Scoring Q and Drinking Brew
By Blake Marcum
“SWINE O’ MINE!”
Inside my head were two thoughts. One, did he mean Sweet Swine O’ Mine? Two, did he just mess up reading out the name of the Grand Champion for the Memphis in May World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest? I know I’m getting WAY ahead of myself for what I wanted to write about, so I’ll go back to the beginning and work my way back to this moment of confusion.
The Memphis in May World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest in Memphis, Tennessee is one of the premiere BBQ cooking competitions in the world. Nestled on the bank of the mighty Mississippi River, this competition brings out a competitive struggle with as much might as the strong river current that is 30 feet away from spectators walking the path around Tom Lee Park, the host site of the event.
This was my eighth year competing at the WCBCC or BBQ Fest as it is known to the locals and my first year competing with the Sweet Swine O’ Mine Championship BBQ Team. We finished the competition circuit strong last year and have enjoyed some success this spring, so I was very excited and anxious to enjoy the “Super Bowl of Swine” with my new team.
211 pro teams compete for the top of their respective categories (aka the BIG THREE), Whole Hog, Shoulder, and Ribs. Each team has to select which one of the big three categories they will compete in for the competition. In addition to the one main category, teams can enter several ancillary competitions: Beef, exotic, poultry, seafood, hot wings, tomato based sauce, mustard based sauce, and vinegar based sauce. These ancillary categories can be tougher competition because all teams, Pro teams as well as the Patio (amateur rib) teams can enter.
Sweet Swine O’ Mine only entered the sauce ancillaries this year. As a general rule, we want to focus all our attention on our main category, shoulder. This was my first time competing in shoulder at BBQ Fest, but my third time cooking shoulder with our head shoulder cook, Mark Lambert. Mark is widely known in the BBQ world, not only as a competitor but also in the retail world being a distributor of all things BBQ and having one of the top selling sauces you’ll find on the Lowe’s and other store shelves, Sweet Sauce O’ Mine. Maybe he’ll give me a few bottles for that plug. (hint, hint)
We had set up earlier that week, had a few private lunches and dinners and I was already exhausted before Friday rolled around. Friday was the day I was looking forward to more than any other. The day I finally get to compete in shoulder at BBQ Fest. The rest of the team was doing a number of jobs to prepare for another dinner. Let me state, I have never seen finer teamwork than that which SSOM puts forth during competition. It’s like a symphony of chaos that just flows perfectly.
Mark and I started prepping the shoulders like we would at any other competition, cold beer at the ready and spouting out random movie lines. On this day, we basically did a line by line reading from memory of the Blazing Saddles script, a SSOM favorite. I talked our head whole hog cook Chris Culver into playing a few Alice in Chains songs on the stereo to keep us revved up.
Shoulder prep went slow for me at first. It had been a while since I trimmed shoulder and I was nervous about it being for the biggest competition we do. Mark went over some points with me and showed me a few tricks. After I trimmed two down, I settled down and just cruised. Once we were done with prepping they went into the smoker and got to doing what they do.
I won’t bore you with the details of every step of our progress, but will point out that I did not get to leave for the hotel until 12:45AM and was back in our tent to wake up Mark at 5:30AM who had slept in the team supply trailer, in case there was a problem with the smoker.
The rest of the team arrived around 7AM and prep work started to get the booth ready for on-site judging. I’m always calm when the rest of the team is there. Our head rib cook and sauce master, Dr. Richard Lackie, always has the right thing to say if he sees me getting nervous or anxious. Mostly he just reminds me that as long as we don’t stray from our process, our recipe will always do its job, so the worst thing we can do is over-think it.
Focused chaos is the only way I can describe what happens before the first judge arrives on scene. People are cleaning, changing clothes, preparing presentation material, and building the blind box. There is lots of yelling to keep people updated on anything needed and the time. Mark and I were constantly jumping on and off the smoker doing last minute work. All that getting on and off the smoker led to a torn meniscus in my knee. Competitive BBQ is not for the timid or frail.
Mark and our team matriarch Amy Milam build the blind box and Amy’s husband Tony runs it in. Amy is a master at building a blind box. She has started training me at smaller competitions and I never knew so much thought went into it. Once the blind box is run in, we talk out the presentation and then it is time for the first judge.
At BBQ Fest, you have three individual judges that come. You have 10-15 minutes with each judge to showcase your process and your product. Then you have a 5 minute window between judges to prepare for the next judge. In less than one hour, everything you worked so hard for is done.
My part during presentation was to get the shoulders onto the serving platters, decide how to present it to the judge, and then sit back and look adorable. I do all of these things very well. I also make sure and listen intently to the presentation. Mark, Amy, and Richard present to the judges. They know exactly what to say and when to say it.
When the last judge leaves the booth, we clean up the area and sit around talking about the product we just turned in. And then we wait. We wait while scores from all 56 shoulder teams are tabulated. We wait to find out if we made finals (the top three of the category) and will get to present to a final panel of four judges.
The wait is excruciating. And then you see a golf cart riding down the lane. They stop in front of our booth. Shoulder finals. We are IN. We all let out a scream or yell of victory on this honor itself. Our competition is none other than the awesome Chris Lily and his team Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q and Rebel Roaster Revue. This is a prize fight for sure. You could see the change on people’s faces. Most of them had been here before. Sweet Swine O’ Mine won the WCBCC in 2009. They know what this will take.
