In It To Win It: Tom & Jerry's Global Porkers
On a brisk March afternoon, Todd and Shellie Allen's Collierville kitchen is bursting with activity. While kids play underfoot, team members are busy mixing spices, checking on bubbling sauces, and sharpening knives. Outside, a grill produces a steady plume of smoke that fills the backyard — and the neighborhood — with the unmistakable smell of sizzling barbecue. This is BBQ HQ, and it's time to put the finishing touches on this year's Memphis in May strategy.
The team is Tom & Jerry's Global Porkers, and these guys are serious about winning.
Well, they are now , anyway.
"When we started," recalls Todd, "we were all about the party. And we were very, very good at that," he laughs. The team got together in 1994 at Shellie's suggestion. Her father, Jerry, owns a barbecue shop in Camden, Tennessee, and Todd's father, Tom, owns a construction business. Combine the two talents, and you've got the trappings of a great Memphis in May barbecue combo: cooking know-how and the means to build a great booth. With Tom and Jerry signed on as sponsors, the next step was recruiting team members. Twelve couples later, Tom & Jerry's was cooking.
"The first year we had absolutely no idea what the heck we were doing," laughs Shellie. "We weren't organized, we'd never really met to plan, and we were all about the booth." The booth became somewhat legendary on the MIM circuit. Four tractor-trailers were needed to haul in all the building materials for the two-story tropical oasis. The team mulched and laid sod inside and out, built a dance floor and deejay area, set up two bars, and lit the place with neon. A lighting director and landscaper were hired to help create the feel of a Miami club, complete with palm trees and an additional $6,000 in plants (on loan, to be returned if they survived the mayhem). Overall cost? Around $30,000.
"We don't do anything in a small way," explains Mark Priest.
Their efforts didn't go unnoticed, and T & J walked away with wins in the Best Booth award more than once. "It was mayhem," recalls Todd. "People coming and going at all times, expecting to be fed. We were working 24/7, going through about 30 kegs in three days, and even had to hire two security guards to make sure things didn't get too out of hand. The only way we could get folks out was to tell them that the beer was gone!" he laughs.
The fun factor dominated the team's motivation for about six years. Then a funny thing happened. Tom & Jerry's actually won something other than Best Booth. "We got a taste of winning, and we liked it. We wanted to win more," says Cory Shipman. "It started out as horseplay, but now it's all about pig play."
In 2002, the team decided to cut back on the booth. They retired the two-story structure, opted for a smaller tent, and started meeting regularly to practice cooking techniques. They began entering smaller Memphis in May-sanctioned competitions around the country to get judges' feedback on everything from sauce to shoulder, traveling to Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, North Carolina; Batesville, Arkansas; and Lakeland, Tennessee. Team members Cliff Wilson and Mike Rude became the official hotwing cookers after winning the Tennessee state championship with their wings, which are now entered into the "Anything But" category. "When you're competing against 230 or so other entries, your stuff really has to stand out," says Mike, who calls himself the "wing man to the wingman." This year, the two went with a sweeter, Caribbean-style sauce, in honor of Costa Rica, MIM's honored country. When the competition rolls around, Cliff and Mike will have practiced their recipe and cooking style at least six times, calling their efforts "perfectly choreographed." The ultimate hotwing tip? "Don't make the wings too hot, or the judges won't be able to taste a thing," advises Cliff.
The team's secret weapon in the barbecue category has got to be George Smith, a friend of Jerry's who helped out at the Camden barbecue shop. "These guys didn't know a thing about barbecue until I came along," insists Smith. "He's not bragging, it's the truth!" Todd good-naturedly agrees. Smith, the team's competition cooker, advises the group on what woods to use, and in what combination. They've used everything from cherry, peach, apple, pecan, and hickory, based on what the judges' palate for the year seems to be. "That's one of the things you really pay attention to when you're on the road. If you know what's winning at the smaller events, you get a feel for what's most popular that year. If it's sweet stuff that's winning, then we know that's the direction to go," says Smith, who plans on mixing his woods in May, but isn't willing to tell which ones.
