Monday, May 23, 2011

postcard from tennessee

Two objectives whilst in the Deep South: eat some BBQ, and see some live blues. I'm told these are the two most important things to sample whilst in the region.

Every now and then whilst traveling, you get lucky. I arrive for my 24 hour visit to Memphis and am told that today is the final day of the World BBQ Championship. 250 teams are competing. I get the feeling that today is one of those days.

It's a remarkable set-up. Teams have gone to great personal expense to build big stalls, and variously provide music, alcohol, elaborate stall designs, matching uniforms, games and gimmicks to provide the perfect BBQ atmosphere.

Team names pun around the subject of pigs. Two personal favourites: Notorious P.I.G. and The People's Republic of Swina.

All the while, judges go around sampling each stall, and marking their BBQ on the minutest criteria. I eat (for free) at about 14 stalls throughout the day, and struggle to discern anything other than superficial difference between them.

As the sun goes down, everybody gathers at the main stage, and 40-something awards are handed out ("and the ninth place in Ribs category goes to..."). A couple of winners cry on stage. The involved crowd cheer at any mention of local pride, local sports teams, or overcoming the floods (the venue was moved from it's usual spot on the banks of the Mississippi*). The biggest cheer comes when - apropos of nothing - a winner calls for the crowd to support their troops.

It's all very surreal, but a strangely moving experience. It's an taste of what gives people a sense of social harmony out here, in the same way that soccer and royal weddings do back home. Everybody leaves exhausted, elated, and very drunk.

We then head back into town and catch some live blues. That's pretty damn good too.

*superb analysis of the media's reaction to the Memphis flood can be read here

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