Barbecue east of the Mississippi River means pork, especially in Memphis where pork shoulder and ribs reign. Every year, Memphis plays host to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, a three-day event where more than 240 teams compete and ninety thousand spectators gather.
Held in Tom Lee Park, the contest honors barbecue in all of its forms, from three different contests for sauces alone to another three for a category called “anything but,” in which types of meat other than pork are judged. The main event is pork barbecue cooked Memphis-style — “low and slow.” The pork barbecue contest is divided into three categories: ribs, shoulders, and whole hog, comprising samples from such sections as tenderloin, ham, and shoulder.
Each entry is judged on three qualities — appearance, tenderness, and flavor — along with the team’s presentation, which includes elaborate descriptions of how the meat is prepared. This is a serious affair for most contestants, who frequently compete on the national circuit, spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on equipment, travel, and supplies. During the preliminary rounds, on-site judges visit each team’s booth, while others conduct blind tastings of numbered samples. After the finalists are chosen for each division, they go on to compete for the title of grand champion.
Martha Stewart Living food editor Susan Spungen was invited to participate as a judge. During her trip to Memphis, she learned some tips for perfect barbecue and got some of the competitors to reveal their prize-winning secrets. According to some of the contestants, the key to delicious barbecue is starting with a dry rub, a blend of spices massaged into the meat the night before cooking and sprinkled on again before serving. According to other pit masters, however, the only essential ingredient for moist, flavorful meat is time — it takes up to an entire day and night to cook the meat. Still others say that there is no true secret to success other than years of experience. No matter what the technique, great barbecue is delicious, producing tender, succulent meat with a rich, smoky flavor.
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