"George is so serious when it comes to cooking," adds Brian Eason, another team member on hand at the Saturday practice run. How serious is he? When the tornados rolled across the river in 2002, sending teams scattering for cover, Smith stayed behind with the meat. "I hid from the first group of folks when they told us to evacuate the park," recalls Smith. "I wasn't so lucky when the M.P.D. came around to check again, and they sent me on my way. I rode out the storm under someone's porch in South Bluffs, and then ran back to check on the meat as soon as they said it was safe. I'd added wood before I left, and when I got back, it was still cooking along at the perfect temperature," he says proudly.
In addition to the secret spice rubs and the team's award-winning sauce, Todd says the real key to winning at MIM is the way the food is presented when the judges roll around. "It's a sales job," says Todd. "You've got to tell them what they're going to taste in terms of flavor and spices. Keep talking, get right in their faces. You've got to tell them how you cooked it, and why. The booth has to be immaculate, you've got to be immaculate. They look at everything, even to see if you've got sauce on your pants or under your nails. Everything counts," he says, deadly serious. Showmanship also plays a part, he adds, explaining that sometimes he'll "assign" two or three other team members to stand behind the judges when they're sampling the meat, "just in case they faint!"
"We want the flavor to explode in the judges' mouths," adds Mike.
This year, Tom & Jerry's hopes to win the big prize, and has every intention of walking away with as many other categories as possible. From shoulder to whole hog, hotwings to sauce, they're ready.
"This is a big deal for us all," says Shellie. "We got a taste of winning and it stayed with us. I like to think that our team is like a marriage. When we started, we didn't know what we were doing, but it was still fun. Now we run like clockwork. After this many years, we finally know how the marriage is supposed to work."
Here for the Party: Meat Maker's
While Tom & Jerry's is practicing its moves out east, at a Midtown bar, another team is having a meeting of its own. Meet the Meat Maker's, a group of 14 friends ready to turn Tom Lee Park upside down again this year,
The young team — all are between 25 and 28 — is preparing for its fourth year in the MIM contest. Paul Lucchesi and Donny Hearn are the "leaders" of this bunch, if for no other reason than they were the ones who secured the seed money to get the team off the ground. In addition to cash donations from family members, Paul's father is affiliated with a local liquor wholesale company, which just so happens to include among its stock Maker's Mark. The popular brand of Kentucky bourbon seemed like a nice fit for the team, and the Meat Maker's had their moniker. "None of us had ever had Maker's Mark before, so we didn't know anything about it at all," says Nick Rice, feigning innocence.
Their first year went "pretty well," depending on who you ask. "We certainly didn't expect to win anything, which is good, because we didn't" laughs Tim Treadwell. What is agreed on by all is that it was fun. Lots of fun. So much so that the team vowed they'd be back the next year, with a better plan. Part of that vision was realized, anyway.
The Meat Maker's organizational system is a bit amorphous, yet somehow, everything gets done. Call it Maker's magic. Team members Richard Smith and Thomas Owens are in charge of setting up the tent each year. "A buddy that's a builder made a floor for the tent and a fence for the perimeter, which was great. Unfortunately, it's in pretty shabby shape now. It's pretty warped, but thankfully we have several lawyers on the team in case anything happens or someone falls," grins Smith. Add a fridge, a cooker, and a couple of bars, and the work is done. "Honestly," admits Owens, "our tent looks like a Home Depot exploded."
After the booth is set up, the entire team descends on the park for a few days of what they refer to as "controlled chaos." Wednesday night is team night, when only team members are allowed in the tent. The group cooks burgers and hot dogs and prepares for the coming days. Thursday is reserved for families and sponsors, and the fare gets upgraded to shrimp and steaks. Then the weekend comes. Friday, they say, gets pretty crazy, and by Saturday, all bets are off. But honestly, how bad could it be?
