Memphis Barbecue Contest Stirs Culinary Excitement Globally


In the southern heart of Tennessee, the city of Memphis became a global culinary haven, its air infused with wood smoke as it hosted the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. The aroma hanging in the breeze stirred up early sensory excitement, a prelude to the gastronomic grandeur that unfolded right in the midst of the city streets. For the devoted competitors who vie for culinary supremacy in this Super Bowl of Swine, smoke isn’t just an expectation – it’s a critical ingredient, as integral to their creations as the humble salt grain.

The teams involved have perfected the art of fireplace cooking to the level of savory sophistication, turning their beloved backyard barbecues into high-quality al fresco restaurant experiences. These are seasoned kitchen veterans who had inherited, mastered, and then built upon a priceless treasury of recipes and methods handed down generation to generation. This crucial inheritance gave birth to an all-embracing community of gourmands allied by an unrestrained passion for cuisine.

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Memphis in May International Festival enhanced its populace’s annual festivities by cradling the barbecue cooking contest within its schedule. As with any cook-off worth its salt, the championship drew attention from across the border – and beyond. The ropes of our digital age then took this food culture and spread it worldwide, attracting pitmasters who are eagerly courted by the contest’s reputation.

One continuous participant over the past decade has been the Mexico-based Sociedad Mexicana de Parrilleros, which annually delegates a team to battle against predominantly American adversaries. Their agenda is twofold: to compete and to learn from their rivals’ unique culinary talents.

In the words of team member Juan Garza, “Each country has its own traditions and regions. But I think everything merges together right now in this contest. With globalization, different techniques are spilling across borders.”

Among the 129 teams taking part this year, participants hailed from as far afield as New Zealand, Norway, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. Each significant delegation further enriching the Memphis food scene by injecting their respective homeland culinary customs into the city’s vibrant mix. A tradition that saw previous participation by teams from Argentina, Canada, and Puerto Rico continuing into the present day.

While the Mexican team centered their efforts around a pork shoulder, their offerings expanded to include beef brisket and tacos, enticing taste-testers with samples of their unique homemade salsas and sauces. Their annual pilgrimage to Memphis and their appreciable wins, signified by pig-shaped gold trophies, have boosted their culinary reputation and triggered growth in sales back home – and internationally.

Bonds are not only formed within the teams but also among them. Brent Little of The Pig Diamonds BBQ Team, champions since the 1980s, invited Bruno Panhoca of Brazil, who he met via Instagram, and another Brazilian pitmaster, Adriano Pedro, to join his squad. Barbecue transcends mere dining to become a social event, fostering relationships among teams and their participants, a fact illustrated by well-known restaurant owners and casual hobbyists sharing techniques with each other despite the intense competition.

This year’s iteration saw an impressive variety of dishes even in the ancillary categories, ranging from traditional beef or chicken entries to exciting spins like seafood and sauces. One such noteworthy mention was The Pig Diamonds’ version of coxinha, a favorite Brazilian chicken dish, and their wagyu brisket beef wellington.

In the wise words of Brent Little, “Barbecue brings people together. The bonds that you make in Memphis in May are so deep.”

This alliance of different cultures, enthusiastically presented via barbecue, is a testament to the blending and evolution of traditions that are the very foundations of such cuisines. The influence of Greek immigrants, for example, is responsible for the creation of the delectable Memphis ribs style, evolving through inspiration from recipes and spices introduced to the area by diverse communities.

Surprisingly enough, it’s the stiff competition that brings a congenial unity among the participants. The competitors often come within a whisper-thin margin of outpacing each other but are also eager to share techniques and ideas.

The Sociedad Mexicana de Parrillieros from Mexico, who entered the competition under the mantra “El Fuego Nos Une,” which translates to “The Fire Unites Us,” is a prime example of this unity. According to Garza, their mantra encapsulates their philosophy perfectly, reflecting in their shared meals with loved ones around the grill – a practice that’s common to backyard grillers planning Memorial Day parties around the globe.

Garza stated, “It’s about the time that you spend around the people that you care for and you love around the grill. That matters for us. And that’s why we do what we do.”