Nov 16, 2009

Barbecue, Blues and Beale Street

Neither rain, nor snow or dead of night stops me from firing up the grill.  In fact my weekly grill outs aren't enough to satisfy my obsession. I also compete in several Kansas City Barbecue Society's  sanctioned tournaments every year.  Hauling canopies, tables, coolers and grills throughout Michigan.   As my friends will tell you, barbecue sauce runs through my veins.  So for my 50th birthday my wife surprised me with a dream vacation to visit a mecca of the coals,  the World Championship of Barbecue, Memphis in May.  Along with theAmerican Royal, Jack Daniels Invitational,  Memphis in May is one of the jewels in the triple crown of competitive barbecue.

What makes Memphis in May unique and different than the other competitions is the emphasis on performance.  You earn points based on both on your team's site decorations and presentation to the judges.  I had heard stories of how extravagant this was but I was unprepared for the elaborateness of it all when I arrived at the park on the Mississippi River where over 100 teams had set up "camp".  This is only a guess, but it wouldn't surprise me if some creations cost the pit master teams $10,000 to $20,000!!  Another unique feature of Memphis in May is their category for "whole hog".  For these teams, the "whole hog" is an art form.  (The KCBS tournaments feature only the "big four" pork butt, pork ribs, beef brisket and chicken).  As much as I enjoyed checking out the competition, I soon discovered that Memphis is much more than barbecue  It's a funky, historic city fueled also by music and the love of a party.

A must stop (at least for me) was to visit the studio where a young cat named Elvis Presley got his start;  Sun Records Studio.  About thirty people were chaperoned through a cramped studio tour.  We traveled less than 100 feet for 45 minutes but it was great 100 feet.  We listened to early Elvis, Jerry Lee, Howlin' Wolf, Pine Top Perkins and Johnny Cash.  The walls of the studio were full of musical memorabilia.  I even had the opportunity to ham it up at the same microphone used  by a young Elvis Presley and Howlin' Wolf!.

Other enjoyable stops were the Gibson Guitar Factory in downtown Memphis and the famous Peabody Hotel, where ducks frolic in their lobby fountain during the day and then parade out on a red carpet to an elevator at night.  I was amazed at the number of people who were there on a Monday , just waiting for the 10 minute "show".  Corny but cool.

 We also stumbled upon the Lorraine Hotel during a walk.  From a distance, the name on the sign rang a bell, but I couldn't recall why. When we were directly in front of it, I knew instantly that this was where Martin Luther King was assassinated.  The memorial is simple.  A wreath hung the second story balcony, a plaque and two vintage cars parked in front.   A living snapshot of that terrible day.

Of course Beale a must visit when in Memphis.  The "home of the blues".  Closed off to traffic, it was a three block license to party.  Music, bars, street performers, and tacky souvenir stores.  I enjoyed the spectacle and energy, but a little of Beale St. goes a long way.

I can now check off Memphis as one of the iconic American cities I have visited.  As much as I enjoyed the four days we spent in Memphis, I'm not sure I would go back, unless of courseTeam Grilladelic is invited to compete!

About the author:

John Rumery is an entrepreneur and champion barbecuer living in Allegan , Michigan. Visit his BBQ website This is John's second post on Around the world in 30 days.

No comments: