One of the most prestigious categories at Memphis in May, the pork shoulder division drew 55 teams this year. In a hotly contested battle, Olive Branch, Mississippi’s Sweet Swine O’ Mine squad first place and was also named grand champion of the entire competition. Meet the crew and other top contenders on the following pages, and visit memphisinmay.org for full results. Photography:Joe York
Welcome to the South, where the mafia meets Waffle House. The Hogfather tent in the quiet morning hours before the team arrives to get things cooking.
The hometown Swine & Dine crew has been competing for 35 of Memphis in May’s 36 years. “I think we’re into the fourth generation now,” observes cooking committee head Robert McIvor. “We’ve got some folks whose grandfathers were on the team and now they’re active members.” The 70-plus-strong crew is composed of “family, friends and other drunks.” That explains the 180 cases of beer and 2,900 Jell-O shots they brought for the weekend.
Chris Lilly and his team from Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama took home second place in the shoulder category this year, but they’re used to winning. They’ve placed first seven times and been grand champion three times. The magic is in the heat source. “We use Kingsford Charcoal,” Lilly says. “It’s all about the consistency of the burn. It gives me that low and slow steady heat that you’ve got to have when you’re barbecuing.”
After a rainy night, followed by a muddy day, a Big Bob Gibson team member hoses off the tent entrance to welcome hungry friends.
“Friends and family, that’s really what barbecue is about,” Lilly says. Memphis is close enough to Decatur that all my friends come over and it’s just a big party around the grill. And that’s what barbecue should be, whether it’s in your backyard or it’s one of these competitions.”
A sandy beach and lifeguard stand rest on the Mississippi River in front of Memphis’ own People’s Republic of Swina tent. Most of the team members hail from the South, but now they are “very scattered between Chicago, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Nashville and New York,” notes Cal Wells, who helped form the team in 2006. “So this is our coming home party. Guys are getting married and moving away and having kids. We’re at that awkward point, mid-twenties, late-twenties, and people kind of spread apart. But this has held our entire group together.”
“No one on this team cooks except for Denny,” Wells says of head cook Denny Koerner. “We’ve gotten better over the years. We’ve become a less slap-d**k group. Last year we came in second in the competition. We’re still a slap-d**k group, but now we’re better dressed.”
The business card of Nashville-based Peg Leg Porker’s Carey Bringle lists many feats, including tigers tamed, bars emptied, ladies satisfied and excuses verified. And while that may all be (ahem) true, the man, no lie, has a gift for barbecue. His team placed ninth in the shoulder category and tenth in the exotic category with a lamb burger slider. They also unofficially placed first in having fun. There were plenty of barbecue sauce Bloody Marys on hand and, he adds: “We had an ice luge here last night. You should have seen it.”
Most competitors wear their passion for pork on their sleeves. Bringle wears his on his leg.
The Memphis-based VooDooQ aims to put a spell on the judges.
VooDooQ’s David Reeve, right, a sheet metal worker by day, admires a pork shoulder before throwing it in a cooker that he built out of an old refrigerator.
Sweet Swine O’ Mine’s head shoulder cook, Mark Lambert, is proud of his team’s two huge wins. What makes his pork better than all the rest? “It’s a perfect balance of flavors,” Lambert explains. “We use sixty percent apple wood and forty percent hickory. We have a sauce that perfectly complements the flavor of the rub and the smoke and the pork altogether.”
They don’t call ’em champions for nothing. Trophies line the entrance of the Sweet Swine O’ Mine team tent.