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Battle of the Barbecue: Contest recaps, $50K ribs and recipes

Memphis was host to not one, but two (!!), barbecue competitions this past weekend. Our May barbecue series offered looks at the new SmokeSlam BBQ Festival and the longtime Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC)In this final installment, we’ve got a look at the winners and some other standout teams from both events and some recipes you can make at home. 


SmokeSlam BBQ Festival contest grand champions, SmokeMasters BBQ, celebrated Saturday at Tom Lee Park. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)

The smoke has cleared, and winners of both the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the SmokeSlam BBQ Festival have emerged victorious.


SmokeMasters BBQ were the first-ever team to win the SmokeSlam grand prize of $50,000. That was part of the $250,000 in total prize money that the organizers said was the biggest purse in barbecue contest history. “We knocked out a really good rib — a $50,000 rib,” said Will Hair, pitmaster for SmokeMasters BBQ. See all the SmokeSlam winners here.

Members of The Shed barbecue team celebrated after winning the grand prize, as well as first place in the whole-hog division, at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Liberty Park on Saturday, May 18. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Mississippi-based team The Shed earned their third-ever grand prize at the WCBCC. (They were grand champs in 2018 and 2015, too.) The Shed, which placed for whole hog, was up against other first-place category winners Heath Riles BBQ (ribs) and Big Bob Gibson’s (shoulder.) “We asked God for a win and we got it,” said The Shed team member Robyn Lindars. Winners at the MIM fest split $150,000 in prize money. See all of the WCBCC winners here.

Hank Vaiden of Hank’s BBQ (left) and Pork University’s James Rudolph ran the only two teams that competed in both SmokeSlam and the WCBCC. (Benjamin Naylor/The Daily Memphian)

If you attended either barbecue fest — or both — you no doubt heard someone complain about Mempho and Memphis in May International hosting their contests on the same weekend. But two teams — Hank’s BBQ from Columbus, Mississippi, and The Pork University from Clarksville, Tennessee — were uniters, not dividers. The Daily Memphian’s Chris Herrington looked at the only two teams that competed in both contests. And you might as well get used to the big barbecue weekend, because it’s happening again next year.


Marshall Bartlett ran the grill at the Sweet Cheeks tent during opening day of SmokeSlam at Tom Lee Park on May 16. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)

We’ve also got a look at a longtime MIM team that switched sides to compete in SmokeSlam this year. Sweet Cheeks got their start at the WCBCC 11 years ago, but they decided to go with Mempho’s fest this time for one reason: location. “Being on the banks of the mighty Mississippi is a game changer,” said Sweet Cheeks team captain Alex Boggs.

Wayne Dil of New Zealand’s BBQ War took a bite of short rib during the third day of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Liberty Park on May 17. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)

Both contests drew teams from across the globe, but one team — New Zealand’s BBQ War — likely traveled the furthest to compete in the WCBCC. The team has competed in several other American barbecue contests, but this marked their first year in Memphis. The biggest challenge though wasn’t cooking the meat: “Learning to drive on the left hand side of the road without being killed before we get here. Yeah, that’s a massive challenge in itself,” said Wayne Dil, the leader and co-founder of BBQ War.

If you missed either contest or just want to relive the memories, we’ve got scenes from both SmokeSlam and the WCBCC here.



We may be saying goodbye to organized barbecue cooking contests until next May, but in Memphis, we all know barbecue is on our menus year-round. So, we’re sharing a few recipes that you can enjoy at home.

Barbecue shrimp (Jennifer Biggs/The Daily Memphian file)

If you don’t feel like cooking, you can always invite a few friends for a rendezvous at Downtown’s Rendezvous. This venerable barbecue institution turned 75 this year, so suffice to say, they know what they’re doing. But if you’d rather stay home, the late Jennifer Biggs once shared this recipe for the Rendezvous’ barbecue shrimp. It’s not exactly the same as what you’ll find on their menu, but co-owner John Vergos told Biggs that it’s “close enough.”

Barbecue spaghetti (Courtesy bhofack2/ Getty Images)

Another Memphis restaurant favorite is the Bar-B-Q Shop’s barbecue spaghetti. (It’s one of a handful of invented-in-Memphis barbecue dishes.) We’ll go ahead and tell you right now that we don’t have that exact recipe. But Biggs did her best to get some hints from co-owner Frank Vernon on recreating the dish at home. And here’s what she came up with. The secret, it seems, is in the sauce, and she offers some tips on the best barbecue and marinara sauces to use for this truly made-in-Memphis dish.

Cornbread salad (Jennifer Biggs/The Daily Memphian)

If you’re cooking ’cue, you’ll need some sides. And several years ago, Biggs managed to get this recipe for cornbread salad from the Big Bob Gibson tent at the WCBCC. Family matriarch Carolyn McLemore was known to bring that salad to share every year, and Biggs said the side had become her annual “first taste of summer.” It’s not your typical green salad though; this one is heartier with a Mexican cornbread base, bacon, cheddar, pinto beans, a few veggies and a creamy dressing.

If you’d rather not dirty up any dishes though, we get it. Just consult our guide to Memphis’ barbecue scene before you head out to a local restaurant.

Editor’s note: Kevin McEniry — a member of the board of Memphis Fourth Estate, the nonprofit that owns and operates The Daily Memphian — is founder and master producer of the Mempho Festival and Mempho Presents.

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