"Last year there was a real serious, very competitive team next to our tent," explains Smith. "They had all their trophies on display, and they were absolutely disgusted with us. One guy came over to meet us, then said, 'Some people come to win, others come to party,'" laughs Smith. "There was no doubt in anyone's mind which team was which." Not only did the neighboring team prove their theory by walking away with third place overall, they requested never to be placed next to the Meat Maker's again. "That's okay," grins Smith. "We know we're rowdy, and we're okay with that."
The Maker's can take comfort in the fact that they weren't the worst behaved team in the park the next year. That honor went to Raiford's, of the notorious downtown dance club Hollywood Raiford's. "Now they were out of control," laughs Rice. "They had strippers doing their thing in their tent, and they got thrown out of the park. Memphis in May just shut 'em down. They don't put up with a lot of insanity. Compared to that, we're choirboys."
Although the team is relatively new on the 'cue scene, they've already carved out a few traditions. Each year, in honor of their sponsor, someone must perform the "Maker's Mark shuffle." This signature move requires the assigned shuffler to don an inflated plastic Maker's Mark bottle cap and shake a tail feather before an adoring crowd. And don't forget about the annual "Off the Chain" award, the prize given to the team member who has made the biggest ass of himself that year. And somehow, the group has become somewhat of a media magnet. For the last three years, the team has been featured on a local news show or radio station, and sometimes both. "They always come by at the worst possible time," says Clay Tidwell. "Last year I'd been working at the tent for 48 full hours, and the news cameras pop in. I'm sure I sounded like a raving lunatic."
Lest one were to get the impression that this barbecue team forgot about the barbecue, think again. Lucchesi and Hearn are the chefs of the bunch, entering the team's fried turkey, shoulder, ribs, and sauce into the competition. Though there's no practicing the rest of the year and certainly no traveling to compete in other events, they somehow managed to win 22nd place in the rib competition last year. "We beat my dad's team, and he's been at it for more than 20 years!" laughs Russell Pope. "We don't even have thermometers for the cookers," he says, shaking his head in amazement. "But winning feels good. Why do it at all if you don't want to win a little?"
"After seeing us in action, people are surprised to find out that we're actually pretty good cooks too," shrugs Rice. "Why do you have to be one or the other?"
Brad Albritten sums it up best: "We're all business people, and most of us are married. We work hard, and we play just as hard. We've been friends since high school, and the important thing is that we're all still close, and this is one thing we can do every year to bring everyone together at the same time, and have a lot of fun. At the end of the day, that's what really matters."
Exactly how does one team's barbecue make the championship cut?
by Frank Murtaugh
It's one thing to judge Olympic figure skating or (quiet down, Simon) American Idol contestants. There's an entirely different skill to judging the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC). When 250 teams converge on Tom Lee Park, each claiming to master pork in a way your taste buds might not even deserve, a judge had better know a hog, literally inside and out.
Memphis in May vice president Diane Hampton is a trained and certified barbecue judge, and an authority on the judging process. "When you take the eight-hour course before testing — and you still may (continued on page 51) learn more about a pig than you could possibly imagine," says Hampton. "To begin with, shoulder actually comes from the butt, and the butt isn't where you might think it is." If you manage to pass the training test, you can become a certified judge once you've tasted at two contests. There will be no fewer than 500 judges at this year's contest, coming from as far as New York and Canada.
"What separates Memphis in May," explains Hampton, "is that we require two types of judging: blind and onsite. Most contests don't require the onsite judging, and we feel like this really makes us unique." In onsite judging, judges will actually visit a team and watch the entire cooking process, from pig to plate. Each team will present to three judges, but must do so individually, placing a premium not only on quality, but consistency of their 'cue. (Blind judging involves samples being delivered to the judges, in nothing more elaborate than styrofoam.) There are six clearly defined criteria each judge will be measuring at Memphis in May (and yes, there's a handbook spelling these out): area and personal appearance, presentation, appearance of entry, tenderness of entry, flavor of entry, and overall impression.
