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Memphis in May Article

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Here's a great article on how a bunch of James Beard award-winning chefs and the best pitmasters from historic and renowned BBQ joints around the Southeast came together as a team for the Memphis in May (KCBS-endorsed) competition and were unable to win, and why. It really makes you disrespect a lot about how KCBS goes about judging:

http://gardenandgun.com/article/memph...

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  1. If you can't stand the heat stay out of the pit.

    1. They came in third, which is pretty darn great, so I do not see what their problem is. They beat out hundreds of the country's best competition pig cookers.

      BTW, KCBS does not judge Memphis in May. They are two differing sanctioning bodies.

      1. Fabulous link.

        Some good parts

        "he most important barbecue event in the world, rewards homogeneity. If you live in the South, maybe you’ve noticed how hard it’s becoming to find a good, simple barbecue sandwich. Traditional barbecue is fading as competition barbecue is rewarding smoke and mirrors"

        There are all these Beard winners with their hands in the hog, but something is being lost in translation."

        The last paragraph is great though.

        "The real barbecue we love, that we pretentiously and earnestly came to save, might be under siege, but it isn’t dead. It lives in anyone who believes in doing things the way their grandfathers did, who believes that what we eat tells a story about who we are. It lives in anyone who cares enough to sit all night with a hog."

        18 Replies
        1. re: rworange

          I think what CB and I are saying is "sore losers." Who knows where they would have been placed if they cooked the way they wanted.

          1. re: wolfe

            I think reinterpreting bbq and cooking the way they want outside of competition is what is screwing bbq up.

            And I KNEW even before reading that they were going to have to personally butcher the pig ... preferable that they raised it themselves.

            I don't know why we seem to all genuflect at celebrity or name chef cooking. So what about cooking creds. Let's leave this to the real experts ... the people doing it generation after genreation. The name chefs might be experts at what they do, but that doesn't mean focused experience shouldn't trump ... smoke and mirrors.

            1. re: rworange

              Rodney Scott of Scott's Variety Store in Hemingway, SC and Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC aren't exactly celebrity chefs. In fact, they are quite the opposite. They run unassuming places out in the middle of nowhere that just happen to arguably be the best bbq joints in SC and NC respectively, and you can't get more traditional in the history, time, and effort they put into their product. Practically half of the annals of NC bbq history runs through the Jones family of NC. Melanie Wong can attest to that having recently visited with him in person. I once asked Keith Allen of Allen&Son in Chapel Hill, NC, a true "desert island" quality bbq, whether he ever entered a bbq competition, which he answered in the negative. He said that at least in NC, you have people who enter competitions, and then you have pitmasters. He smiled and left it at that. That's all I needed to hear.

              As the article describes, the problem with the Memphis in May (and KCBS has the same faults) is that it focuses on such a narrow subset of elements that qualify as "championship bbq," leaving out the traditions of variations that make the artform so colorful. The problem is exacerbated when this narrow subset is held out as the prerequisite for good bbq, so when the gospel of bbq is spread to places that don't have a bbq tradition (like the Bay Area), you end up with a bunch of places that focus on using sweet sauces and overly-dramatic smoke infusion of meat to the exclusion of other elements that make a top-notch bbq in the non-competition, historical sense. One of my biggest fears is that the flavors of Scott's Variety or Skylight Inn or Allen&Son are lost to history because you don't have a national bbq circuit upholding those flavor elements as the ingredients of "championship bbq."

              1. re: mikeh

                The article is somewhat confusing and maybe that's where rwo was misled. The celebrity chefs were in addition to the three pitmasters, although I think that Rodney Scott is rising in national recognition. He was recently in Oakland for Eat Real fest and I was incredibly bummed to miss the chance to talk with him.

                As Civil Bear points out above, Memphis in May is not a KCBS contest. KCBS judging is completely blind, whereas MiM has an in-person component and that story-telling making the pitch to the judges on why they should vote for you weighs on the scoring. In Edenton, NC I overheard many time champion, Myron Mixon saying to his team that he felt at a disadvantage in NC because the NC whole hog rules allows the judges to select their own pieces to sample and no story-telling unlike in Memphis.

                As you know, my visit to Skylight Inn was just a few weeks before the MiM contest. I had a good talk with Sam Jones related to it. I was elated when I heard his team, Fatback Collective, had taken third in their first contest. That's a big win for a maiden run. This is the news account I read that evening, a more balanced picture.
                http://www.stateofq.com/pressroom/art...

                There's a lot of reasons that might account for the team not taking first. Perhaps too many cooks spoil the pig? When Sam was telling me what a privilege it was to meet the other two pitmasters and be part of this team, he said that how each of them prepare and cook the hog is identical. Once the hog is out of the pit is where they diverge. Maybe they lost their focus on how to slice, dice, chop, pull, and/or season the cooked meat. Keep in mind that they weren't cooking in their own pit, but rather a traveling rig supplied by Jim n Nick's, so that's a change from their usual conditions. As far as I know, none of them are working with Mangalitsa pigs on a regular basis and they didn't have that many trial runs to learn how to optimize for the fatty hog.

