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All We Can Eat
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 05/10/2011

Smoke Signals: Soggy but solid


Tom Lee Park in Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River, underwater. The grand-daddy of barbecue contests, Memphis in May, was moved for the first time in more than three decades because of the flooding. The memorial commemorates Tom Lee, an African American river worker who, in 1925, saved 32 people from drowning when the steamboat M.E. Norman sank. (courtesy of John Joplin)

“I’m in hell and high water,” replies Diane Hampton when Smoke Signals called to ask how things were going for this year’s Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest.

Hampton is the executive vice-president of the Memphis in May International Festival, the city’s month-long annual celebration of music, global culture and barbecue. She was reprising what has become the official motto of this year’s event: Come Hell or High Water.

She constantly excused herself during our conversation to answer phone calls on urgent matters, such as making sure that this, the 34th year of the event, takes place without a hitch.

Her task isn’t easy. The historic flooding of the Mississippi River that, as of this writing on Monday morning forced the evacuation of more than 1,300 homes, had also caused the grand-daddy of barbecue competitions to change locations.

That entailed making the difficult decision on May 1 to move from Tom Lee Park, the event’s longtime home on the Mississippi River, to a site called Tiger Lane at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Organizers decided to change the location rather than the date, which is May 12-14, in part because of the disruption it would cause to competitors, some of which have already scheduled the time off and have even purchased ingredients.

To avoid the rapidly rising floodwaters, workers had to tear down what amounted to a small city of plumbing, electrical lines, tents and stages within three days rather than the usual seven from the April 29-May 1 Beale Street Music Festival, held at Tom Lee Park. A crowd of more than 40,000 music fans caught more than 60 acts, including John Mellencamp, Cee Lo Green, Wilco and Ke$ha. Those three days, which kick off Memphis in May, serve as the starting gun for the competitive barbecue season as well.

“The good Lord had seven days to create the Earth,” Hampton quips. “We had three. ‘Course, he had more real estate to deal with.”

Rules for judging the Memphis in May barbecue contest provided an additional complication. Unlike most other barbecue competitions, the Memphis event’s judges visit each competing team’s site, where team members answer questions about cooking methods and provide an elaborate presentation of their food. A new map had to be drawn up for staging the teams and routing the judges, who visit three teams each. Last year, there were 249 teams. This year, 250 signed up. Only two, Hampton says, have pulled out of the running.

“And one [that withdrew] was the Army Corps of Engineers team,” she says, subsequently alluding to the intense work the Corps has been doing to fight the flooding. “I think they’re a little too busy this year to bother with a barbecue contest.”

Hampton expects the turnout this year to equal, or perhaps surpass, last year’s of more than 110,000 visitors. “I think in times like these, people will gather to show the spirit of this city,” she says.

She is working out a plan to have teams cook barbecue for people who have been displaced by the flooding and are now living in shelters.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the flooding,” Hampton says. “In perspective, a barbecue contest, compared to losing your home or your life’s work, is minuscule. But an event that provides a $40 million impact on the area, especially now . . . it’s important that we continue.”

Best, Worst or Somewhere in Between? Did you catch the premiere on Sunday of Food Network’s “Best in Smoke”show? Smoke Signals is interested in your thoughts; use the Comments field at the end of this column.

As always, send tips, suggestions, opinions and news to jimshahin@aol.com.

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 05/10/2011

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