This year marked the 39th anniversary of Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. 235 barbecue teams from 22 states and five countries came to compete for $115K in prize money and global recognition as the world's best barbecue. It took 900 volunteers, including 200 barbecue judges, to pull the event off. But the numbers only tell part of the story. This year, the DNA recaps barbecue fest through the stories of a barbecue finalist, a booth champion, and two volunteers.
The following Q&A is with Michael Ogden from the All Star Ten Pin Porkers, winners of the Best Booth at this year's WCBCC.
How many years have you been part of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest? How long has your team been involved?
When I moved from New Hampshire to Memphis at the end of 2009, I wanted to find ways to immerse myself in the unique culture of Memphis. Lucky for me, some friends found an advertisement for becoming a judge at the WCBCC and I signed up immediately. Since my only previous experience with barbecue was eating it, judging seemed to be the most appropriate way to get started. I judged at WCBCC for 3 years and greatly enjoyed it. As another judge put it to me, "It's good to be a judge. You will never have so many people working so hard to give you the best barbecue you've ever had in your life."
I would have continued to judge had I not been offered an opportunity to join a team. One of the members of the "ALL STAR TENPIN PORKERS", a team that has been competing at WCBCC since 1997, was moving away from Memphis, so her place on the team opened up and a friend and I were recruited onto the team. The next year, it was a little sad when I declined my invitation to judge at WCBCC, but at least I had the excitement of being on a competition team to look forward to!
What was your winning strategy this year? Where did your inspiration come from?
Our inspiration for this year's booth design was the magnificent beauty of Canada. While my teammates have their own experiences in Canada, mine goes back to my teenage years when I went on a one-week canoe hike with a youth group through Algonquin Park. We had all of our food and shelter on our backs for an entire week, with no access to the outside world. We carried the canoes overhead when we needed to commute from one body of water to the next. It was an amazing experience, and Canada was so beautiful and serene, I have very many fond memories of my short time there.
Our strategy for winning was to provide an immersive nature experience that celebrates Canada and the various activities people love to do there. There were many details in the design of the booth, not only the overall aesthetic that contributed to our strategy.
What do you think put you over the edge of your fellow competitors?
The attention to many details we incorporated throughout the booth such as the cans of Canadian beer sitting alongside the campfire, a maple tree perched behind adirondack chairs with a 3D-puzzle moose head mounted above the cabin, an eagle soaring in the sky, animal furs adorning the cabin front, and we even had a snow machine! That's right, there was snow in May in Memphis! Watch the video of our booth!
What level of investment was involved?
A lot of hard work goes into designing, planning, installing and preparing the booth on judging day. It's an effort that involves the nearly the entire team, around 15 people. As soon as Canada was announced as the country of honor in the fall, we started talking about ideas for the booth design. Should we go with a nature theme? Hockey? City (Toronto? Quebec? Vancouver?) Olympics? Or maybe a historical theme? Native Indian Art? It's very difficult to pick one and go with it, but given our personal experiences with enjoying Canada's nature, it became an obvious choice.
For the following months, each team member worked on designing their piece of the vision, locating trees we can rent or borrow, kayaks or canoes, printing beer labels (we couldn't get authentic Canadian beer in Memphis so we had to make them ourselves), and designing and fabricating the moose head. We are not a wealthy team, our sponsor contributions help but do not fully cover the base costs it takes to operate the booth, so the funds for decorating the booth come purely from the team. We beg, borrow and rent what we need to compete. We invest a lot of personal time, donate items from our personal homes and even invest some of our own personal funds into the project. We don't track how much each person individually invests, it's understood that people will contribute what they can and we will do the best with what limited resources our team has access to, which is not much.
If you could describe your team in 3 words, what would they be?
The first word that comes to mind is hard-working. When I first joined the team, they would construct the booth as a wooden building in 3 daysfrom the ground up, including joists, stairs to a second floor, we even had chandeliers hanging inside the structure and air conditioning. I couldn't believe how hard this team was working on something so temporary. They really inspired me. They are as hard-working as ever and I am proud to be part of such a team.
The second word would be loyal. Every member of the team is loyal to the team and to each other. They are dedicated to doing their best to support each other and help the team succeed as much as possible, in as many judging categories as possible. We win together and we lose together, either way, we are there for each other.
The final word I would use to describe my team is passionate. If you've been around our team, especially after winning best booth, you will hear us screaming our team chant. One person shouts "ALL STAR" and the rest join in "TENPIN"!!! We chant this all the way from the award ceremony back to our booth. The entire way, and it's really loud. They are a proud and passionate team. It's fun to be around.
What does it mean for you to win this year? Any plans for your winnings?
It means a lot to our team to win. We put so much hard work into it, we really feel a lot of pride to win and it only fuels our passion and loyalty to our team for next year. Our winnings go directly into the teams budget for next year, we don't even recuperate our own investments. The winnings will help us have an even better year next year. GO ALL STARS!
Did you have a favorite moment of the competition this year?
My favorite moment this year was hearing our team name announced as the winner for best booth. It was the recognition our team was looking for and the end of a very long journey and a lot of work to get there. It was also the beginning of our victory celebration!
Were there any mishaps or disasters along the way? Any particular challenges you had to overcome?
Yes! The snow machine didn't work! On the morning of judging, we followed the 3 simple instructions for setting up the snow machine. 1. Unpack the machine. 2. fill it with the liquid snow provided. 3. Plug in and instant snow. 3. Plug in and instant snow. Hey, where's the instant snow? It's blowing, did you fill it up too much? Try to turn it off and turn it back on. Oh no! what are we going to do? Judging is in 3 hours! We re-read the 3 step instructions 20 times. Did we miss a step? What did we do? AAHHH!!!!
While a few of us worked on locating a replacement machine, a few others went into MacGyver-mode. Ok, take that thing apart, how difficult can this machine be? After troubleshooting the machine using methods that OSHA would cringe over, we figured out that the water pump was rusted shut. Clearly this had been used by someone else and returned, uncleaned. The water rusted it shut and we had no water pump. We figured out that if we punched a hole in the liquid soap bottle and fed the fluid directly into the blower using gravity, it would work! Disaster averted! We succeeded and made SNOW in MEMPHIS in MAY!
Will you be back again next year?
ABSOLUTELY! We don't yet know which country will be honored next year, but I can promise you, our team will build a booth you won't want to miss.
Anything else you'd like to share?
WCBCC is a unique Memphis event, something any local resident and guest should not miss. If you have ever considered participating, either as a judge or as a team member, I would highly recommend you dive in and give it a try. Worst case scenario, you get to have some of the best barbecue on the planet and a handful of fond memories you will carry with you. Best case scenario, you make new lifelong friends and even win a category or two. Either way, barbecue will make your life a bit more interesting.