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Inside the Battle to Be the Best BBQ Pit Master in the World

A trip to the Memphis in May competition with Charlie McKenna of Lillie’s Q—plus 8 tips on how to smoke meat at home.

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Barbecued pork

Photo: Anna Knott; Styling: Diane Ewing
 

The caravan of 250 makeshift cooking encampments that compose the 36th annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest have created a haze of sweet smoke that lingers on the sweaty banks of the Mississippi. The rain has turned the grounds into a mile-long swath of muddy slop. Considering what’s on the menu, the conditions are perfect.

Behind his stainless steel trailer, Charlie McKenna, chef-owner of the Bucktown barbecue joint Lillie’s Q, presides over a table on which 180 pounds of heritage Duroc hogs are splayed. Knife in hand, wearing a cartoon pig T-shirt and flip-flops, the boyish 36-year-old removes the glossy fat cap from 10 gorgeous bone-in whole pork shoulders—the well-marbled cut cherished by pit masters—leaving a small section of skin around the collar.

When these 18-pound beauties emerge after 18 to 21 hours in the smoker, that excess flap will shine candy-apple red, lending each shoulder what McKenna calls a “two-tone ’57 Chevy look.” Removing most of the fat cap also reduces the grease content of the meat, which will be shredded into pulled pork. The technique is one of many the Lillie’s Q team employs to win over the judges, who score each entry on taste, tenderness, and appearance. “Some people think fat equals flavor,” McKenna says. “But you can have too much of a good thing.”

Most in attendance at the world’s biggest pork barbecue contest—the 36th annual Super Bowl of Swine—beg to differ. Strolling down the winding pathways, you see anthropomorphic pig statues dressed as Elvis, floating papier-mâché pigs sporting Viking helmets, banners touting saucy team names like the Count Bastie Porkestra. Several contestants have multilevel booths with stripper poles and dance floors, where women in cowboy boots cavort with heavyset men in sauce-stained aprons.

Despite the atmosphere, competition at Memphis in May is intense. This year’s event boasts a $110,000 purse, but most of the 250 teams say they’re more interested in the glory of winning top prize in one of the three majors: shoulder, ribs, and whole hog. Of those three finalists, only one earns the title of grand champion.

McKenna spent years saving for his $80,000 kitchen on wheels, pimped out with three smokers, a state-of-the-art ventilation system, a 50-inch flat screen, and a bar. Even with the advanced equipment and 12 years’ experience at contests, Lillie’s Q is a relative upstart. Next door, Big Bob Gibson BBQ, a legendary restaurant from Decatur, Alabama, dedicates an entire section of its booth to its trophies.

Lillie’s Q took the shoulder title here in 2007 and placed in the top 10 for five years straight, but it finished 24th last year. One key team member wasn’t in Memphis during that worst showing: McKenna’s father, Quito, 65, a retired air force colonel who collapsed from a cardiac arrhythmia days before the event. “It wasn’t a good day,” Quito deadpans as he paces the dusty walk in front of the trailer, trading quips with everyone who walks by.

The elder McKenna’s primary role is to serve as “the mouth.” His gift of gab comes in handy, because Memphis in May features both blind and onsite judging, where teams plead their cases to three certified meat arbiters. But Quito, who sports a pig-shaped belt buckle and a black Lillie’s Q visor over a shock of silver hair, also brings serious barbecue bona fides. The longtime backyard griller has been competing for well over a decade and spent years representing the kitchen equipment giant Viking at contests, where he was quickly lured into this cult of the open flame. “It gets in your blood,” Quito says of the barbecue circuit, which features heated rivalries, big egos (one pit master I meet casually compares his team’s dominance to that of Michael Jordan’s Bulls), and no shortage of intrigue.
 

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