Memphis In May 2013
It’s hard not to tear up as I write this story en route home from Memphis. The past three days was an intense emotional blur as I had an opportunity of a lifetime to experience the 2013 36th annual Memphis in May (MIM) World Championship as a guest of Mr. John Willingham, one of America’s barbecue greats.
The MIM is the largest pork barbecue competition on the planet with over 250 professional and backyard Patio Porker teams firing up their pits to see who becomes the World Champion.
John was a fixture at Memphis in May with 30 years of consecutive appearances. With two MIM Grand Championships and over a dozen awards from first places, people’s choice, and best cooker in the world, John, who was the President and GM of Concrete Casting of Arkansas, had cemented his place among the greatest pitmasters in America.
Unfortunately, much to everyone’s surprise, John passed away of natural causes a couple of days before I arrived. America had lost one of its barbecue sons. America actually lost two sons as another barbecue great, Don Pelts, founder of Corky’s Barbecue of Memphis, also passed away the same day. You could tell that the passing of John and Don was significant because 10,000 rowdy partiers bowed their head in total silence for over 60 seconds at the Saturday night awards to recognize and acknowledge the passing of two barbecue greats. I was told by veteran attendees from 1978 that that moment of silence was a miracle as nothing had ever quieted the 10,000 person Mardi Gras crowd at the MIM.
With John’s passing, I wasn’t sure how the Willingham family would receive a total stranger from Los Angeles. The family was in mourning and John and I had never met each other. My connection with John began over 15 years ago when I purchased my very first barbecue book which was his John Willingham’s World Champion Bar-B-Q which planted the seed that started me on my barbecue journey. I devoured his book from cover to cover as soon as I got home and never imagined that one day, I would not only be invited to meet the man but be a guest on his MIM team.
My invitation to be John’s guest was arranged by Derrick Williams, Gregg Fujino, and Cindy Hayter, pitmasters whom I met when I cooked Longview in Washington State several years ago. Cindy left an unforgettable impression as it was the first time I’ve been entertained by a fellow pitmaster who did an aluminum foil thong dance. Yes, I said aluminum foil thong dance.
My pitmaster girlfriend Donna, at that time, who was also my assistant cook, witnessed Cindy’s signature performance and we both burst out laughing. We became instant friends and Cindy and Donna subsequently became BFF. When Cindy heard from Donna that I had MIM on my bucket list, Derrick, Gregg, and Cindy arranged for the MIM meeting as John was their old friend.
I didn’t need to worry about being a stranger because when I arrived onsite, the entire Willingham family of Marge (Mrs. Willingham) and his three wonderful daughters Kristi, Karla, and Kara were there with their Southern charm to meet and warmly greet the veritable United Nations of helpers from around the country who show up every year to work John’s MIM event. I was surprised to see over a dozen volunteers, like myself, from Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee. I was able to bunk with two Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association (PNWBA) pitmaster friends Gregg Fujino and Derrick Williams who graciously shared their hotel room with me. This was the fifth year that Gregg and Derrick had cooked on John’s team and were gradually given more and more responsibility to cook under John’s close tutelage.
As a newbie on the team, I was assigned to cook two Anything Butt dishes: Seafood and Chicken. With John’s sudden passing, I was also recruited to prepare the team’s “blind” turn in box which is judged in a double-blind process where neither the judges nor the team know who’s box it is. The MIM format has an onsite judging portion where teams try impress three judges in succession. The scores of the onsite and blind judging are then totaled to see if the team scored high enough to make the final three in their meat category.
There are three meat categories in the MIM contest: pork ribs (121 teams), whole pork shoulder (56 teams), and whole hog (34 teams). The winner in each category is then used to determine the MIM Grand Champion. Congrats to The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint for Whole Hog first place; Sweet Swine O’Mine for Shoulder first place; High Life on the Hog for Ribs First place. A big congrats goes to Sweet Swine O’Mine for winning overall Grand Champion. This team was a repeat winner also in the shoulder category in 2009.
John’s son-in-law Clay Templeton, Karla’s husband, was the team captain and Paul Holden, Clay’s buddy, was the co-captain. With over a dozen different contests within the MIM (booth, cookers caravan, Kingsford, 3 sauces, exotic, seafood, beef, poultry, wings, ribs, and The Chew) it was crazy busy every minute. To make it even busier, John was granted special permission to vend to the public in 2013. John had battled the MIM committee for 14 years to obtain permission to vend and finally for 2013, John was given the sole exemption as a competition team to vend to the public. Due to health department regulations, the vending portion of his team could not be on the same site as the competition team so the two teams had to be separated by a fence so it was difficult to go between the two sites. John’s master plan had two cook teams, one for vending and one for competition so that things would run more smoothly. Clay and Paul executed John’s plan well and things went like clockwork throughout the weekend.
Although the Willingham family was in mourning, they all had John’s joyful can-do attitude and worked hard and tirelessly with all of us volunteers during the event. I had the opportunity to talk and get to know the family well. There were many stories and funny moments where we rejoiced and celebrated John’s wonderful life punctuated by poignant tearful moments where Karla shared precious memories of their beloved Dad. I speak for all the volunteers that we laughed and cried and bonded as a family as we worked hard on the contest while trying to carry out John’s wishes which was to win the MIM for 2013.
I was entrusted to handle the saucing, cutting, and presentation of John’s blind rib box. I used John’s unique WHAM rub and sauce products to develop several sauce profiles which the family tasted and then voted on. We agreed that Formula #5 was the winner and I used that on the turn-in box ribs. Although we did not win, everyone felt John would have been proud as we finished 23rd out of 121 teams which was among the highest finishes that Paul, co-captain, mentioned that the Willingham team had achieved the past decade.
Many old friends and public stopped by to pay their respects during the contest. It was apparent to me that John had touched many people around the world. I was surprised that several members (research scientist, chef, and photographer) of the world renowned $450 gastronomic cookbook Modernist Cuisine were among my fellow volunteers.
Even Adam Richman of Man v Food stopped by with his Travel Channel crew to film the Willingham family. Adam was a super nice guy and was such a great host and kind gentleman. He had fun tasting the exotic meat entries which was saddle of rabbit and turtle meat cooked by Sam Fahey-Burke who was a well-known chef who worked on the Modernist Cuisine encyclopedic tome.
Even though I did not travel with formal clothing, the Willinghams invited me to attend John’s memorial service on Sunday. I just had a smidgen of time before I had to head to the airport. They asked the volunteers to come in jeans and their Willingham team shirts as John would have wanted them to be dressed that way also.
The service by Reverend Charles was funny and moving and it gave me more insight into this amazing man who was a former Cardinals pitcher, inventor and holder of 17 patents, served under President Nixon, ran for Mayor of Memphis, elected Shelby County Commissioner, inventor of the WHAM turbo cooker considered to be one of the best pits in American and featured in Modernist Cuisine, actor, philanthropist, business man, MIM Grand Champion, and grandfather to 6 grandchildren.
The memorial service was on John’s 81st birthday and the Reverend remarked that Memphis was built on Elvis and Barbecue and John’s barbecue was responsible for making Memphis smell like Heaven. Now that John has left, Heaven probably now smells like Memphis!
As the Delta captain announced over the intercom that we were descending into Los Angeles, it was time for me to turn off my laptop. I feel very thankful and privileged to be invited to share the MIM experience with the Willingham family. The past three days has been a whirlwind of joy, reflection, and being in the love that was the centerpiece of John’s life. I echo many people’s thoughts when I say that I have tremendous respect and deep appreciation for a special man: John Herman Willingham, 1932 to 2013.