Que’s Brothers, Memphis in May…

Posted on 05/31/08 in Past Events, 5 Comments

My time in Memphis at the big BBQ competition goes down as the best week ever. I drove down with Willie from Honky Tonk BBQ pulling the Southern Yankee Smoker with his big RV. Willie had been tweaking his rub recipe and his sauce recipe for a while and he had a really good idea about how to get the pork shoulder just right.

I packed some frozen Amish turkeys in the RV, with plans of Turducken.

We pulled into the Mississippi riverfront on Tuesday May 13th. Danny the welder, one of the Que’s Brothers, was assembling a 2-story steel structure for the party. Wait, did I mean to say “competition” instead of “party”??

Nope, I meant party

Our team, the Que’s Brothers, was made up of bbq fanatics from both Memphis and Chicago. The cooking team was from Chicago, led by Pittmaster Wagner and also included myself, Dave Garr, and Chris Chaudruc. Everybody helps and pitches in to put the whole thing together and make it run like a finely tuned hot-tub limo for 4 days. Our booth had a bar, a kitchen, a dining room, a 2-story party deck, the big stereo, and our own men’s and women’s portable potties. You almost didn’t need to leave.

Many of the teams, (this year there was over 250), had big sponsors who throw down cash to help win the big trophies. Our team was sponsor-less and depended on the funds and the work of the team members to get it all done. I like to think that we were the “underhogs”. Pardon the pork puns. It’s a bad habit I picked up in Memphis.

The first day we had to set up our kitchen. Someone delivered tables and 2 empty and cold refrigerators. I asked around and found a great Vietnamese Market called Viet Hoa near downtown Memphis where I bought my ducks, banana leaves, pork bellies, shrimp, and beef tongues. My girl Jules, a Ques’ sister, delivered a big bag of fresh herbs from her garden: thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, oregano, and fennel.

The big delivery came by that day too: cases of whole pork shoulders, beef briskets, baby back ribs, pork spareribs, chickens, sausages, and a ton of chicken wings.

We brought with us our favorite rubs, sauces, and our toolboxes. We were cooking every night for the 120 or so people that would party at our booth and at the same time prepare our best meats for competition. Then there was the allure of the dark side: shots and beers handed to you every 30 minutes from noon to midnight.

With team names like “Here For the Beer”, “Pits and Ash”, and “Smokin’ Fatties”, you know that the people here are serious about barbecue.

I put 2 turduckens in the smoker on Wednesday night and 2 more in on Thursday night. This was the first time I used an injection marinade with the turduckens, consisting of apple cider vinegar and apple juice. I also brined the birds in brackish water for 2 hours before assembly. The dry rub was a mix of Paul Prudhomme poultry rub, and some other secret ingredients. I served two on Thursday to the hungry people at the booth. They really liked it but I took some suggestions. I tweaked it a bit on Thursday night and submitted it on Friday morning for competition. I was hoping for at least a top ten spot and I got 5th! Yeah, I know it’s not first, but it gives me something to shoot for next year.

After the judging on Friday, it was time to focus on the Pork Shoulders. Willie had been cooking shoulders for the past 2 days, playing around with injections marinades and mustard rubs. I had been staying up late feeding the Southern Yankee some oak and apple wood to keep a steady temperature on both sides of the 10 ft. smoker.

On Saturday morning we prepared the blind box for the judges. Willie selected his favorite morsels from the shoulder trying to include some white meat, some bark, and those really good pieces by the bone. I arranged them in the Styrofoam box the way a sushi chef would arrange ahi tuna, whitefish, and fatty tuna on a platter.

Then at around 11am on Saturday, the first of 3 judges showed up at our booth to taste the best pork shoulder we could make. Some of the que’s brothers cleared out and cleaned up the booth and made it look tip-top. We presented the whole pork shoulder wrapped in a banana leaf surrounded by fresh herbs. The herbs were fragrant and the meat released a pocket of steam as soon as the banana leaf was pulled away.

We did this 3 times from 11 to noon. I tasted from each shoulder after the judges left and I knew we had something good going. The meat was moist but not greasy and you could taste the wood. The bark was crunchy and flavored with the complex rub. The pieces around the picnic ham were bright pink and juicy like an oyster. I told Willie that it was the best pork I’d ever had.

That afternoon we found out that we were selected for the finals. We were in the top 3! Willie and I prepared again for the judges, and this time there would be 4 of them.

We were nervous and ill-prepared, but we picked out our best remaining shoulder and presented it to the judges.

We already felt victorious, being in the top 3. It was the second year for Willie on the team and my first, so this was definitely a treat. Some of the Que’s brothers were in tears after learning the news of our top 3 finish.

Needless to say, we got the bronze trophy, which is beautiful. The 3 top trophies are handmade at the Memphis Metal Museum with custom pig and cleaver castings on top of a custom welded base.

It took several of us to hold up the piece after all the hard work…

I made some great friends in Memphis and I can’t wait to go back. Some of the highlights of the week were eating at Chef John Bragg’s restaurant called Circa, beautiful and delicious food with a phenomenal wine list. John knows his food. His father and grandfather were Tennessee farmers and his great seasonal menu shows that he takes full advantage of the good stuff in the area.

We arrived at John’s restaurant by chariot. Well, it was almost a chariot. The coolest Que’s sister, Robin, brought over her ‘67 Pontiac Firebird convertible for the victory run. The trophy fit right in the middle.

But really the best part of the trip was the barbecuing: pulling out all kinds of meat at just the right time, cutting into it, with a line of hungry people waiting to try some bbq.

Congrats to Willie of Honky Tonk BBQ and the 2008 Que’s Brother’s Team for a job well done!


  1. Julie Bramlett

    Efrain- This is an excellent write up on the whole event. It was a pleasure meeting you and the picture of your efforts, wrapped in
    banana leaves with my rosemary surrounding it made my heart sing!! You are awesome!! Can’t wait to do it all again next year. Love your website my friend! Take care! ~Jules

    Posted 6-2-2008 , Reply

  2. Julie Bramlett

    Oh and P.S. ……excellent photography as well. Great job Alan Shortall! Your shots made my mouth water!

    Posted 6-2-2008 , Reply

  3. Chris Zach

    Efrain — you got my mouth watering just thinking about the presentation of that pork shoulder. There is definitely some evolved, fundamental piece of being human that cannot resist the smell of smoke and melting animal fat. I haven’t had the privilege of partying at Memphis in May yet — although I’ve heard stories from friends — but it’s on my 1000-things-to-do-before-I-die list!

    Posted 6-15-2008 , Reply

  4. chEfrain

    Chris- you HAVE to make it memphis in may sometime. and yes, do it before you die.
    Next year would be a good time to go. I’ll back going back down with the same team. (we have the best team) and we’ll be competing for 1st place this time. it’s a blast.

    Posted 6-16-2008 , Reply

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