We had about a three-hour phone interview in which I had to justify that I was worthy of acquiring a cooker. He also had concerns about the rainy weather in Seattle, and how that would affect the cooker. In the end, I did get my cooker, and with it I made the best ribs I'd ever made. But they weren't as good as John's. So I tried again, and I tried again, and I called him on the phone. Clearly, I was not quite getting all the elements together.
Exasperated, I said, "John, why don't I just come down to Memphis and maybe you can teach me."
He said, "Oh, that's great. Why don't you come down in May. We have a little contest coming."
On my way there I thought, okay, I'm going to have a couple hours of barbecue instruction, and then I'm going to go over to Beale Street and hear some jazz, and then maybe I'll tour Graceland, and then I'll go home. It'll be pretty straightforward, a fun weekend. Well, it turned out his little contest was the Memphis in May World Championship of Barbecue Cooking Contest.
John handed me an apron and said, "You're on the team; it's the only way you'll learn."
'Modernist Cuisine' author recalls Memphis in May barbecue lessons from John Willingham
On modernistcuisine.com, the companion blog to the stunning four-volume cookbook set "Modernist Cuisine" (just $456.09 on sale at Amazon!), author Nathan Myhrvold recounts "My First Memphis in May." His story involves learning the finer points of competition-style barbecue from one of the masters: multiple-time Memphis in May barbecue champion, former Shelby County commissioner and local political gadfly and sometime-restaurateur John Willingham. Keep in mind that "Modernist Cuisine" explains the "molecular gastronomy" phenomenon in which food preparation seems to involve as much chemical engineering and conceptual art as actual cooking. It turns out that technology -- here in the form of Willingham's patented smoker -- is as important to a perfect slab of smoked pork ribs as it is to flavored foams and powdered oils.