Inside Memphis’ World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

By: Samantha Crespo

January 21, 2014

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, calls barbecue “America’s national folk food.” As such, you’ll encounter variations on – and multiple hubs for – barbecue across the South, though none as spectacular as Memphis in May.


Memphis in May is a month-long series of events that began in 1977 as a cultural exchange between Memphis and the world. The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC) was added in 1978. Annually, the contest draws around 250 internationally-seeded teams – and 100,000-plus attendees – making it a multicultural party. (Mark your calendar for WCBCC 2014: 15-17 May.)


To compete, teams balance playtime with sweaty, smoky work. For Memphis native Rodney Ashley, cook for WCBCC team the Paradise Porkers, it’s a year round commitment participating in numerous regional barbecue competitions and planning for the next WCBCC as soon as the current one wraps. The week leading up to WCBCC, the team pulls a camper into Memphis’ Tom Lee Park, where they live and work until the contest closes.


WCBCC | Inside Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

At the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC) in Memphis, Tennessee, hundreds of teams compete in categories including: Rib, Whole Hog, Shoulder, Poultry, Seafood, Beef, Exotic and Wings © Lance Murphey/Memphis In May International Festival


Not on a team? Ashley recommends the following:


  1. Join the Cooker’s Caravan, a free, guided tour featuring teams who talk you through their cookers and methods. The tours are typically given at regular mid-day intervals Thursday and Friday of WCBCC.
  2. Register in advance for the Kingsford Tour of Champions. For around $10, you’ll taste samples prepared by select teams; then vote for your favourite.
  3. To build a relationship with a team, target daytime Thursday or Friday of WCBCC. Ashley suggests: “Ask a cook about his or her cooker. They all want to show off, and they might even bring you in and give you a sample.”

Memphis WCBCC | Inside Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

Obviously, competing is fun. There’s also $110.000 in prize money at stake for winning © Lance Murphey/Memphis In May International Festival


Even without a taste (officially, local health regulations restrict teams from serving the general public), a walk through WCBCC trips the senses: Recall that bit about Ashley living at the competition? All teams construct “booths” to this end – booths that might be one or three stories high and incorporate tiki bars, dance floors or animatronic dinosaurs. General admission to WCBCC (usually less than $10 and free during advertised periods) buys you all the gawking you want. (For around $425, a WCBCC VIP pass scores you guided, all-weekend access – and one-on-one time with teams.)


Miss Piggy Idol Contest | Inside Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

Your gawking includes WCBCC‘s annual “Miss Piggie Idol Contest,” when teams drop their aprons to compete in outrageous song-and-dance acts © Lance Murphey/Memphis In May International Festival

What’s Ashley’s strategy for WCBCC 2014? “We were less than five points away from being in the top five for ribs in 2013,” he says, continuing, “We’re very proud of our product and there’s a lot of tradition in it. My granddaddy did it a certain way and that’s how I learned it. But I do want to improve.” Fundamentally for the Paradise Porkers, that means enhancing the meat with their signature flavour profile, described by Ashley as “sweet with a little bit of heat.”


Dry Rubbed Ribs | Inside Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

In Memphis, everyone has a barbecue preference, from the Rendezvous‘ dry-rubbed ribs to Cozy Corner‘s pork sandwich, stacked with slaw and dressed for a slow burn © Justin Fox Burks/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau


For all the variation, barbecue tradition is rooted in gathering people around unhurried comfort food. That’s easy to remember during WCBCC, as you watch the smoke fade with the sun over the Mississippi River.


WCBCC | Inside Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

By night, WCBCC illuminates Memphis’ Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River © Marvin Garcia /Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Feature image: Masters show off their barbecuing chops at the WCBCC © Vico Images/Polara Studios/Michael Shay/Fogstock/Thinkstock


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Written by Samantha Crespo


Samantha Crespo

Samantha Crespo is a native of Florida, which she believes set her up to be a career tour guide. (It helps that she’s keen on playing tourist in her own town and beyond – Ensenada, Mexico, and Nafplio, Greece, are favourites – though she feels most at home in the American South.) Since 2005, Samantha has mixed pleasure with business as a travel writer and editor. She admits to squealing when assignments call her to listen to live music in her adopted hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, or to discover new campgrounds with her husband and daughter. Get her insider's perspective on exploring Memphis in her book, 100 Things To Do in Memphis Before You Die.

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