 9 10 9*
Overall Impression 9.1 9.9 9.5 9*

From the left: Joe Greene, Barbecue Joe, Stan Weinrich, Arlene Weinrich. Note the new tee shirts, compliments of Arlene.

We finished 15th out of 43, our best finish to date.

Here is the judges' report. As usual, the lowest score, which is dropped, is indicated by an asterisk (*).


  Judge 1 Judge 2 Judge 3 Judge 4
Appearance 9* 10 10 10
Taste 9* 9 10 9
Tenderness 9* 10 9 10
Overall Impression 9.8 9.6* 9.7 9.7

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Getting Better Again

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Love Me Tender

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The usual suspects. That's me holding the bag just before ambling off to submit our entry. Arlene once again graciously updated our team shirts.

This was the year of the great breakthrough: We finished 8th out of 38 teams, our first top ten ever. We garnered 470.1 points against the winner's total of 480.

We went with a spicy rub and a sweet glaze this year. A tip of the hat to our friend Jim Tarantino of Philadelphia, and to our old friend and mentor Arkansas Dick.

This graphic shows how tightly the scores are clustered at the top:

Here is the judges' report. As usual, the lowest score, which is dropped, is indicated by an asterisk (*). We nailed a perfect score from two judges, and 2 9's and a 10 from the third, who ranked us 9.7 on overall impression. It looks like we have figured out tenderness, having lost not a single point in that category.

It is interesting to compare this scorecard with the one from our first year, 2009.

  Judge 1 Judge 2 Judge 3 Judge 4
Appearance 10 10 9* 9
Taste 10 10 9* 9
Tenderness 10 10 9* 10
Overall Impression 10 10 9.5* 9.7



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Year by Year Comparison

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