                Guess what I'm saying is that traditional bbq from these historic pitmasters didn't lose. What they turned in for the competition is not what they serve at their restaurants.

                1. re: mikeh

                  >>"I once asked Keith Allen of Allen&Son in Chapel Hill, NC, a true "desert island" quality bbq, whether he ever entered a bbq competition, which he answered in the negative. He said that at least in NC, you have people who enter competitions, and then you have pitmasters. He smiled and left it at that. That's all I needed to hear."

                  That is probably because he is chicken! : >P

                  Seriously though, Keith Allen or any other restaurateur doesn't have the time, energy, or money to treat every restaurant pork shoulder like a competition shoulder, even if he wanted to. I do not know how many he does in a day, but can you imagine him meticulously trimming and injecting each one, and then testing each one for optimum doneness, and then carving out and only serving the money muscle and the dark meat around the bone? The reason competition cooks go to all this trouble is because it turns out a better product to the judges, which in turn gives them a better chance at winning.

                  1. re: mikeh

                    "it focuses on such a narrow subset of elements that qualify as "championship bbq," leaving out the traditions of variations that make the artform so colorful."

                    Bingo. Homogeneity is antithetical to good barbecue. This is why competition barbecue is a joke.

                    1. re: mikeh

                      So what is this "narrow subset" of elements that qualify as championship BBQ? Presentation, tenderness, and taste? Other than presentation, I would say those are pretty good determinants of good BBQ. It's not like contestants don't need to tweak their BBQ depending on where they are competing. They are still cooking for local judges that have their own interpretations of traditional barbecue, and it is those judges that determine who wins. Perhaps the reason sweeter tends to do well in California is because most of the judges have grown up plastering Kraft on their burgers? I would guess that most BBQ shacks in the area are run by folks and families from traditional barbecue areas and have no idea what NorCal competition BBQ tastes like.

                      The fact is that BBQ Pitmasters like Keith Allen don't have the time, resources, or energy to put out food on par with competition BBQ. I do not know how many pork shoulders he cooks in a day, but could you imagine him trimming and injecting every single one, making sure every area on every shoulder had just the right amount of rub, checking every one for ultimate doneness, and carving out the money muscle and plating only that and the dark meat around the bone of every shoulder? He couldn’t do all that even if he wanted to!

                      Alas, if you were to sample a contest entry of pulled pork from a top competition cook such as Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson's BBQ in Decatur Alabama, and an average sample of pulled pork that you would get any day at Allen & Son, you’d only be fooling yourself if you didn't think the competition sample was moister, more flavorful, and more perfectly cooked.

                      1. re: Civil Bear

                        "I do not know how many pork shoulders he cooks in a day, but could you imagine him trimming and injecting every single one, making sure every area on every shoulder had just the right amount of rub, checking every one for ultimate doneness, and carving out the money muscle and plating only that and the dark meat around the bone of every shoulder?"

                        No, because that isn't the style in this area. QED.

                        The reference to moistness especially is telling, as a good eastern NC barbecue ought to be a little on the dry side. Lexington style too will be a bit dry if you order it with outside brown. I notice "moistness" coming up again and again in the nomenclature that people from out of state* use, whereas I almost never hear it from serious connoisseurs from North Carolina. And I notice you say nothing about the quality of the cracklins produced by competition barbecue teams...

                        *Yankees, to be frank about it.

                        1. re: Naco

                          >>"No, because that isn't the style in this area. QED."
                          It isn't the style in any area...because of the reasons I mentioned above. Any successful competition pitmaster that also owns a restaurant will tell you that they do not prepare barbecue the same way in their restaurants because they can't. Again, as a BBQ judge you are getting one of the six best ribs out of a case of ribs that have been babied ever since they were purchased, while at a restaurant you are getting what ever end of a rack the chef happens to put on your plate.

                          Regarding moistness, I can assure you that no BBQ chef is intestinally putting out dry pork shoulder, but because it is being cooked far beyond well done to the point were all the moisture has been cooked out of the shoulder, something needs to be added. In NC, that is what the vinegar based sauces are for. Sauce on the side is not permitted in KCBS contests, so it is up to the cook infuse the moistness with the entry. In NC it can have vinegar, whereas is KC the locals prefer it sweeter. In Texas, their contests are overseen by different body (IBCA), which doesn't even include pork shoulder in their contests.

                          Regarding cracklins, they are not part of KCBS events. But rest assured that doesn't mean Lexington #1 is going to stop serving them anytime soon, which I believe was a concern in your original post.

                          1. re: Civil Bear

                            "It isn't the style in any area...because of the reasons I mentioned above."

                            Nonsense. The eastern North Carolina style dates back hundreds of years, well before the advent of the barbecue restaurant. That communal pig picking type of event is still popular, quite apart from the restaurant scene, and few people slather the meat with "rub", or eat only the "money muscle" and the dark meat.

                            The ethos is simple preparation that allows all of the hog's natural flavors to shine through in every bite.

