'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.

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."


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We'll start our tour at Marina Grande on the north shore from the island, about one third from the
way in from the easternmost point.

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