Metro-East Living

Eating barbecue high off the hog at Memphis in May

Editor’s note: This story by Food Editor Suzanne Boyle was written in May 2001, after she traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to follow the barbecue team from St. Louis’ Super Smokers as it defended its whole-hog champion title at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. The story ran May 23, 2001.

Observing how chefs woo judges at a world-class barbecue contest, is a lot like watching a golf tournament from the green.

In the inner circle, everybody --- except the players --- is very, very quiet. Everybody stays very, very still. Any comments, which are frowned upon, are made at whisper-level. Flash photos are frowned upon, too. And even the fans standing on the sidelines pay homage to the game and the pros with near-silence.

From Thursday to Saturday, more than 100,000 fans of good eating came to 24th Annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis. Held on an eliptical 33-acre strip of Mississippi riverfront known as Tom Lee Park, it is the largest pork barbecue competition in the world.

The list of ingredients that make up this contest include 245 teams from around the world that prepare 54 tons of pork --- none of which is for public consumption. Only invited guests and team members get to sample the meat --- and then only when the judging is over on Saturday afternoon.

The carrot at the end of the stick for the teams was $55,000 in cash prizes.

I spent my time under the red tent of the defending whole-hog world champ, Super Smokers, which has its larger restaurant on U.S. 50 in O'Fallon, and a smaller one in Eureka, Mo. If you're a sports fan, you may have eaten Super Smoker barbecue at Busch Stadium or the TWA Dome, where the business has stands. Its bottled secret sauces also are sold in stores across the bi-state area and in the restaurants.

At the Memphis competition, the teams are divided and housed in tents by the category they're cooking in: hog, shoulder and rib. Tan ceramic pig sculptures branded with big Q's on their sides dotted the landscape.

The smallest and most select group of competitors are the 41 whole-hog teams.

In Booth H-129 is the Super Smokers team --- co-owners Terry Black, Ron Skinner and Skip Steele, plus a hard-working group of family and friends --- who have made the trip south since 1994. This year they brought along Steven Raichlen, cookbook author of best sellers "The Barbecue! Bible" and "Barbecue! Bible Sauces, Rubs and Marinades, " as part of the team.

The team's first-place win in 2000 garnered them a prize of $3,000. But you can double the prize, said Black, by saying thank you to one of the contest sponsors, Cattleman's BBQ Sauce, during your acceptance speech --- which they did.

But the money doesn't mean all that much.

"It's the braggin' and the marketing: World Champion Super Smokers, " he said. "We are the very first (restaurant) from St. Louis to win this contest. Nobody else can ever say that."

In 1999, they took home second place in whole hog. Another team sponsored by the restaurant, TKE Super Smokers, took 21st out of 99 teams last year in the rib category.

Black was the easy one to spot during the weekend: With his Arkansas accent, he did most of the shmoozing with the judges, telling one: "We were gonna get some white bread and start makin' sandwiches if ya'll didn't get here."

Just a few days before, he had been in a car accident and was carrying his left arm in a sling and sporting a broken finger that would require some pins on Monday.

It didn't mar his concentration.

"Every day I think of the world championship, " he said. "We gear for this year-round."

Like any veteran cooks, the team had laid out all their supplies, erected a portable kitchen around back, discussed strategy, timing and security ahead of time.

Black enjoys competing in the whole-hog arena, deemed the most difficult.

"It's the category that takes the most guts, " he said. "It's a 24-hour process. Everything has to be perfect. The hams have to be perfect. The loin has to be perfect. It's the ultimate contest for a perfectionist like me."

So, by 8 a.m. Friday, the team's duo of 130-plus-pound unadorned hogs had passed inspection from a judge, been rubbed with a batch of secret spice ingredients and slid into a smoker the size of a mini van for their first tanning session.

Two hogs are smoked for very optimistic reasons, Black said.

"The second hog is for finals judging, " he said. "You have to feed seven judges with the first one. Four judge the blind box.' Everybody fills a Styrofoam container with loin, shoulder and ham. (No skin or crust is allowed.) The judges don't know which team it's from, so it's done by the meat alone. Then there are three judges that come visit us. If you make the finals, you'd have a torn-up hog, so the second hog is to show the finals judges that this isn't a fluke; we can do this."

