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Memphis, Tennessee, kicks off 'Super Bowl of Swine' BBQ championship

Some 150 elite barbecue pitmaster teams will battle it out for the barbecue world championship title at the Memphis International Festival in May.
Memphis, Tennessee, kicks off 'Super Bowl of Swine' BBQ championship
Posted at 12:35 PM, May 17, 2023

Memphis, Tennessee, is kicking off its World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, as part of its Memphis in May International Festival. The championship has been going on for more than 40 years and is affectionately known as the Super Bowl of Swine. Some 150 elite pitmaster teams will battle it out May 17-20 for a piece of the $145,000 prize pool. 

Randy Blevins is Memphis in May's vice president of marketing and programming. He joined Scripps News' "Morning Rush" to discuss what the championship means to the community and the country as a whole. 

"Barbecue is America's food, and it's built into the fabric of who we are. It's one of the few culinary experiences that brings everyone together. You know, you cook outdoors, and you bring your friends in. In Memphis, Tennessee, back in 1977, when we founded Memphis in May, we decided we would celebrate music and food. As we all know, Memphis is the world capital for barbecue, and what better place to crown the world champion of barbecue than in Memphis, Tennessee." 

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And that's exactly what the judges will do, as 150 of the world's best barbecue cooking teams converge on the banks of the Mississippi River to decide who is 2023's best barbecuer. 

But how do the judges narrow down who's the best? Blevins says there are around 250 to 260 certified barbecue judges who will be trying each team's tasty dishes. 

"It's a complex system, where you're comparing tasting, t.e's onsite visits to the different teams, there's blind box and all of that goes into the system to determine [the best of] three different categories: whole hog, ribs and shoulders," he said. "And then, also, we crown the Grand Champion, which can come from any of the three categories." 

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Different regions put their own spin on barbecue; you will find that Tennessee does things differently than Texas or Kansas City. 

"Each region has its own different history and its own different flavors. Now, Memphis in May, we're exclusively a pork barbecue cooking competition, so we're awarding based on pork. But what you see is different teams bringing those influences from wherever they're from into the recipe that they're using each year. And it changes from year to year. You think that maybe you've reached a certain recipe level that everyone likes, well they up it every year and come up with more creative ways, whether it's how you smoke the meat, what the rub is like, what type of sauce you're using — all of that changes, and they're always throwing in different mixes, different spices, so everything is fresh and new each year." 

Blevins says the competition is fierce this year, calling it the Battle of the Big Hogs. But even outside of the festival, he says Memphis is a fantastic place to visit, especially in May. 

"We have a big influence in music; we have Elvis Presley's Graceland here; we have Stax music from Soul music; we're also the birthplace of the Blues — we're right at the foot of famous Beale Street, where blues music was invented. It was a fantastic nightlife district, all downtown. It's a wonderful place to come visit, particularly this time of year. So you can come enjoy some some barbecue and catch some authentic American music, as well."

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