Members of Modernist Cuisine Crew Compete At Memphis in May

Leslie Kelly
Memphis in May barbecue
Sam Fahey-Burke (left) and Nels Peterson of the Modernist Cuisine crew

You just never know who you’ll bump into at the massive Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the 36th annual food-focused event held last weekend on a mile-long stretch of the Mississippi. This heated competition is also known as the Super Bowl of Swine and calling it EPIC would be an gross understatement.

More than 200 teams roll their elaborate barbecue rigs into Tom Lee Park the weekend before, erecting a mini city, some setting up two-story structures that host the rowdiest parties on the planet. Yes, in my many years of covering this event, I’ve seen grown men cross-dressed as Miss Piggy and laughed myself silly watching pork-worshipping revelers do shots out of an ice sculpture that looks like the tail end of a porcine.

That kind of cray-cray behavior reaches a fever pitch on Friday night when thousands of barbecue enthusiasts pack the park to spectate. But on Saturday morning, it’s super serious business as carefully tended barbecue is judged by hundreds of trained volunteers, who evaluate three main categories: ribs, shoulder and whole hog. There’s no place better to be than inside the judge’s tent on Saturday when “leftovers” often go up for grabs after the meat has been scored. I’ve eaten a lot of barbecue over the years, but the stuff prepared for competition can be absolutely life-changing.

While waiting for the results to be announced early Saturday evening, it’s always a blast to wander around and look at the pig pop art used to decorate each booth. I always run into somebody I know. Last weekend, that included Sam Fahey-Burke and Nels Peterson, members of the Modernist Cuisine crew. They were at the cooking contest as members of the legendary Willingham team, offering their expert advice and smiling mugs, as a documentary team was filming their efforts. (Bummer, the team didn't place in the top spots.)

Sadly, the team leader, John Willingham, had passed away just before the beginning of this year’s competition. Willingham was well known in the tight-knit barbecue community for his quirky cookers and his generous spirit. Nathan Myrhvold connected with him in 1991 and later was drafted into cooking on his championship team, which certainly influenced the author of the groundbreaking Modernist Cuisine cookbook to include a section on barbecue in his hefty tome many years later.

Anybody who’s intrigued by the careful cooking of meat low and slow, here's a saucy tip: Get yourself down to Memphis in May for this spectacle. And before you go, hit me up and I’ll share some secrets about the best way to get you some of that competition cue.