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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Memphis Barbecue Festival: fun, food, drinks and drunkenness

Most of the booths at the Memphis Barbecue Festival are pretty extravagantly decorated: bright colors, big letters, faux columns and facades, tables and chairs set up, even couches. Lots had people on the roofs, swilling beer and smiling down on passersby. The smaller booths were about 8’ by 10’ and some twice as big.

Mark, my husband, and I arrive at 2 p.m., just as the festival opens. We had been at the Civil Rights Museum, reading the interesting exhibits, arranged chronologically. However, we left just before MLK got assassinated because I got hungry.

Mark buys a beer, and before we have a chance to go deeper into the vendor area in search of food, we stop at the information booth to sign up for a tour of some barbecue booths.

I am so hungry, but the tour starts in 10 minutes, so we sit on the grass in the shade of a small tree not too far away and wait.

The first booth we tour is just on the edge of the showy booths, and it is boring: plain white walls, two lawn chairs, a cooler and a grill out back. That’s it. A 23-year-old first-timer, cooking with his dad, mans the booth. The younger gives us the science of barbecue: how wet the wood chips should be, ultimate heat to cook with, optimum airflow through cooker for proper combustion. One couple on tour leave before he finishes, but I find it all interesting.

The next booth, sponsored by Hogwild, a local restaurant, has more entertainment value. It’s fully ensconced in the party area and is properly decked in wide swaths of red, black and yellow with a big, smiling, pink pig head painted at the entrance, like Porky is welcoming us inside.

And what a welcome sight it is. Inside is a long table with coleslaw, baked beans and other food. Off the front hang signs with the Hogwild website and motto. We pass through to the grill in back, and I wish for celery, wings, a candy bar, anything I could grab from that table. But alas, none of it’s finger food. I am ravenous.

The jovial proprietor says we’re just in time to see the cook prepare some ribs for grilling. “But first,” he says, “go back and grab some drinks.”

I want to grab a plate and load up, but instead I pull a plastic Solo® cup off the stack and dispense a margarita from the mixer on the far wall. Mark takes a beer and leaves money in the tip jar in thanks for our libations.
Back at the grill we learn that Hogwild soaks ribs in a vinegary barbecue sauce, and just before they go on the grill, they get one of two spicy rubs, one sweeter than the other. The proprietor pinches a dusting of each into our palms for tasting, and Mark and I both think the flavor excellent.

With my margarita gone, I watch two guys apply rub and put ribs on the grill. Below the grill is a pan of marinade—the same that the ribs had been soaking in the previous 24 hours. In a heat box below the marinade burn charcoal and wood, creating a unique smoke that pipes to the closed grill, flavoring the meat.

When the cooks complete the demonstration, one invites us to take our fill from the food inside. No one hesitates. First I refill my margarita cup.

Mark loads a bun with pork. Even I, who rarely eats meat, get a bit of bun-less pork I’m so famished.

We take the stairs and sit at tables on the roof. Mark chows down. I fork some slaw and beans into my maw and rest. I was so hungry, yet now my stomach has a sharp, centralized pain that prevents me from eating more.

After two minutes of me just sitting there, Mark slides my plate in front of himself. “I intend to eat that!” He slides it back. I shovel in seven beans and give up. The guide is back to collect us anyway; the tour is over.

I had intended to use my press credentials (“I write a travel column syndicated to four papers in Southwest Ohio…”) to get us onto some rooftops for partying this evening, but my stomach hurts and it starts to rain. Not to mention that I finished my second margarita and now feel like napping.

We do try to wait it out, the rain and my drunkenness. The rain stops, but with little food in my belly, I still want to sleep.

Mark keeps me moving. We walk to the car and drive to Corky’s BBQ. Our food comes quickly: chicken, beans and slaw for me; ribs for Mark. Even though I’ve sobered up after that hearty meal, I make a dumb suggestion. “Let’s stop at TCBY,” which sells frozen yogurt.

We do. My stomach hurts again.


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