Contestants at the WCBCC are divided into three meat categories: rib, shoulder, and whole hog. In addition to these, champions are crowned for sauce and baked beans. Three teams from each meat category qualify as finalists for the Grand Champion trophy, which can bring a prize of $22,000. The nine finalists must go through a second round of onsite judging to earn the competition's top honor. The first grand champion in 1978 was Bessie Lou Cathey, and winners since have included John Wills (1980 and '81), Apple City Barbecue (the only three-time champ), and the adroitly named Pyropigmaniacs (1996 and 2002).
Through a light chuckle, Hampton describes Audrey Gonzalez as a "seasoned" judge. (Full disclosure: As Audrey West, this judge wrote the first barbecue feature in these pages, "The Pits," which ran in the July 1976 issue of City of Memphis.) Gonzalez was one of only two women asked to judge the very first Memphis in May contest, and she judged seven more before moving to Uruguay, where she lived for 20 years. ("South America has an entirely different kind of barbecue," she notes.) Having returned to Memphis in 2004, Gonzalez was desperate to re-enter the world of barbecue judging and, having passed her certification, returned to the judges' tent last year. She describes herself as an "obsessive volunteer" (she works year-round with juvenile delinquents) and "a vegetarian who only eats barbecue pork." Make no mistake: Gonzalez takes her judging duties as seriously as her M.F.A. program at the University of Memphis (she's pursuing her third master's degree).
Gonzalez admits that each judge brings his or her respective tastes to the WCBCC, and she considers herself old-fashioned, preferring tender meat with salty, vinegar-based sauce to the recent trend of sweeter sauces. "I'm kind of appalled," she says, "that they've made [eating barbecue] like eating cotton candy. All the sauces nowadays are so sweet. But that's a statement on most foods we eat these days. I've heard of meat being injected with apple juice, or pineapple juice. No wonder it's so sweet.
"The first thing you look for is how the barbecue looks, how it's presented to you," says Gonzalez, who also judges contests as far away as Washington, D.C., as long as they're sanctioned by the Memphis Barbecue Association. "The meat has to be tender for me. My favorite is whole hog, where you get to try three pieces of meat and the dessert, so to speak: the bacon. With the shoulder, you want to have some pink. I like onsite judging, because the contestants have to put on a show. It's a welcoming, loving situation. There are not many things in life where people really want to make you happy like that."
Gonzalez describes the numerical grading system as her biggest challenge, one contest after another. "You can't give two entries the same number, and when you have two or three of them that are outstanding, how do you make one better than the other?"
Three entries have stood the test of time in Gonzalez' memory: "I remember when John Willingham first won [in 1983] and John Wills, but the best one in history was Bessie Lou Cathey. That's the one I judge against. She had the best sauce, the best flavor, just down-home barbecue. She wasn't out there to make a name for herself or open a restaurant. She just cooked down-home barbecue."
Where does Gonzalez go when not judging her favorite meat? She mentions the dry ribs at the Rendezvous and Bozo's in Mason, Tennessee, as among her favorites. "I've written a novel," says Gonzalez, "which I hope to someday get published, and it's basically based on barbecue being a religious experience."
For the third year in a row, the WCBCC will host the People's Choice Tent, where for merely $3, any visitor can judge five 2-oz. samples of barbecue, and see how his or her taste measures up to that of the pro judges. Hampton says this is among the most popular recent advents at Memphis in May, and the difference in outcomes between the main event and the people's choice adds, well, flavor to an already world-famous event.
According to Hampton, the MIM event is the only place to get the real deal when it comes to real barbecue. As for offerings of wildly popular restaurants, Hampton has this to say about it: "There is not a restaurant that serves championship barbecue," taking Corky's and Rendezvous loyalists down a notch. "Championship barbecue simply requires too much love, time, and care."
