By Leslie Kelly
April 21, 2016

It's deservedly nicknamed the "Super Bowl of Swine" because Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is the biggest and best porkcentric competition in the universe. For many years, I've covered the hot, smoky action featuring more than 200 teams from across the country gathered along the Mississippi River, and over that time, I've soaked up some valuable lessons about the best way to tackle the mile-long festival. (I'll be there again this year, getting tips on how backyard pitmasters can take it to the next level, so check back soon on Dish for more smoky stories.) Here are my top tips for getting the most out of this spectacular three-day event, May 17-20.

2437688 Slow-Cooker Barbecue Ribs Photo by Allrecipes Magazine
Photo by Allrecipes Magazine

1) This Is Serious Business, So Bring Realistic Expectations About Scoring Championship Pork

Yes, MIMBBQ doubles as one of the biggest party scenes on the planet -- especially on the Friday night before Saturday morning judging begins -- but most of the competitors take this contest very seriously, prepping for months, even years for the laser-focused mission of making the perfect pork. Teams compete in one of three categories: ribs, shoulder, or whole hog. There are also prizes for best sauce, slaw, and exotic meats, but the big money and ultimate glory goes to the team that scores the highest marks for its ribs, shoulder, or whole hog, the latter category winning the most often. Because this is a competition, don't go expecting to get your hands on any of the winning barbecue. Unless...

2) You Really Should Sign up for the Cooker Caravan

This behind-the-scenes tour is the absolute best way to get a peek at what goes into the elaborate process of cooking pork low-and-slow over the glow of charcoal. (There's no gas grills at this competition!) Team members talk about their strategies for scoring the perfect smoke rings, getting the cooking temps just right, and building the box of meat that ends up in the judges tent. This is a great time to ask questions. Be extra friendly and you just might get an invite to come back later when the parties get rolling. Meet up for these tours at 2 or 4 PM Thursday and Friday at the Cooker Caravan tent, located south of the ribs booths and north of the VIP tent.

MIM BBQ cooker caravan photo by Dave Darnell
Photo by Dave Darnell

3) Take the Kingsford Tour of Champions

mim scene

4) Bring Your Q's About Q

While wandering the massive mile-long stretch of booths set up by competitors, feel free to strike up a conversation with the competitors. Believe me, most of them love to talk (if they're not too busy). About seizing the right moment to do this, last year's champ, Brad Orrison, says "You want to feel the depth of the water and not with both feet. I know people get excited about meeting the team, but if we're in a meeting, it's probably not a good idea to yell, 'hey, come out here!' or walk into the booth." In other words, be polite and respectful, and it'll pay off big-time. I've heard more than one story of a casual conversation turning into an invitation to join the team. Or, keep it casual, and you just might learn something that will help you up your backyard grilling game.

5) Stake Out the Teams You Want to Size Up

Scope out past winners on the MIMBBQ site, and map out your route. Teams typically finishing in the top spots include Yazoo's Delta Q, Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q, Sweet Swine O' Mine, Notorious P.I.G., Apple City BBQ, and, The Shed BBQ. Those competitors are always up for posing with their fans, unless they're up to their elbows in prep. Most teams have Facebook pages. Like 'em and start to follow their run up to the competition.

Photo courtesy of Memphis in May

6) Bring Sunscreen and a Rain Coat

The weather's notoriously changeable at Memphis in May: Sweltering heat followed by a downpour, or the other way around. The paths might be muddy and bugs could be biting, but it's all part of the adventure. As long as you're prepared, it's no problem.

Rain or shine, MIMBBQ's a mighty fun time! Photo by Leslie Kelly
Rain or shine, MIMBBQ's a mighty fun time! Photo by Leslie Kelly

7) Don't Go Hungry

Yes, I've covered a few ways to possibly get some of that winning BBQ, and, yes, there are vendors on site, but fuel up before and/or after you buy your ticket. It's just a short walk to Gus's Fried Chicken, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (ribs, brisket, and star sightings!), The Majestic Grill, The Little Tea Shop and all the fun clubs on Beale Street. Make time to squeeze in a meal at Hog & Hominy, The Second Line, Central BBQ, Soul Fish Cafe, Tsunami, River Oaks and Cozy Corner, to name just a few of my faves in M'Town. (Additional exceptional landmarks to explore: Sun Studio, The National Civil Rights Museum, Stax Museum and Graceland.)

mim whole hog
Whole hog on the grill at Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest. Photo by Leslie Kelly

8) It's About More Than BBQ

While the competition is the centerpiece, there's a whole lot of entertainment on the main stage throughout. The "Super Bowl of Swine" kicks things off Thursday with a Miss Piggie Idol singing contest featuring a lot of dudes in drag. Very funny.

mim ms-piggie-idol
Who's going to be this year's Ms. Piggie Idol? Photo courtesy of Memphis in May

9) Start Planning to Compete Next Year

If you go and get hooked on the smoky adrenaline rush, think about signing up to compete. The Patio Porkers division is known as Backyard BBQ'ers, and competes on a different level, at a lower entry cost. It's pretty casual and a whole lot of fun, but is also considered the proving grounds for the more serious competition. Or, sign up for the judge's training, usually held in November. Become a certified BBQ judge and you'll get to eat your weight in pork.

Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest is May 12-14, 2016
Photo by Leslie Kelly

To get fired up about outdoor cooking season, check out our BBQ & Grilling Recipes.