By Leslie Kelly

At the recent World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, Tenn., I witnessed a miracle. A seasoned pitmaster who has competed for more than 20 years finally landed a highly coveted spot in the finals -- but not for the pork shoulder that's made him famous and helped him launch a wildly successful barbecue restaurant in Nashville. Carey Bringle, aka Peg Leg Porker, and his tight-knit crew wowed judges in the "whole hog" category, a 200-pound pig that was thoughtfully seasoned and finished to juicy perfection on a custom cooker Bringle designed and built and sells commercially. The miracle had to do with that pig.

The world championship of pork barbecue is a staggering spectacle that's hard to fathom unless you've walked the mile along the Mississippi River where 235 teams from 22 states and five countries spend the better part of a week setting up elaborate booths. The whole scene ends up looking like a small city and smelling like heaven.

This is no backyard barbecue. The entry fee alone is $4,000, never mind the cost of supplies. But the memories made are priceless, and the members of regularly returning teams with names such as Crispy Critters, Divine Swine, Love Meat Tender, Parrothead Porkers, and Notorious P.I.G. proudly admit that barbecue isn't just something they cook and eat. It's a lifestyle they live and breathe, plan, and dream about year-round.

You, however, probably do not think about barbecue every waking minute, which is why you need a couple of sure-fire expert tips in your back pocket. In the moments that followed, two such tips became apparent as I witnessed firsthand this team's power to produce epic barbecue by focusing on two key factors: getting to the meat to the proper temperature and sourcing artisan pork. (More about that in a minute.)

Friendships are forged over plates of pork cooked low-and-slow. Photo by Leslie Kelly

A huge part of the appeal of the event is the pork-fueled camaraderie, which was especially apparent when the surprise announcement came down that Bringle's second team, the one focused on the whole hog, had made the cut after judges highly rated their "blind box" (an assortment of meat anonymously delivered to certified judges in a tent in the middle of the park). Part of the surprise among the Peg Leg Porker team was that the pig almost didn't make it to the competition. "The guy who was bringing it from North Carolina, his car broke down," Bringle said. "He was supposed to be here at 9 in the morning on Friday, but we didn't get it until 6 and the pig was still partially frozen." The judging begins on Saturday morning.

Photo via Memphis in May

Which brings us to your expert tip No. 1: temperature matters.

It takes a long time to cook a whole hog, and because Bringle's son was graduation from high school on Friday, he had to drive back to Nashville for the ceremony. His close friend, Billy Terrill, took charge, staying up all night to make sure the temperature of the fire stayed consistent, hitting that sweet spot of 192 degrees just in time. "Anybody can make really good barbecue if they get to that temp, when the collagen and connective tissue melts, turning the meat moist," Bringle said, suggesting that the best tool an aspiring backyard pitmaster can use is a good thermometer.

Many teams use mass-produced commodity pork, but Bringle sourced his hog from Heritage Farms, which specializes in Cheshire pigs, a heritage breed prized for its marbled meat that makes for deep, rich flavor, and ultra-juicy texture. After the team's mad scramble to set up for finals — friends and fellow competitors offering up plates, napkins, garnish for the no-frills booth — the judges arrived to raucous cheering from fans of Peg Leg Porker. The judges tasted the meat, made notes, listening to Bringle's presentation during which he credited his scrappy 14-member team: "We truly live the barbecue lifestyle." When the four judges left the booth, spectators were invited to come try the hog. Juicy, tender, super porky, this exceptional meat needed no sauce.

Photo via Heritage Farms

Expert tip No.2: consider the (pork) source

My big take-away from this Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is that if you want to take your barbecue to the next level, you need to find a source of heritage breed pork. Go to your local butcher and ask. Hit up the farmers market. It might cost more than the commodity pork shrink-wrapped from the supermarket, but you will taste the difference.

Peg Leg Porker's whole hog finished third in that category, squeaking in behind Grand Champion Jack's Old South and 3 Taxi Guys. "We're definitely coming back and doing hog again next year," he said.

Photo via Peg Leg Porker

Ready to get your smoke on? Check out this drool-worthy bunch of BBQ & Grilling recipes. And rustle up some more grilling tips and excellent barbecue side dishes.

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