Taking It Slow
Foreign Teams at Memphis Barbecue Contest Try to Keep From Getting Lost in Translation

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

His strategy shifted after last year. "We thought, we'll be subtle on the spicing because we're just going to concentrate on the meat," he says. "But that was exactly the wrong thing. Who's gonna get lost? The guy who doesn't spice heavily enough."

The dozen-member team -- which includes two Danes, a Mexican-American and a Greek-Australian, all of whom live in Norway -- also dropped most of the attempts to showcase Norwegian cuisine. (No cloudberry sauce this time.) The exception: Norwegian salmon flown in for the seafood category.

Whitson also enlisted Boland to be his "boots on the ground" in Memphis, helping to arrange for meat and other logistics.

Boland gave the team advice about how to prepare the blind boxes, plastic foam containers that go to the judges with no team name attached. With nine turn-ins within a two-hour window and an almost 15-minute walk to the judge's tent, the team would need to be as focused as a restaurant kitchen -- and it was, thanks to the leadership of Nico Lundsgard, the chef at Whitson's restaurant in Stavanger.

The Norwegians had another advantage: All of its members speak English, which smoothed out the communication with volunteers, staff and judges. The Estonian team, the Firemen From Turi, relied on the lesser English fluency of captain Roland Ounapuu, 37, which stalled things here and there. Witness this scene between Ounapuu and volunteer Leslie Boone that could have been out of a "Pink Panther" movie.

Boone: "Anything else you're waiting for?"

Ounapuu: "Vood."

Boone: "Food?"

Ounapuu, pointing at the team's borrowed smoker: "Vood! Vood!"

Boone: "Oh, wood! Of course!"

Awkward interactions are to be expected, said organizer Diane Hampton. At one point this year, a member of the Deominox team was trying to talk his way in past the gate. The "good old boy" working the entrance asked her to help, but her French is rusty, "so I either told the Belgian guy it was okay to take his meat to his location, or I told him to go shopping at Macy's," she said.

The language barrier almost got the Deominox team disqualified when it turned in its blind box in the whole-hog contest. Two of the non-English-speakers handled the delivery, but they missed the deadline after walking past signs they didn't understand. A sympathetic official interceded and successfully made the case for giving the team a break and letting their samples be judged with the 39 other entries.

Unlike at the Kansas City Royal, one of the other major American contests, in Memphis blind judging is combined with on-site judges' visits. As tradition has it, this is the chance for a team to strut its stuff -- and tell a tall tale or two.

The showmanship idea may have gotten lost on the Belgians. Though the Norwegian team had an elaborate presentation that featured one of its prettiest members in traditional dress (on, coincidentally, the country's national holiday), Stephane Deom quietly talked about the cooker and the preparation with one judge after another as Christophe Deom sliced off pieces of pork from three parts of the animal for tasting.

It wasn't the definition of barbecue, but the judges seemed honestly wowed by the juiciness and flavor of the meat: the result of a secret-recipe, herb-infused water that Christophe had injected into the pig a day earlier. When two judges returned later to offer feedback, they told the team that they had given perfect scores of 10 on most of the criteria. Butch Lulloff offered a 9 in presentation because "you've got to b.s. here in the South." If they could figure out how to get a smoke ring, that pink line that forms in meat slow cooked over fire, he said, "you'd really have something."

The Belgians were jubilant about the judges' reaction, but before long it was judgment time, and their faces fell when a volunteer came by with a tear in her eye to tell them that they hadn't made it into the final three. What about the top 10? Maybe. But at the awards ceremony Saturday night, amid the whoops and hollers for such winners as Natural Born Grillers, Sweet Swine O'Mine and Rib Ticklers, none of the international teams' names were called.

Later, when the rankings for the three main contests were posted, the news hit home: 100 Degrees Celsius ranked 76th of 115 in ribs. The Firemen From Turi, who cooked their hog for 12 hours and served it with a blackcurrant sauce, were 37th out of 40. Deominox's blind box must have hit a tough judge's table because, despite the initial praise, the team placed 39th, ahead only of a team whose zero score meant it didn't turn in a pig at all.

"Maybe the American taste is just not the same as the European one," Stephane Deom said. "Honestly, we are happy with the way our hog was cooked yesterday, and we couldn't have done it any better."

Whitson got some good news when the rankings for the ancillary contests came out. The team didn't win with the lamb this time, but overall did much better than last year, placing in the top 20 in four of the contests and in the top 10 in two; that succulent Norwegian salmon came in fourth, just a fraction of a point behind the third-place trophy winner. He expects the team's average to climb again next year.

For Deominox, the big question is whether there will be a next year. The team had hoped to sell its cooker for $25,000 to cover the cost of that expensive steel and to save them the few thousand euros it would cost to ship it back home. But there were no buyers. The team had some sponsors for this year's trip, but with the disappointing results of the whole-hog contest, Stephane feared that such money would be hard to come by again. Nonetheless, they plan to enter their second competition in the fall in Brussels, where tastes might be more in line with their technique. This time they can pull the cooker behind a truck.

The foreign teams learned that competitors are generous: with advice, equipment, samples of pork, home-brew and, in at least one case, some mighty strong bloody marys (in exchange for Estonian vodka and Norwegian aquavit). They also eagerly joined the party spirit once the cooking was done. On Saturday night, while the firefighters picked off the remains of the whole hog for delivery to a homeless shelter, a tipsy Ounapuu, wearing a leather Viking shirt, gave hug after hug to visitors hanging out in his tent.

"We do all this for friendship," said Steve Sims of the River Rat Pig Porkers, a Mississippi team stationed next door. "To meet these guys is totally awesome."

Ounapuu predicted that the friendship would last "forever," and then he wanted to tell a joke he'd come up with the night before. "Do you know the new meaning of barbecue?" he asked. "Barbecue is sex, hogs and rock-and-roll."

Sims shook his head and smiled. "That sounds like something an American would say."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company