You’ve gotta hand it to the state of Alabama. When it comes to bragging about their barbecue prowess, they’ve got a great, big ole set of Rocky Mountain Oysters. Because it takes some cojones to post a giant banner in the middle of Beale Street during the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest that proclaims “Welcome to Memphis: Home of the South’s Second-Best Barbecue.” (Emphasis theirs.)
For a week every May, Memphis becomes the center of the competitive barbecue universe as hundreds of teams compete for the Grand Champion title of the Memphis Barbecue Network-sanctioned event. So there may be no bigger opportunity for Alabama to shine the spotlight on its barbecue culture with a tent housing a photo exhibit of its indigenous pitmasters, the premiere of a documentary film on barbecue in the state and, of course, that banner smack dab in the middle of the main tourist corridor of Memphis. The campaign is called “The Year of Alabama BBQ.”
The exhibit was a popular stop for competition visitors walking along the midway in Tom Lee Park on the Mississippi River. The tent was a shady spot to get out of the sun and a dry haven from the afternoon thunderstorms that almost inevitably plague Memphis in May. Once they ducked inside, visitors were presented with professional portraits of nearly 25 noted Alabama pitmasters and barbecue restaurateurs, including Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s, Nick Pihakis from Jim ‘n’ Nick’s Bar-B-Q and Betsy McAtee of Dreamland. In addition to screening the film in the tent, there were also educational displays describing the traditional sauces and side dishes of the Yellowhammer State and the debate between open-pit barbecue vs. enclosed smokers.
The exhibit will travel the country for the rest of the year, making appearances at various major barbecue events and film festivals. The Alabama Tourism Department has also created an Alabama BBQ Trail mobile app to guide tourists to the more than 300 barbecue joints around the state. In fact, the brochure that accompanies the touring exhibit claims that barbecue is served in 8.27 percent of the state’s restaurants, a statistic that puts Alabama at the top of the list of “pork palaces” per capita.
But at Memphis in May, the proof is in the banana pudding. Chris Lilly entered the competition as the returning Grand Champion in 2014, his fourth top prize since 2000. As a proud representative of his home state of Alabama, Lily’s four wins tied him with Tennessee and Mississippi for the most MiM championships in the 21st century. However, this year Mississippi took the lead as the Shed BBQ & Blues Joint out of Ocean Springs took home the top prize. You might recall the Shed team, led by Brad Orrison and pitmaster Hobson Cherry, from their brief run as reality-television stars on the Food Network. While the show’s producers’ attempt to turn the Orrisons into the Duck Dynasty of barbecue might have been put on permanent hiatus after airing only a few episodes, there’s no question that the Shedheads know how to cook some hog.
Their “flying pig” presentation of whole hog relies on a custom armature they call a “RoboHog” to keep the animal upright as they smoke it in a cooker made out of a 1952 Willy Jeep. More than just a gimmick, this setup creates a dramatic presentation that is critical to winning at MBN competitions, where judges actually visit the pitmasters at their cook sites. It also creates a perfectly cooked hog with a beautiful mahogany crispy skin. So at least for this year, Mississippi seems to have a hock up on Alabama. But both states are worth visiting on your next barbecue odyssey.