Mark and I went back into competition mode getting our finals shoulders back in game shape. Amy calls a quick team meeting, we reset ourselves and what needed to get done and map out the changes to our presentation. For finals we have to present to all four finals judges at one time. That means getting more people involved in the process. Everyone on the team is a pro and knows how to step up to any challenge.
The four judges arrive and we give them all we’ve got. They are expert judges. They ask all the right questions and we are on point with answers. We intently watch their every move trying to gauge whether or not they enjoy the product. They finish and we send them off with our signature team cheer. We all embrace. We are done.
Hours later we are at awards in our lawn chairs, sipping cold beverages and enjoying the last remaining rays of sunlight reflect off the mighty Mississippi. It’s awards time. Everyone is packed into the area surrounding the stage. It’s such an honor just to be there, but knowing you will walk the stage for one of the top three spots makes everything surreal.
I felt like butterflies were having a civil war inside my stomach as the top ten patio teams were announced. TIME FOR SHOULDER. I was so used to waiting until ribs at the end of awards, that I wasn’t really sure what to do. They announced 10th through 4th place and then it got real.
My team huddled together hoping that we would not hear our name for 3rd. REBEL ROASTER REVUE! The crowd is cheering but we’ve only gotten more into a HOLY HELL mode. It’s down to us and Big Bob Gibson. Both teams have won this category before. Both teams have won Grand Champion of BBQ Fest before. Certain images of great fights flashed before my eyes. Ali vs. Foreman, Mario vs. Koopa, Frogger vs. all that ridiculous traffic.
“In second place… (pause for all eternity)… BIG BOB GIBSON!”
HOLY FREAKING ZOMBIE INFECTED MONKEY OF GLORY. WE WON.
Now dear readers, I will not go into great detail about the celebratory hugs and cheers that my team exhibited because I did not stick around for them. I wanted to get up on that stage quick before someone changed their mind. Much like Moses parting the Red Sea, I parted that crowd like a runaway freight train. Oh my lord I was excited.
The rest of the team was right behind me as I climbed up the stairs. One of the Memphis in May BBQ Fest head honchos Melzie Wilson was holding the 1st place trophy and was having a bit of a time with it. I gladly relieved her of the 40+ pound trophy and quickly hoisted it above my head. I thought that the rest of the team would fill in front of me for pictures, but quickly noticed that no one was getting in front of me. This quickly became my favorite and most asinine picture of BBQ Fest.
After we get our applause, we move to the side for more pictures, but the organizers have already moved on to Whole Hog so we have to get out of the way and down the stairs behind the stage to wait. We had to wait until all of the Whole Hog and Rib teams 10th through 1st place were called, so that we could go back out and see who won Grand Champion between the 1st place shoulder, whole hog, and rib team. So we went down the ramp and waited in a stiflingly hot area with no air flow. And there were pictures and hugs and everything you would expect from a team that just put so much heart and effort into a victory.
The 1st place Whole Hog team is announced. The Shed takes it. We know and love everyone at The Shed. Brad, Brooke, Daddy-O and the rest are some of our favorite people to party it up with. I’ve never had their hog so I don’t know how it compares to our hog, but I have drank their beer. Their beer is mighty good beer. They had Naked Pig Pale Ale from the Back Forty Brewing Company out of Gasden, Alabama. The brewer was actually there with them. Very nice guy doing some great beer work, but I digress…
Ribs are announced and High Life on the Hog wins 1st place. I had judged this team a month prior to BBQ Fest and gave them my 10, so I know they put out a great product. Their head rib cook told me up on stage that they modified their presentation based on feedback I gave them at the competition. That’s why I always tell judges, ALWAYS give feedback to teams you judge. It can really help them improve.
All of the 1st place teams get shuffled back onto the stage. The lights are shining, the crowd is waiting, and my heart is about to burst out of my chest. The announcer builds up the big announcement and then we wait. And we wait some more.
“SWINE O’ MINE!”
Inside my head were two thoughts. One, did he mean Sweet Swine O’ Mine? Two, did he just mess up reading out the name of the Grand Champion for the Memphis in May World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest? I watch enough Criminal Minds to deduce that if he didn’t’ say The Shed or High Life on the Hog, by way of elimination, he probably meant us.
The place goes wild, the crowd cheers and we erupt.
What follows this moment are hugs, lots of camera flashes, cheers, handshakes, and a phone that is going into overload. It is so very overwhelming. Most of the team has been here before. This is my first time reaching these heights. I’m speechless, but not for long.
Richard walks over to me and says “Take it all in. You’ll never feel this way ever again. It will never be the same as the first time.” I hope he is wrong. We are interviewed by a few news sources. We do an interview with Kingsford, where they extend an invitation to us for the Kingsford Invitational. I try and lift the Grand Champion trophy and cannot. I’m worn out from carrying the 1st place shoulder trophy. Tony laughs and tells me there is a trick to it and lifts it for me.
On our walk back to our team booth, we get yells of congratulations from all around. There is a crowd of people at our tent waiting for us to arrive. We put the trophies out front so people can see them and take pictures with them. And I go and do what I’ve been dreaming about doing since 4:00AM, I go sit down. That night was something I’ll never forget. I got to see some of my closest BBQ friends and their warm words were very moving and appreciated.
The next day we arrive and break everything down and pack it up. We go our separate ways until the next competition brings us all together again. On my way out of the park, I turn and look at the river one last time and for me BBQ Fest is done. Now we shift focus to the rest of our competition calendar and look forward to coming back next year to defend our title.