Starting the Fire
A look back at the early days of the Memphis in May barbecue cooking contest.
by Michael Finger
Perhaps the dense smoke wafting from hundreds of barbecue cookers has clouded our brains. Or maybe we've been rattled too many times by the blasts of cannon fire during the "1812 Overture" that usually closes the Sunset Symphony. Or it could be because the whole thing began just too many years ago for most people to remember.
But ask many people how Memphis in May got its start, and they won't be able to tell you. They assume, as do most of us, that the city's largest festival just sprang into existence, with thousands of people crowding Tom Lee Park for the Sunset Symphony, and hundreds of teams hauling giant cookers downtown for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest — just two events in a May calendar packed with a month full of activities.
It didn't happen that way. In fact, Memphis in May got off to a rather slow start, and the biggest event of all — the barbecue fest — wasn't even part of the original lineup.
An event with the name of "Memphis in May" was actually discussed as early as 1970, but it wasn't until 1974 that a festival called the Mid-American Exposition took place to celebrate the grand opening of the Memphis Cook Convention Center. Newspapers noted that the event had a "central theme area called Memphis in May and will emphasize the city's variety of activities and entertainment in May." The organization basically acted as an umbrella for any event taking place during May, including the Cotton Carnival, the Danny Thomas Memphis Golf Classic, and even a Fairgrounds appearance by "The Great Alphonse, escape artist and magician."
Despite the initial enthusiasm, the Chamber of Commerce had no money for follow-up events in 1975 and 1976, so it wasn't until 1977 that the first "real" Memphis in May got started.
"You have to remember that Memphis was in a depression back then, and the city had no money to do anything," says developer Lyman Aldrich, the first president of Memphis in May, and now chairman emeritus of the organization. "I was in line to be president in 1977, so I told them I was taking it away from the Chamber. I wanted to bring in more young people, men and women, black and white, who were willing to turn our city around."
Aldrich and others realized that, among other goals, the new event needed to stimulate jobs here, so they came up with the idea to honor a different foreign country each year, one with economic ties to our state. So the 1977 Memphis in May — this time with "International Festival" as part of its name — celebrated Japan, and it wasn't long after that Sharp Manufacturing moved a production plant to Memphis.
"Memphis in May was huge in trying to create jobs and bring more people downtown," says Aldrich.
That first year introduced the Sunset Symphony and the Beale Street Music Festival, both events a success. But there was no mention of barbecue on the 1977 calendar. That was still to come.
Aldrich says his Memphis in May staff formed a special committee to organize and create a wide variety of events, which was chaired by two executives from Morgan Keegan: Rodney Baber Jr. and Jack Powell. Powell had been participating in a national chili cookoff that took place every year in Terlingua, Texas, and Aldrich remembers one evening Baber called him with a suggestion.
"Rodney said, 'Why wouldn't a barbecue contest in Memphis work as well as the chili cookoff in Texas?' And I said, 'That is a natural. That is a fabulous idea.'"
So the first annual International Barbecue Cooking Contest was organized — a one-day event held on May 6, 1978, in the parking lot across the street from the Orpheum. The event drew just one cooking team and only 18 other individual contestants. Judges included Memphis restaurant legends Charlie Vergos, Justine Smith from Justine's, and John Grisanti, who unanimously declared Memphis homemaker Mrs. Bessie Lou Cathey the grand-prize winner. When she entered the contest, cooking on a little charcoal grill, Cathey was confident she could prepare the best barbecue in town, because she told a Press-Scimitar reporter, "Everybody who eats it says it is."
She was right. For her efforts, she collected a huge ribbon and $500, and one of the stipulations of the contest was that she had to reveal her secret recipe. She told reporters, "I'll have to think about that," but later admitted that her "secret" sauce was nothing but a bottle of Hyde Park brand barbecue sauce purchased right off the shelf from Piggly Wiggly.
There was only one cooking team that year, a group calling itself the Redneck BBQ Express, but it turns out that their appearance was crucial to the growth of the event.
