It is a Saturday afternoon and I am being driven at speed in a golf buggy by a woman called Diane Hampton. She wears a green watch, elasticated trousers and large rings on her fingers. As we trail past food stalls with large Americans wearing large hats, people wave at her, extending their hands to her as if she were the pope in his mobile: “Hey Diane… How y’all doing, Diane… Y’all OK today?” She is undisputed queen here, at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, Tennessee.
I am being given an impromptu tour of the site by Hampton, 56, executive vice-president of Memphis in May, the organisation behind the show here since 1978.
We need a buggy for two reasons. First, the heat. The heat doesn’t so much hit you here as suffuse and cuddle you, until you feel, yes, you might just fall into its companionable arms for a little snooze. The other reason is the scale of the site. It occupies a mile and a bit of grass along the banks of the Mississippi river, with winding avenues and lanes fashioned from the dirt into a figure of eight formation to house 251 competitors who have travelled from across the world (well, mainly the American south) to take part in the “Super Bowl of swine”, as Hampton calls it.
My presence here is down to the 251st team, a group marked out not just by their uniform attire and paleness, their courtly manners or indeed the way they treat their pork – but because they all work for the Yorkshire-based supermarket Asda. Standing close by their team HQ, you hear the brogue of Gods Own County waft out onto neighbouring enclosures as strong and as clear as the smell of roast pork.
Now, the main game in Memphis is ribs – the champs in that category take a 10th of the £110,000 prize pot and a trophy the size of a teenager – but there are also innumerable other categories, ranging from “whole hog” to “vinegar sauce” via “beef brisket”. Asda is out for the “brisket” and “rib” prize. “We were disappointed not to win last year but then we are competing against the kings here,” says Mark Richmond, Asda’s innovation chef, the man who led last year’s attempt, and returned home to turn the team’s “Memphis ribs” into something now on sale in their stores. Mark spends two nights sleeping in the Asda enclosure during the festival, ensuring the hickory-wood oven never falls below the requisite temperature.
But then everyone takes ribs seriously in Memphis. If they sold novelty T-shirts at airport arrivals, they would read “Everything Tastes Better Barbecued”. Nearly every restaurant we encounter here specialises in it. Sure, there is the odd fish joint, but really it is all about ribs and the all-consuming smell of smokers, burning day and night, spreading hickory-wood smoke across the worn-at-the-edges city. The bellboys, taxi drivers, hairdressers – they all have their own special recipe and more often than not they want to press them onto you like some irreplaceable heirloom.
Meanwhile, back at the site, the finishing touches are being put to competitors’ stands. A flag here, a pot plant there or, if you are very ambitious, an extra storey to your barbecue enclosure. Some have built three-storey-high structures on which to impress the judges. Here in Memphis it is not just the meat you are judged on, it’s also the presentation of your barbecue house.
Three judges, clad in yellow “Smoke on the Water” aprons, will visit each site to taste the wares but also inspect the general set-up. Is it hygienic for, instance? Comfortable? Neat and tidy?
Judges must stay no longer than 15 minutes on a stand, or the team loses points. Hospitality must have its limits. How, I ask Richard Jones of the Asda team, would they go about getting the judges to clear off if they got a bit too comfy in their nicely shaded tent? “To be honest, I’m not sure we’ve got a plan for that happening.” “Shove them along,” suggests Hampton. The other part of the judging process eschews notions of southern fellowship – it’s all about the blind taste test.
At 1pm on the Saturday, the Asda enclosure is all a-flurry, for in half an hour their ribs must emerge from the smoker, be carefully sliced and then walked down to the judging marquee, which, during the day, holds up to 240 judges.
So begins the Pork Walk. With the ribs safely encased in a large Styrofoam box, four of the nine-strong Asda team form a sort of cavalry square around it as it process down to the judges. Why? “You see crowds, folks knocking the boxes,” says Jones, “so you need to protect it. Carrying it down is more nerve-wracking than waiting for your degree results.”
If you are a judge, though, the danger is not so much to your nerves as your waistline. I meet one, Ron Childers, a local weatherman who has adjudicated at competitions for a decade. “You do end up putting on a couple of pounds,” he says, laughing. He is serious in his preparation though: “No coffee, no smoking, just fruit and water; not even gum to taint the palate.”
What are the judges looking for, then? Is there a perfect rib? “Appearance-wise,” says Childers, “you want them to look like something out of a cookery magazine, beautiful. Taste-wise it’s less universal but I like heat and sweet in my ribs (the Memphis classic).”
One thing every judge I speak to is agreed on is the texture – that’s the most important thing. The meat should not, despite what they will tell you at cool London rib joints, fall straight from the bone at the touch of your teeth – there should be a teensy bit of resistance.
It takes the judges a good six hours of chewing and sauce-slathering before they reach their final verdicts. Everything is set for the 7pm reveal. But crowds of mustachioed Memphians and their wives and girlfriends, all of whom have paid $9 a ticket to enter the site, are beginning to gather by 6pm.
A highly-strung local news anchor, Brian Basham, begins announcing the results. Starting with the lowliest category: “patio porkers” (the non-pros). Only, in fact, the results he is reading out are for another category: wings.
Confusion reigns for a while but no one really minds.He pulls it together and we find out who wins the brisket and rib categories about half an hour later. Asda finishes a respectable 39th out of 108 in brisket and 67th out of 121 in the rib category.
The trophy for each of those goes to, respectively, Fireman John’s – a group from Madison, Mississippi, which is headed by a fireman named John – and High Life on the Hog from close-by Corvada. The overall Grand Champion – the team with the highest points across the board – is announced as Sweet Swine of Mine, from Mississippi.
The Asda team is sanguine and pledge a return next year. Hampton has retreated back to her temporary motor home. “We love pork!” the crowd chants as the last rays of sunshine disappear behind the far bank of the Mississippi. And in Memphis, you really do believe them.