Saturday, September 24, 2011
Memphis In May
Memphis in May is a month long festival held in Memphis, Tennessee. The festival itself is split into four main events: The Beale Street Music Festival, the kick-off event which showcases a mix of local and national music acts, International Week, a group of events dedicated to the country that is sponsored that year, The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, one of the most popular barbecue contests in the country, and the Sunset Symphony, a night of classical music. This event marked its 30th anniversary in May 2006.
The Beale Street Music Festival
The Beale Street Music Festival is a three day music festival that has both a mix of big-name stars performing side by side with local musical acts. Held during the first weekend of May in the city's Tom Lee Park at the foot of Beale Street, it is considered to be the kick-off event of the entire Memphis in May celebration. It typically hosts 100,000+ people for each of the first two nights of the event, and usually quite large crowds for the ending big-name finales on Sunday night. The festival was added a year after Memphis in May was created. Its history can be traced back to the 1800s, when African-American musicians throughout the South would come to Beale Street and perform.
Every year the festival sets its theme around a different country. A week of events and publicity, starting the day after the music fest, is dedicated to this country and it showcases the local foods and entertainment of that location. While International Week provides a learning experience for the community at large, the core is a comprehensive educational program for area youth in public and private schools and home-schooled students throughout Memphis and Shelby County. The goal of International Week is for area students, by the time they graduate from high school, to have had the opportunity to experience the customs and cultures of twelve different countries from around the world. Two countries — Japan and The Netherlands — have been featured twice.
The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
Although the WCBCC had a small start in 1978, with only 26 teams, it rapidly grew. The contest drew 50 teams in 1979, 80 in 1980, and 180 teams from nine states in 1981. It has now grown to be the largest pork barbecue competition in the world. More than 250 teams from 20+ states and several countries compete, and an estimated 90,000 people attend the competition. Media from around the world, including the BBC and The Food Network, come to the city to cover the event.
Credit for the original idea of a barbecue contest goes to Rodney Baber, chairman of the Memphis In May events committee in 1977, and his co-worker Jack Powell, Tennessee's reigning chili champ at the time.
The original champion at the first competition was Bessie Louise Cathey, who won a $500 prize, a sizable return for her $12 entry fee. Today, the prizes for each event range from $300 to $10,000 for the main cooking competition, and from $1,000 to $7,000 for the ancillary contests. Today's entry fees range from $700 to $2,600 just for renting the necessary booth space, and an extra $60 per competition entry. Some teams regularly budget amounts in excess of $15,000 just for the competition and booth.
Because of this, most teams are regularly sponsored by corporations. In 1984, Schering-Plough HealthCare began sponsoring teams for Tennessee's leading politicians. Al Gore attended the competition several times when he was a senator and once as vice president. Other sponsors include local automotive dealer Gwatney Motors, who has their own regular barbecue team, and the Terex corporation.
In 1989, when MIM officials discovered that there was a feast in Honolulu which earned the title of "largest barbecue" in the Guinness Book of Records, they calculated the amount of food prepared at the WCBCC. The total was 55297 pounds of pork, and thus earned the WCBCC a record in the 1990 edition.
Beyond the WCBCC, some contests outside of Memphis — such as the barbecue contest in nearby Tunica, Mississippi during its annual Rivergate Festival — are now designated as official preliminary events.
The competition has three official meat categories: pork ribs, pork shoulder, and whole hog. There is also the "Patio Porkers" competition, which encourages up to 40 new teams (who have not previously competed in the WCBCC) to enter.
There are ancillary food contests, including:
Anything But - This contest refers to "Anything but Pork" and you are allowed to cook anything you like. There are subcategories to this competition, including: Beef, Poultry, Seafood, and Exotic.
Sauce - One of the most entered ancillary contests, this includes subcategories of Tomato, Vinegar, and Mustard.
Hot Wings - Judged on flavor and "heat".
People's Choice Award - A relatively recent competition, this is more of an event than a contest. People can pay a small fee ($4) and sample five small selections from different competitors. Since normally the competitors booths are invitation only, this allows the general public to try a wide variety of barbecue. Tasters are on-hand to explain how to properly taste and judge the barbecue, and the people can return multiple times to try different foods from different teams. This contest is limited to 50 teams entering, due to the amount of barbecue that is produced and must be handled.
Cole Slaw was added as a contest category in 2010
The Baked Beans Category has been deleted from the 2011 contest. All other information is accurate
Only wood and charcoal cooking is allowed at the event, no gas or any other sort of heat system is allowed to be used.
Ms. Piggie - Teams dress up contestants as pigs, and then perform songs or skits on stage.
Best Booth - Booths are judged on design, originality and connection with the honored country.
T-Shirt Design - Shirts are judged on design, originality and connection with the honored country.
Cooker Caravan - The Cooker Caravan provides the public a behind the scenes look at competition barbecue by offering guided tours to teams in each championship category.
The Sunset Symphony is usually a free or low-priced event held on a single stage at Tom Lee Park, during the Saturday evening of the last full weekend in May. The concert is the largest annual performance event of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and serves as a closing event for the MIM festivities. The symphony performs a variety of classical works as well as music of the year's honored country.
Featured guest performers have been included in recent years, including Stax recording artist Mavis Staples during the thirtieth anniversary event in 2006, The Temptations in 2007, and The Four Tops in 2008. Sponsorship of the concert varies from year to year as well, with past sponsors including SunTrust Banks, Regions Financial Corporation, and Memphis-based AutoZone.
Since 2007, additions to the festival finale have included an air show with historic aircraft from the Commemorative Air Force, and a fireworks show sponsored by Back Yard Burgers.
Memphis in May Information -- Includes Dates, Events, and More
The Beale Street Music Fest Official Website