Letter From thenLower Rightnby John Shelton ReednShall We Gather by the River;nWhen I was invited last spring to be anjudge at the Memphis in May WorldnChampionship Barbecue Cooking Contestnsome envious backbiters put itnabout that it wasn’t because I’m wellknownnas a discriminating ami de swine,nbut because my sister knows the womannwho picks the judges. I have just onenthing to say to them: Eat your heart out.nNaturally I jumped on the chance likena dog on a rib bone. Everyone knowsnthat the annual Memphis contest offersnnot just some of the best ‘cue in thenworld but a complete barbecultural experience.nLast year, for instance, I heardnthat the festival drew entire platoons ofnElvis impersonators, not to mention ancontestant billing himself as “M. C.nHamhock” who promoted his productnwith a rap jingle:nDon’t need no knife, don’t neednno fork.nJust wrap your lips around mynpork.nSo it was that I found myself wingingnover to Memphis one lovely Friday innMay, eating American Airlines’ peanutsnand reading their copy of EntertainmentnWeekly, where I found a record reviewnthat began: “For many music fans northnof the Mason-Dixon line, contemporarynwhite Southern culture is nothing butnan Easy Rider cliche of booze, bikes, andnbad attitude.” Yeeee-haw! In your face,nYankee music fans. Pig—sooey!nOn the ground in Memphis, my sisternand I walked down Beale Street towardnthe riverside park where the contest wasnbeing held, past the usual street vendorsnoffering assorted Afro-schlock andnDeadhead tie-dye. When we came tonone selling plastic pig-snouts we knewnwe were getting close. Soon the unmistakablensmell of hickory smoke assailednus and we rounded a bend intonthe park to behold one hundred andnCORRESPONDENCEneighty-odd tents, booths, pavilions,nkiosks, huts, gazebos, and God knowsnwhat all else, stretched out before us, literallynon the riverbank, just a few feetnfrom the mighty Mississippi. It was annamazing sight, its surreality heightenednby daredevil youths bungee-jumpingnfrom a crane on the bluff above us andnby the tract I was given as I entered thenpark, a handy guide to “What to Do innCase You Miss the Rapture.” (Just a tip:nif you take any marks or prints on yournforehead or hands you’ll be sorry.)nWe wandered about, gaping. Somenmom-and-pop operations made do withnfolding lawn chairs and simple funeralnhome tents, but other teams had assembledntwo- and three-story structuresnwith latticework, decks, statuary, andnhanging plants. Each team had anname—I’ll spare you, but somethingnabout barbecue seems to provoke badnpuns—and some also had mottos, liken”Hogs smell better barbecued” and “Wenserve no swine before it’s [sic] time.”nPortable generators powered everythingnfrom electric fans to fountains and neonnsigns, and over their constant dronenmighty sound systems pumped out music,nmostly country, Cajun, or rap, but Inalso caught the strains of the VillagenPeople’s “YMCA.”nEach team had a smoker, of course,nand some had two or three. Theynranged from backyard Weber pots to antractor-trailer behemoth billed as thenworld’s largest portable barbecue cooker;nmost, however, were roughly coffinsized,nsome of them obviously off-therack,nbut many pieced together fromn55-gallon drums and stovepipe. Anyndoubts that barbecue contests are seriousnbusiness were dispelled by the trophiesnon display: some teams had morenbrass than the U. S. Army. And everywherenyou looked you saw the pig-totemnof the People of the Swine.nNow, for years I’ve kept a mental lognof barbecue joint signs. I’ve seen pigsnreclining, running, and dancing; pigsnwith bibs, with knives and forks, withncrowns and scepters. I’ve seen pigs asnbeauty contest winners and pigs in cowboynhats, one with a banjo. I’ve seennMr. and Mrs. Pig dressed for a night onnthe town, and Mr. and Mrs. Pig asnAmerican Cothic. But I’ve never seennnnpigs like I saw in Memphis. Pigs innchefs’ hats and volunteer firemen’s helmets.nA pig in a Memphis State footballnuniform triumphant over some Universitynof Tennessee pigs. A pig in anSuperman suit rising from the flames.nLots of pigs drinking beer and, on thenT-shirts of a team called the RowdynSouthern Swine, a whole trainload ofnpartying pigs. A pig reclining in a skillet;nanother on a grill, drinking beer. Twonpigs basting a little gnomish person on anspit. It’s a hard call, but my favorite wasnprobably some pigs with wings and halos,nfrom a team called Hog Heaven.nThis year Italy was being honored bynthe festival, so a number of teams strucknwhat they took to be Italian notes. (Ingather that last year’s honoree, NewnZealand, inspired mostly tasteless sheepnjokes.) Some booths were decoratednwith hanging bunches of plastic grapesnor simulated marble columns, and therenwere almost as many Italian flags asnConfederate ones. T-shirts said “CiaonDown.” And of course the pig-signs gotninto the act. Pigs ate pizza. Pigs worenhandlebar mustaches. Pigs reclined inngondolas. Pigs stomped grapes. Pigsnposed in gladiator gear and togas andnMafia outfits. A piece of doggerel postednin one booth combined the commonnthemes of Italy, mortality, and beer:nArrivederei my pug-nosed palnWe’ll meet again at a differentnlocalenYou in your mud, me drinking anBudnWay up in the final corral.nIf any actual Italians were present tonreceive this hands-across-the-sea homagenI didn’t run into them, although Indid meet some Swedes, who were therento see how a barbecue contest is run beforenstarting one of their own (a scarynthought). I was disappointed not to seena single Elvis impersonator. Not one.nOn the other hand there were, consideringnthe season, very few politicians,nand there were no street mimes at all.nIn the 90-degree Memphis heat, femalenattire ran to haltertops and cutoffs,noften decorated behind with stickersnsaying things like “HOT,” “Can’t TouchnThis,” “Roman Hands,” and “USDAnAUGUST 1992/39n