"Rodney, [Chamber president] Tiff Bingham, and I went down there on Friday night to see how things were going," says Aldrich. "Most of the cookers were just setting up things in their little roped-off spaces, but there was this one group who had brought dates, and things to drink. There must have been 15 or 20 of them, and they were just having a ball, getting ready to cook for the contest the next day.
"We looked at those guys and thought, this could be a weekend event. This could start on Friday, when people kind of play, and then have the contest on Saturday. And now look what it's become. Now it starts on Wednesday and runs through Saturday."
The Redneck BBQ Express was also the first team to use a specially made cooker — a 350-gallon drum sliced in half and painted bright red — and Aldrich says they have participated in every barbecue contest since the beginning. They've never won the top prize, but that hasn't dampened their spirits.
"They've been a fixture ever since," says Aldrich, "and every year I go over there and thank those guys."
In 1979, the event was moved to Tom Lee Park, where more than 50 teams competed, and it has grown dramatically ever since (see "By the Numbers" ), drawing contestants from all states and countries, and hauling in cookers built to resemble steamboats, sports cars, jets — even a giant jackrabbit (the smoke poured out of its ears, and you really don't want to know where they drained off the grease).
Did the early Memphis in May leaders ever think the 1978 cookoff in the Orpheum parking lot would evolve into one of the biggest events on our city's calendar?
"I think we had kind of a glimmer that Friday night," says Aldrich, "seeing those folks having so much fun with it. But it just took off."
Of course, there were still some glitches to be worked out. In 1980, to shield the teams from rain, all the cookers were crammed inside a tent in Tom Lee Park. "That shows how brilliant we were," says Aldrich, laughing. "Can you imagine how much smoke was in there? Everybody was rushing to the outside to get some fresh air."
But year after year, the event became more and more successful. Different categories were added — for shoulder, ribs, and sauce. A showmanship competition became a highlight. Teams began to design their cookers and tents around themes that matched the honored country, whether it was India or the Ivory Coast. The name was changed to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. And the prize money went up as well, with the grand champion today taking home not only bragging rights but a massive cast-iron trophy (crafted by artisans at the National Ornamental Metal Museum) and a check for as much as $22,000.
And it all started some 30 years ago as a way to promote the city.
"We just had great volunteers," says Aldrich. "We let them take this canvas and paint on it something new, and then we let them be responsible for it. Young minds, creativity, and energy will accomplish a lot of things."
The Competition's Heating Up
Our decidedly unscientific 'cue challenge results.
by Marilyn Sadler
If you're familiar with our annual City Guide, perhaps you've seen our movers-and-shakers list titled "Who's Who."
You might call this our "Who's 'Cue."
Let us explain. Back in March, we put out the call to a dozen or so restaurants asking them to participate in a barbecue-sandwich-tasting contest. We requested that each donate a tray of pork barbecue and enough sauce, slaw, and buns to provide a sample for about 30 Contemporary Media employees.
Of the dozen or so contacted, eight restaurants delivered. They provided the fixin's and our staff did their duty, piling on the pork, sauce, and slaw till the buns collapsed. After each sample portion of a sandwich, we rated it on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest). We gave points for flavor and spiciness in sauce and slaw — splattered survey forms bear witness to our judges' enthusiasm — and for moisture, texture, and flavor of meat.
To ensure objectivity, names of participating restaurants were not revealed. Instead, each was assigned a number. And our employees ate with gusto, never mind where it came from!
That said . . . (drum roll, please ) . . . here's how they ranked 'em:
1. The Bar-B-Q Shop
2. Germantown Commissary
3. The Rendezvous
Those three also got the most votes for the best meat, with Leonard's close behind. As for best sauce, Germantown Commissary and Cozy Corner took first and second place, and the Bar-B-Q Shop and A & R tied for third. In the slaw category, Neely's earned first prize, with Corky's and The Bar-B-Q Shop in second and third.
We thank them all for their participation:
A & R Barbecue, The Bar-B-Q Shop, Corky's, Cozy Corner, Germantown Commissary, Leonard's, Neely's, and the Rendezvous.