The smell of barbecue will soon be wafting through the streets of Memphis once again. That means one thing: It’s time for the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Set for May 11-14, the competition will be fierce with 215 teams competing at the first full-blown cooking contest since 2019.
2021 Grand Champion Jack’s Old South will be back again to defend its title. Will it be the sixth title win for this team led by famed pitmaster Myron Mixon? Or will another team reign supreme?
Memphis’ own Melissa Cookston, pitmaster for competition team Yazoo’s Delta Q and Memphis Barbecue Company in Horn Lake, hopes this is her year to win again.
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“Competing at Memphis in May is taking your love of cooking with fire to the arena,” said Cookston, who is known as the “Winningest Woman in Competition Barbecue.” “Putting your skills to the test against others who have the same passion in search of the holy grail, the World Championship.”
But things are a bit different this year.
A new location
The smokers won’t be on the banks of the Mississippi River, instead they will be lined up in the Fairgrounds in Liberty Park in Midtown Memphis. The event’s usual home, Tom Lee Park, is unavailable this year due to ongoing construction.
It’s the second time this famed barbecue cooking contest has had to make a temporary move to the fairgrounds. Back in 2011, the event moved to Tiger Lane as the river flooded to record levels.
“I’ve always said, just give me a spot — grass, mud, sand or pavement doesn’t matter to me as long as I have one shot,” Cookston said. “In the end, the few square feet around me are all I ever see anyway. This is the World Championship, and that’s all that matters.”
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Defending Grand Champion Myron Mixon said the new location won’t impact his cooking.
“I’ve been competing at the Memphis in May Barbecue World Championship since 1996. My team, Jack’s Old South, has a reputation for being consistent and that is the most important thing in any competition,” Mixon said. “The location this year for the championship is Tiger Lane. The competition trailers will be on asphalt parking areas, which the teams will like because the rain and mud won’t come into play as it has in past contests.”
Memphis in May Vice President of Marketing & Programming Randy Blevins said moving the contest had its logistical challenges, but the team had the 2011 plans as a starting point to determine the best layout, entrances and infrastructure support.
“Just like at Beale Street Music Festival, we have had to bring in more generators. There is less shore power here than in Tom Lee Park,” Blevins said. “The Liberty Bowl team has been great to work with.”
“It feels more like a parking lot party than the backyard outdoor feel of being on the river,” pitmaster Ernie Mellor said about the fairgrounds location. His award-winning HOG WILD – Competition Team has competed in the contest since 1986. “We are one of the two oldest teams that are going to be out there this year.”
Mellor said while he will miss the ambiance and views of being in Tom Lee Park, the barbecue won’t suffer. “The quality will not be impacted at all,” he said.
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Gordon Stark is a founding member of Barbecue Republic, a team that has competed almost 30 years and won Best Mustard Sauce in 2021.
“While Tiger Lane does not have the allure of the river, our booth and structure will not change,” Stark said. “It is just another location to us, and instead of cooking in the mud, we will be on nice and hopefully dry concrete. Our cooking process will not suffer and load in and load out should be markedly easier.”
A return to normal
In 2020, the cooking contest was canceled due to the pandemic not once, but twice. The Memphis in May team had initially hoped to move the contest to fall 2020, but plans for a delayed event were quickly dropped as the pandemic did not wane.
A smaller cooking contest did take place in May 2021.
A year ago, only 150 teams competed, with fewer teams in each category and the entire Patio Porkers Division eliminated for the year.
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Now all the COVID-19 capacity restrictions from last year are gone. “We are back,” Blevins said. “It’s our first full-fledged festival since 2019.
This year 215 teams will compete, and the Patio Porkers Division is back.
The competition will also include teams from 24 states and four international teams — two from Canada and one each from Mexico and Norway.
“We have plenty of room at Tiger Lane,” said Blevins, explaining the new location will not hinder the return of many of the festival’s favorite events — including Sauce Wrestling and Ms. Piggy Idol.
As usual, teams will be organized by category — whole hog, shoulder, ribs and patio porkers. Instead of the river being the landmark, Tiger Lane will be the center of the event, with teams to the north and south of this strip that leads up to Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. The main stage will be located at the end of Tiger Lane just in front of the stadium.
“We are really excited about being in Tiger Lane. The load in and load out for teams is much easier,” said Brian Wynn, one of the pitmasters for M/W Smokers. His ribs team is almost doubling its booth size this year.
“Tiger Lane allows teams better access and more room to craft,” said Brian Cox, another pitmaster for M/W Smokers. “The concrete also takes the rain anxiety away a bit, and being able to spray down the kitchen area helps the cooks.”
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The competition will be fierce
Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest Grand Champion is one of the most coveted titles in the world of competition barbecue.
Teams from around not just the United States, but from across the globe, come to compete for the title.
This year the contest is offering the largest purse in the contest’s history, more than $145,000.
Memphis-based Pork Illustrated is a team that embodies the passion the competitors have for the cooking contest. In 2021, they won both Best Booth and Best T-shirt, as well as placed eighth in the shoulder division and third in wings.
“Pork Illustrated is geared up and excited to go up against the best of the best in Tiger Lane. Every year, we look forward to getting the team back together to compete for best booth, T-shirt design, wings, sauces, anything butt and, of course, shoulder,” pitmasters Delbert Palmer and Michael Ralph said. “Last year, the team had the opportunity to celebrate a handful of stage calls, and this year we will be working hard to get on that stage again.”
The Grand Champion (as well as the Top 10 winners for the whole hog, shoulder, ribs and patio porkers divisions) will be announced 6:30 p.m. May 14. Tone Loc will perform following the awards ceremony.
Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at [email protected] and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.
Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
When: May 11-14
Hours: 5-10 p.m. May 11, 11 a.m.-midnight May 12-13, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. May 14
Tickets: Single-day general admission tickets are $14 and four-day passes are $48. Tickets can be purchased in advance at memphisinmay.org.
Things to do at WCBCC 2022
Live music, the Ms. Piggy Idol Contest and even Sauce Wrestling will be back at this year’s Memphis in Memphis World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Popular barbecue-education experiences like the Kingsford Tour of Champions and Cooker Caravan are also back.
Here’s a rundown:
Sauce Wrestling competition (hands-down the messiest event of the weekend) takes place at 6:30 p.m. May 11 at the main stage. Musical entertainment Little Ozzy will perform afterward.
Ms. Piggy Idol kicks off at 6 p.m. May 12 on the main stage. Teams perform skits and dress up to earn the coveted title of winner of what is guaranteed to be the most humorous part of the cooking contest.
Almost Elton John and Rod Stewart Tribute Band featuring Rob Caudill will perform following the 7 p.m. May 12 awards ceremony.
The Spin Doctors and Your Academy will perform after the 6 p.m. May 13 awards ceremony.
The Kingsford Tour of Champions is the one chance the general public has to taste barbecue from some of the award-winning teams. Tours happen from 2-5:30 p.m. May 12-13. Advance registration is required.
The Cooker Caravan is for those wanting to learn more about the craft of competition barbecue. A free tour, led by Memphis in May volunteers, will take place every half hour each day between 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Teams, which will be scheduled individually, will give a short presentation to the groups on grilling topics.
For more details, visit memphisinmay.org.