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BBQ History Series: Memphis in May (MiM) 1978

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The MiM Memphis in May: The World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest, 1978

“Some might say that after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, it spelled the end for Memphis businesses”.

Owners were leaving and stores were closing, as tourism dwindled to near-collapse. Until- that is, that critical thinking took over and a small festival was organized to save the face of Memphis. It started on the waterfront of the Mississippi with 52 grand from sponsors but gained 15,000 new fans in 1977. By the next year, in the effort to attract more people, they added a barbecue competition.

MiM’s Superbowl of Swine

In all, there were a total of 26 teams fought over 1,000 dollars in prize money in 1978. It was held in a vacant lot next to the Orpheum Theatre that had fallen into bad times. They were still showing adult films in the iconic theatre at the time this BBQ cookoff took place. This was their third signature event for MiM, dubbed the ‘Superbowl of Swine’ by a guy who knew a bit about chili. The original idea comes from Rodney Baber Jr. (Chairman of MiM events committee) and Jack Powell, a reigning chili champ from Tennessee.

“It was being called the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest”.

Sidestory

​Terlingua ​International ​Chili Championship

Now an interesting fact about Jack Powell is his direct connection at the first ICS chili championship in California. It seems that after CASI founder Frank Tolbert was pissed-off by an incident that occurred at the first Terlingua event. Carroll Shelby had flown-in a television crew to Terlingua in 1967 that only would cover Shelby and his boys.

photo of carol Shelby bbq Tolbert was furious and asked the ICS group to set-up camp elsewhere for their (own) events. Well, as Shelby wanted to sell his land through development deals, he worked with Tolbert over the years to reach a favorable settlement.

historic photo of terlingua texas in 1976
Photo of​ Terlingua ​ in 1976 when the CASI hosted the first Cookoff Championship

By 1977, the new location for ICS’s new camp would be relocated to the Tropico Gold Mine in Rosamond, California. And they could retain the original title of World Championship Chili Cookoff. That year, a lone Chilihead from Tennessee cooked his chili version made from fresh Raccoon. Others who attended this first cookoff even included the iconic R.S. Holmes, Chill Wills, Rory Calhoun, and Maud Chasen.

“The Chasen restaurant was the LA hotspot is where one famous chili dish was adored by Elizabeth Taylor. This event raised nearly 15 grand the first year alone!”

Go figure that all the Hollywood attention, celebrity endorsements, and plenty hoopla gave ICS a real monetary value. However, the Terlingua CASI group still hosted the ICS group under Tolbert’s eagle eye, every year after that? So- Jack Powell knew that a BBQ event could turn this new Memphis contest into a real crowd-pleaser. Since then it has bloomed into a very successful franchise for the MiM organizers. With much thanks to Jack Powell and Rodney Baber Jr. for heading-up the idea!

The first winners

The original first prize winner of this event was Mrs. Bessie Louise Cathey who won 500 dollars. It turns out this was a good return on her 12 dollar entry fee. And that was followed by 2nd and 3rd place winners Lee Waterbury and Mrs. Johnny Whitaker. They could win 250 dollars for their winning entries. Yet what stood out from the others was a taste that has Bessie was working hard to create. In all, there were 9 judges and most of them were not professionals. Among the group, there were three that stood out for having tasting skills.

There was Big? John Grisanti of the Grisanti family and Ronnie Grisanti’s restaurant.

“Then there was Charlie Vergos owner of the Rendevous restaurant and his famous charcoal BBQ ribs. And finally, there was Audrey Taylor Gonzalez, who was a journalist who grew up in Memphis in a BBQ family who raised pigs. Bessie Cathey was an average homemaker who entered the contest on a whim. She cooked her pork ribs on a backyard barrel cooker made from a recycled oil drum!”

She didn’t like the rowdy and lewd behavior that the team next to her was raging over but kept her composure. We’ll talk about that group a bit later! When asked if she had any idea if she’d win or not she wasn’t worried and said she’ll win. Then she continued to tell the local newspaper reporter from Press-Scimitar the following, Everybody who eats it, says it is!? And though all the winning contestants had to submit their recipe the next day, Bessie said she would think about it. However, the big secret was finally purged that she used an ordinary bottle of Hyde Park brand BBQ sauce.

Ironically, it was purchased from a local Piggly Wiggly in town. But perhaps it was the slow cooking method she knew would win-over the judges, just like her friends and neighbors. She often used a small kitchen mop that was modified to be used for basting her ribs as they slow-cooked over that pit barrel. Now years later, it was one of the judges who remembered Bessie’s recipe to judge other contests. Audrey Taylor Gonzalez who had grown-up among a family of BBQ enthusiasts trusted her tongue and her wits.

This globe-trotting journalist, who had interviewed Elvis in 1960, had narrowed down her judging abilities. The taste and sense she would later base the winning flavors on Mrs. Cathey’s BBQ style. According to the official WCBCC rules, the rib meat should pull off the bone rather than fall off. This is exactly what Bessie’s pork ribs had done.

The rowdy boys of BBQ

Now there was a brief mention of a cooking team that Mrs. Cathey kept a stiff upper lip about.

“It seems her direct neighbor was a team that defines what the MiM World Championship Barbecue Contest is all about”.

This of course is another well-known competition crew that’s been there since the beginning. Woody Masters and Pete Gross were just young dudes around 22 or 23 years old at the time. They entered the contest as the only organized group called the Midtown Master Basters. The next year in 1979 changed it to Redneck Bar-B-Que Express.

While they might never have won an official title at this BBQ cookoff, they’ve entered it for the last 40 years! They are simply known as tribal elders at this BBQ contest and are well-known for being a crazy party group. It’s often been a tradition of this cookoff that crazy antics and getting close to the crowd is the name of the game. However, the judging is yet another story altogether. Some judges can be bribed with certain contestant gifts to win an appeal. They can provide fancy water bottles and drinks, while judges are allowed to visit cooking tents to ask questions.

It’s a big family-style party. Some BBQ Pitmasters also have sneaky tricks to keep their entries warmer than others. Their blind boxes contain their entry with special bribes included. Some will even go so far as to sneak in alcohol shots in their entry boxes. It won’t work since the judge panels are carefully weeding out what tastes good versus what is bad. Yet since the very first contest, the combination of fun and barbecue cooking is celebrated. This is why this competition survives for being very down-home and distinctly Memphis-like to this day.

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