Taking It Slow
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
MEMPHIS -- At the world's largest pork barbecue contest here, the big black cast-iron cookers seal up so tight and run so low and slow that just a few pieces of smoldering wood can spend up to 24 hours coaxing smoky tenderness out of a whole hog. So why on Earth would any team need a cord and a half of wood?
The answer at last weekend's Memphis in May barbecue championship was as obvious as the difference between the teams that greeted passersby with "Mornin'!" and the one that uttered "Bonjour!" instead. The four men loading all that hickory and oak onto an open-air fire in the middle of a hulking stainless-steel contraption were from southern Belgium, making them one of three international teams among the 261 competing. This was high and quick, not low and slow, and to keep this wind-whipped fire blazing, they had to feed it.
It's difficult enough for any new team to compete in the Super Bowl of Swine, which sends smoke wafting over downtown Memphis for three days every year. There are rules (written and unwritten) and traditions aplenty in this 30-year-old contest, which drew 125,000 spectators to one of the cradles of American barbecue culture. But it takes sheer guts to fly over from a part of the world where this way of cooking is fledgling at best and to try to speak the complicated language of barbecue with a French, Estonian or Norwegian accent. To then try as the Belgians did to win the whole-hog contest using the antithesis of barbecue -- and a mere six hours -- is like soccer star David Beckham jumping onto the field with the Patriots and the Giants and attempting to head a football pass.
Diane Hampton, executive vice president of Memphis in May, said the organization wants to get more international teams involved, perhaps by inviting champions of contests in Jamaica, Great Britain and South Africa to participate.
The more, the merrier, says Jim Boland of Memphis, who was helping the Norwegian team. Boland has competed in Ireland and says true barbecue (rather than high-heat grilling) is "embryonic" in Europe, but the spirit is strong. "These guys are the pioneers," Boland said, referring to the foreigners in Memphis. "It's like the Oklahoma land rush."
The Belgian team, called Deominox, made no apologies for its unconventional approach. "We're going to explain the best we can and hope the judges like it," Stephane Deom, 39, the sole English speaker on the team, said Thursday as the event started. "We're not trying to change the way we do it." His cousin Christophe Deom, a butcher and caterer in Libramont, a town near Bastogne, is the team's head cook.
Because of the unique miniature-airplane-hangar look of its 1,500-pound cooker, Deominox drew far more than its share of crowds at its tent, right across from a daiquiri stand topped with a giant blow-up bottle of Southern Comfort. The most common questions from the stream of onlookers: Where'd you get that setup? What temperature are you cooking at? And when can I have a taste?
Christophe Deom, 38, designed the thing himself, with shiny panels that rise and lower to reflect the heat (or not) onto meat that turns 2.2 times per minute thanks to specially built Italian motors powering the rotisseries on each side of the fire. The large skewers can be moved up and down to accommodate more food, and in and out to move the meat closer to or farther from the fire. Because the fat doesn't drip onto the flames, the method produces no toxic fumes, Stephane says.
Though the American teams (almost two-thirds of them from Tennessee) could tow in their cookers behind trucks, the Belgians had to take this one apart, ship it over in pieces and put it back together on-site. Christophe used temperature gauges (in Celsius, naturally) to check the interior of the 120-pound cochon, but he relied on instinct to judge the heat of the fire. The verdict: degrees unknown, but definitely chaud.
On the other end of the mile-long string of booths along the Mississippi River, Norwegian team 100 Degrees Celsius was attempting a more traditional approach. Led by Oklahoma-born Craig Whitson, a restaurateur who has lived in Stavanger, Norway, for almost 30 years, the team was making its second appearance at Memphis in May after taking home a third-place trophy last year in the "exotic" division. "Exotic" is one of the four "anything but" (as in anything but pork) categories. The Norwegians figured that here they might have a chance because rack of lamb, even with apricot sauce, is anything but exotic in Norway.
But there was much more on its plate. 100 Degrees Celsius entered every one of the 10 ancillary contests and chose ribs for the main competition, which counts toward the grand-champion prize. That meant little rest on Friday, when the team turned in beef brisket, salmon, chicken thighs, rack of lamb, baked beans, hot wings and three sauces based on tomato, vinegar and mustard.
They cooked on a gorgeous, tricked-out smoker made by the famous David Klose of Houston. Whitson, who is known as the Grillkongen (Grill King) of Norway, has been importing Klose's pits there and cooks on one for his catering work and classes. For the second year, Klose delivered a pit he calls Bling-Bling for Whitson's team to use in Memphis. With a built-in flat-screen TV, gold-plated hubcaps, a concrete hot plate, a sound system and more, "the thing certainly draws attention," said Whitson, 54, whose Okie-meets-Oslo accent (a twang and a lilt) makes him sound almost Canadian. "But even better, it's pretty much the same pit we use at home. So I can put meat in it and know exactly what to expect."