                            "Regarding moistness, I can assure you that no BBQ chef is intestinally putting out dry pork shoulder"

                            Again, your prove mikeh's point nicely by being a competition barbecue diehard who doesn't even know the regional traditions well enough to grasp my point. ENC barbecue is whole hog. The ham, and to a lesser extent the picnic, are naturally on the dry side.

                            The vinegar sauce is supposed to be applied minimally. If someone used it to get moistness at the expense of the variety of flavors, I'd call that bad barbecue.
                            With Lexington barbecue they do only cook shoulders; the dryness comes from the outside meat. The sauce isn't going to penetrate through that stuff.

                            In any case, if you get barbecue from somewhere like the Skylight Inn or Lexington Barbecue, I think you will find that it is on the dry side relative to the heavily sauced stuff you get in other parts of the country. "Moist" barbecue in North Carolina tends to come from places that use gas cookers, which is why I said that a good rendition will tend to be dry, having been cooked with wood or charcoal(relatively speaking).

                            1. re: Naco

                              >>”The eastern North Carolina style dates back hundreds of years, well before the advent of the barbecue restaurant.”

                              Okay, It also dates back before the advent of sanctioned BBQ contests.

                              >>”That communal pig picking type of event is still popular, quite apart from the restaurant scene, and few people slather the meat with "rub", or eat only the "money muscle" and the dark meat."

                              Most people use some sort of rub. A slather is something different, typically mustard based when used with BBQ.

                              Of course folks don’t only eat small selected portions of the pig, as that would be rather wasteful. Still, that is not to say that an impartial NC judge (if there is such a thing) wouldn’t think that a winning pork sample from a sanctioned bbq contest kicked butt over a random sample from Uncle Henry’s pig pickin’.

                              >>”Again, your prove mikeh's point nicely by being a competition barbecue diehard who doesn't even know the regional traditions well enough to grasp my point.”

                              I thought you guys’ point was that Competition BBQ was somehow hurting traditional BBQ. Is that no longer the case?

                              >>”ENC barbecue is whole hog. The ham, and to a lesser extent the picnic, are naturally on the dry side.”

                              I am well aware of Eastern NC BBQ being about whole hog, and I have done enough of them myself to know that the loins will dry out long before the hams and shoulders – unless you take special precautions.

                              >>” With Lexington barbecue they do only cook shoulders; the dryness comes from the outside meat. The sauce isn't going to penetrate through that stuff.”

                              The sauce is typically applied after the pork is chopped.

                              >>”Moist" barbecue in North Carolina tends to come from places that use gas cookers, which is why I said that a good rendition will tend to be dry, having been cooked with wood or charcoal(relatively speaking).”

                              Unfortunately far too many NC restaurants have switched over to gas. At least that is one area where the KCBS is upholding traditions better than NC BBQ establishments, as only wood and charcoal are permitted at their contests.

                              1. re: Civil Bear

                                >>Most people use some sort of rub.

                                No, they don't. Not here.

                                >> I thought you guys’ point was that Competition BBQ was somehow hurting >>traditional BBQ. Is that no longer the case?

                                No, I just thought it was rather farcical that the Scott/Jones/et al. team fared so poorly- and I suspect part of the reason was the emphasis that competition barbecue places on homogeneity.

                                Your posts are excellent of QED for that proposition, as it happens.

                                >>The sauce is typically applied after the pork is chopped.

                                Right. Again, you miss my point, which is that the outside meat tends to be too tough for the sauce(especially if used in the proper amount) to soak into those pieces of meat. They will remain relatively tough and dry.

                                1. re: Naco

                                  "No, I just thought it was rather farcical that the Scott/Jones/et al. team fared so poorly"

                                  What was it 3rd out of 250, shameful.

                                  1. re: wolfe

                                    Basically. I've had a fair amount of competition barbecue and none of it has come close to touching what the Joneses put out at the Skylight Inn every day.

                                  2. re: Naco

                                    >>” I just thought it was rather farcical that the Scott/Jones/et al. team fared so poorly- and I suspect part of the reason was the emphasis that competition barbecue places on homogeneity.”

                                    Poorly? They placed third out of hundreds of professional teams! Maybe if they just turned in drier meat they could have done better (tic).

                                    >>”Again, you miss my point, which is that the outside meat tends to be too tough for the sauce(especially if used in the proper amount) to soak into those pieces of meat. They will remain relatively tough and dry.”

                                    Your point is that barbecue develops a bark after several hours inside the cooker? Wow, that is some old school knowledge right there.
                                    QED

                                      1. re: Civil Bear

                                        >>Poorly? They placed third out of hundreds of professional teams! Maybe if they >>just turned in drier meat they could have done better (tic).

                                        Again, thank you for illustrating my point.

                                        >Your point is that barbecue develops a bark after several hours inside the cooker?

                                        No, that was not my point at all.

                                        1. re: Naco

                                          Sorry but dull as I am I don't see how we are illustrating what your point is. Should the judges have read their credentials and just awarded them first prize and saved everyone else a sleepless night?

                  2. I hung out at the Fatback Collective tent through the tournament and let me tell you, that was some mind blowing pig