Heath Putnam was surprised his Mangalitsa pig, prepared by a dream team of Southern chefs and pit masters, didn't claim first prize at last weekend's prestigious Memphis in May barbecue competition--but he was stunned by how much his teammates drank.
"These guys really drink," says Putnam, who raises woolly pigs on his Auburn farm. "Beer is not drinking for them. That was something I didn't know."
Fatback Collective members, including James Beard Award winners Sean Brock of Husk, Donald Link of Herbsaint, Steven Stryjewski of Cochon, and John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance, stocked the tent with moonshine and high-end bourbon, staples of any legitimate Southern party. There were also Jell-O shots.
"I made sure not to keep up with them," says Putnam, who chipped in Washington cherry brandy.
Team members liked the brandy, but Putnam's most important contribution to the project was his pig. When Jim-N-Nick's Bar-B-Q decided to enter a team in the competition (corporate sponsors have the prerogative of bypassing hard-fought qualifying rounds), it wanted to secure the best cooks and the best meat. Team leaders staged a "pig-off" in Charleston to select its game-day pig.
Putnam believes Memphis in May marked the Mangalitsa's competitive barbecue debut.
"I don't think anyone's ever completed with pigs like this," Putnam says. "It's such incredible meat and fat quality, it was possible to have an upset."
Longtime Memphis in May-goers predicted the Fatback Collective's lack of competitive experience and unorthodox approach would land them somewhere near the bottom of the 30 participating teams. But the smoking jacket-clad rookies finished in third place.
The team hadn't planned to settle for a white ribbon.
"I'm used to winning, everyone's used to winning," Putnam says. "We were really sore. We were all like a bunch of pissed-off pigs."
In retrospect, Putnam wonders whether the team hurt its chances by refusing to sauce its meat. Memphis in May judges are notoriously fond of sweet, tomato-based sauces, but the team insisted upon a purist's preparation. The lack of sauce didn't bother Putnam.
"I ate two to three pounds of the stuff," he says. "I purposely starved myself so I could eat this historic Mangalitsa pig."
Putnam doesn't know whether he'll have a chance to travel to another Memphis in May--"My appearance was contingent on them choosing my pig," he says--but believes Mangalitsas will return for future competitions.
"It's amazing, we did almost nothing to the pig," Putnam says. "If you're rational, you'd think you could get some mileage out of this."