At The 'SUper Bowl Of Swine,' Global Barbecuing Traditions Are The Wood-Smoked Flavor Of The Day

A member of the Sociedad Mexicano de Parrillieros team wears patches of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Friday, May 17, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
A member of the Sociedad Mexicano de Parrillieros team wears patches of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Friday, May 17, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
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MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) — The smell of wood fire wafting on the breeze is the first sense that gets triggered at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, where smoke is as essential an ingredient as salt.

For the teams that annually compete at the so-called Super Bowl of Swine, they've elevated backyard barbecue to fine dining under the sun, incorporating techniques passed on from generation to generation and creating a multi-cultural community united by food.

Held last weekend as part of the Memphis in May International Festival, the annual cooking contest has also connected people across borders as food culture, both online and in-person, has spread the word about the popular event for world-class pitmasters.

A company called Sociedad Mexicana de Parrilleros has sent a team from Mexico to Memphis for 10 years to compete against mostly American teams and to learn from them as well.

“Each country has its own traditions and regions. But I think everything merges together right now," said Juan Garza of the Mexican-based team. “And with globalization and all of this, different techniques are going across borders.”

Out of the 129 teams competing this year, there were teams comprised of people from New Zealand, Norway, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, each one bringing their own culinary traditions and blending them with Memphis' food scene. In the past, teams made up of people from Argentina, Canada and Puerto Rico have also joined in.

Garza's team prepared pork shoulder, but they were also making a beef brisket and tacos and giving away samples of their salsas and sauces. Coming to Memphis every year and returning with pig-shaped gold trophies has helped them expand their sales in Mexico and beyond.

Brent Little, of Memphis, and Bruno Panhoca, a pitmaster from São Paulo, met over Instagram when Panhoca was demonstrating how to cook Memphis-style ribs for his Brazilian followers. Little invited Panhoca and another Brazilian pitmaster Adriano Pedro to join The Pig Diamonds, a team that has been competing in the world championship contest since before 1980.

“The Memphis style is a style that you can taste all the flavors of the meat, the dry rubs, and you can put a sauce on it," Panhoca said.

Besides competing in the whole hog competition, The Pig Diamonds excel at unique submissions for the ancillary categories like beef, chicken, wings, seafood and sauces. Last year, they made coxinha, a popular Brazilian chicken dish. This year they made a wagyu brisket beef wellington.

“Barbecue brings people together,” said Little. “The bonds that you make in Memphis in May are so deep.”

Immigrants have always been defining and changing American barbecue styles and traditions. The standard for Memphis ribs was created by the son of Greek immigrants, Charlie Vergos. His famous Rendezvous restaurant popularized dry-rubbed ribs seasoned with paprika and other spices based on his dad's chili recipe and slathered in a vinegar wash.

Kenneth Richardson, head chef of the Memphis-based team When the Smoke Clears, said those Greek flavors and spices from Louisiana and other regions along on the Mississippi River all combined to influence Memphis barbecue over the decades.

“We've got a really dynamic influence in our barbecue," said Richardson. “It's kind of hard to nail it unless you grew up in this region.”

Even though competition is stiff and teams often come within less than one point of each other, they often share techniques and ideas, creating relationships between teams run by well-known restaurant owners and hobbyists.

The Mexican team works under the mantra “El Fuego Nos Une,” which means the fire unites us, explained Garza. That's good advice for any backyard griller looking to host a Memorial Day party with friends and family, he said.

“It’s about the time that you spend around the people that you care for and you love around the grill. That matters for us," said Garza. "And that’s why we do what we do.”