Apple wood is the fuel of choice for the Super Smokers team, with some chunks of pecan thrown in around noon on Friday. A basting sauce that includes apple juice and apple jelly also would be applied over the 24 hours. It is a system and a recipe that they have chosen not to alter.

"You don't screw with the formula that's this successful, " he said, grinning.

An internal probe stuck in the hogs registers on an outside gauge on the smoker. Black said the temperature of the meat ranges from 155 to 161 degrees.

Of course at some point shut-eye is required. But the pair of porkers is never left alone.

"When we go to take a nap, Skip locks up the smoker with a chain and lock, " said Black, who also hired a moonlighting cop to help cover nap time.

Black can good-naturedly laugh at all the precautions and secrets involved in protecting not only a very large piece of pork, but rubs and sauces, too.

"This is a serious, serious subculture."

And come Saturday, the festival-like atmosphere of the contest had disappeared. Where Friday's crowd enjoyed elbow-rubbing, rib-eating (sold at stands set up away from the teams) and music, by 10 a.m. Saturday morning, the crowds had disappeared and the hustle and bustle was of teams vacuuming carpet, arranging place settings and doing last-minute prepping for the judges' arrival.

By 11:10, the first hog had been removed from the smoker, his gold-foil ear-coverings discarded and a few cosmetic touches of "rouge" --- paprika --- were applied. Faces were a bit grim: while the meat was tender and juicy, the exterior of the hog was a bit darker than they would have liked.

By 11:45 a.m., select choices of meat were removed from the hog, carefully examined by the trio and then packed in the blind box. Raichlen was chosen to deliver it to the judges tent.

Just before noon, the team had changed into new white golf shirts and tan baseball caps. Standing almost at attention, they lined the inside of the tent, in front of the huge trophies from previous years.

At noon, the first of three judges, who would each judge three different teams, arrived. Each stayed an exact 15 minutes, with a team member watching a clock.

In that time, the team was introduced, Black, Skinner and Steele would show each judge the smoker, present the hog, answer any questions about preparation and type of wood used, and then escort him to a table where he would sample the meat, rub and sauce. Side dishes, water and a sorbet to cleanse his palate also were provided.

A large crowd silently worked its way around the outside of the tent and watched. They knew they were witnessing a championship team defending its title. Each judge left to the sound of applause from the team and the fans.

"We'll know what teams are in the finals by 2, 2:30, " Black said, the tension easing from his face slightly.

Several team members transported the hog on its stainless steel tray out of view of the crowd. Then the feeding frenzy began, with everybody using their hands. It was the first time in more than 24 hours that most of the team got to sample the meat. And as guests arrived, lips smacked amid words of high praise for the pork, which was tender from head to foot.

Veteran judge Ruthie Knote of Cape Girardeau, Mo., stopped by. Black, Skinner and Steele had used her cookbook, "Barbecue and Sausage-making Secrets, " when they first started in the business, Black said.

Knote had drawn other teams this year, but said that while she judges other big barbecue contests, "this is a tough competition."

Overall, judges look at the appearance of the hog and then taste for juiciness, tenderness and flavor. Sauce is always tasted afteward, with and without meat.

Knote said judges have to overcome their own prejudices during the contest.

"You don't judge the way you cook, " she said. "But on the merits put before you."

Shortly after 2 p.m., the word filtered down the walkways that the three finalists had been chosen.

Super Smokers wasn't among them. They'd been displaced by Jack's Old South Bar-B-Que Sauce Cooking team from Vienna, Ga.

The team gallantly tried to put on a brave face. They ended the stay in Memphis in 21st place out of 41 teams. The rib team missed the Top 3 spot by six points, finishing 18th out of 103 teams.

Black was philosophical, but not the least bit apologetic.

"It makes '99 and 2000 that much more special, " he said. "It was very fair. We know where our judges went after our tent."

Maybe the hog was a bit dark, Black added, though that wouldn't influence the blind-box judges.

And maybe it was the luck of the draw with the judges and their "smoke" (wood) preferences.

"Maybe we got hickory judges."

And there's always next year. Black repeated his words after judging Saturday afternoon.

"I can go to bed tonight knowing we did the very best job we could."