Memphis holds barbecue contest "Come Hell or High Water"

MEMPHIS, Tenn Fri May 13, 2011 6:02pm EDT

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MEMPHIS, Tenn (Reuters) - The motto for the 2011 Memphis In May International World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest was "Come Hell or High Water."

Mission accomplished.

The high water came -- nearly 48 feet deep -- washing the contest out of Tom Lee Park next to the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis for the first time in more than 30 years.

But nearly 250 cooking teams turned out anyway with names such as "Pigs Gone Wild," "Notorious P.I.G," "The People's Republic of Swina," and "Not Ready for Swine Time Porkers."

Thousands of spectators came as well, including sisters Kathy Lawson and Mary Rodriguez of Lansing, Michigan.

The sisters heard about the barbecue contest a couple of years ago on The Food Network. This year they decided to make the 750-mile drive, only to see national television news reports last week about flooding in Memphis.

"We were so bummed," said Lawson, a travel agent.

But a few days ago they saw a news spot on CNN in which Memphis Mayor A C Wharton tried to reassure visitors that Memphis was mostly dry and open for business. So the sisters hit the road, and on Friday they were hamming it up outside the city's barbecue-cooking tent.

"We were thinking we needed to change our plans, and if we had not seen the mayor on television we would have missed it," said Lawson.

Instead Lawson and her husband and Rodriquez and a friend were gorging on ribs, pork sandwiches, and smoked sausage and quaffing beers with the cooking teams and their friends and fans at the alternate site, a picnic and parking area called Tiger Lane next to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Tiger Lane was built last year for the University of Memphis Tiger football team, but has proven to be an able substitute.

The barbecue contest started 34 years ago in a downtown parking lot with a handful of cooking teams. It has grown into a corporate-sponsored meatfest/lovefest with a costume contest, countless cooking contests, and lots of artery-clogging chow.

"There's more room here than there was down at the river," said Memphis fireman Chad Hoy, helping to staff the official firefighters' tent.

"It's more accessible to more people. Last night we fed 700 people, cooked 20 pork butts, and drank 80 cases of beer."

The river is falling slowly but steadily and promoters of the Memphis In May festival hope to be back at the riverside by the end of the month for the finale, the Sunset Symphony. More rain was moving in Friday afternoon, but with meat smoking on the grill, blues and rock-and-roll music playing, and judging scheduled for Saturday, nobody at Tiger Lane seemed to care one bit.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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