I Love Memphis: Festival Highlights

ILM

Hi Memphis lovers!

I'm Holly Whitfield, and I eat, sleep, and breathe this city. I spend my days writing about Memphis people, places, food, and things to do on the I Love Memphis Blog. I also love talking to people like you online (and in the real world!) about this incredibly special place.

When I first moved to Memphis years ago, Memphis In May was a bit of a mystery. I didn't know which events were when, what they were about, or how to make the most of them. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to discover this month-long festival bit by bit, and I've come to look forward to May every year as a kind of citywide holiday. Let me share some of my favorite memories.

Beale Street Music Festival

Without a doubt, a top moment from my time at Beale Street Music Festival is when Beck closed out Sunday night of the 2016 festival with a rendition of Prince's Raspberry Beret. Prince had passed away just a few days before, and everyone had a lot of feelings. My friend picked me up and put me on his shoulders during Florence and the Machine's 2012 set (she requested that we do this during her "Rabbit Heart/Raise It Up" tune) and that's another highlight. I was like one of those cool girls from a festival! Instagram wasn't as big of a thing back then or I'm sure I would have posted a picture.

There are many other moments that stand out from over the years: The totally trippy Flaming Lips and MGMT shows. Swaying with the crowd at Snoop Dogg. 90s children singing Weezer at the top of our lungs. Watching my Twitter feed go crazy in 2018 when Post Malone was announced. Eating Soul Burgers at Earnestine & Hazel’s while waiting to call a Lyft after the festival. My future boyfriend duct-taping my rain boots back together. I've always enjoyed the chill vibes at the early sets, too. You're sitting a few feet away from a roaring river, with great tunes, surrounded by friends.  

World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

My first experience with the WCBCC came courtesy of a work friend whose family had a competition team and invited me to their "tent". Friends, I wasn't ready.

First off, the so-called tent was a three-story, fully-decorated structure in a sea of other equally elaborate temporary castles for competing teams. Second, the barbecue was out of this world, convincing me of the entire event's validity on merits of the meat alone. Finally, after I'd had a plate and sat chilling with friends and family, something snapped. These folks all stood up, whisked away the tables and chairs, rolled out a DJ station, and started to rage. Seriously: a disco ball dropped from the sky, an ice luge appeared from thin air, and an elderly man gave me a shot of Baileys in a strawberry.

Work hard, play hard, though. After a few years of writing for the I Love Memphis Blog, I had the chance to enter the park during Saturday morning judging to observe the cutthroat competition. Teams have prepared their recipes for months and years, then they stay up all night smoking their meat, and lay it out in a beautiful presentation. A few solemn judges enter each tent, try the barbecue, and there's a hushed discussion with the pitmasters. Tom Lee Park, which just a few hours before was full of flashing lights, thumping music, and crowds, is completely. dead. silent. Well, except for the sounds of the river rushing by and quiet golf claps from cooking teams thanking judges as they leave the tents.

Then there are the hours of calculations and judging preparations, before the Awards Ceremony on Saturday afternoon. That’s where my other favorite WCBCC memory comes in.

A group of my friends are on a longstanding competition team, and while they have often placed in various categories, the competition is very fierce, and none of this team members are professional pitmasters, nor do any of them own restaurants. That’s why it was so special to hear that their team was in the top 10 for pork shoulder (and 4th place for chicken wings!) last year.

Once you find out that you’re in the top 10, you have the unenviable task to trucking everyone to the Awards Stage, usually with a wagon full of beer and/or a keg, in case someone has the immediate need to chug a beer upside down...after all, the hard part’s over. Some teams wear matching uniforms or matching shirts (Best T-Shirt is a competition category, actually) while other teams look a bit more...tired. The host announces awards one by one, and when he announced my friends’ team for FOURTH PLACE in Pork Shoulder (an incredible award among dozens of teams), the group exploded into cheers. Champagne shot into the air, everyone jumped and yelled and ran down to get the giant trophy. It’s meaningful to see a group of people who cook incredible barbecue simply because they love it be recognized.

Memphis In May International Week

Since 2019 is our bicentennial, Memphis In May will pause its tradition of honoring a foreign country and instead focus on its home: The City of Memphis. I think it’s the perfect way to celebrate 200 years, but I do love the usual “international” part of Memphis In May.

In 2017, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Colombia with a delegation of Memphians as part of Memphis In May's international exchange program for the honored country that year. We traveled to the bustling mountaintop capital city of Bogota and the colorful coastal city of Cartagena, experiencing cultural and historical sites, meeting locals, and exchanging ideas about the perceptions of our homes versus the realities.

While traveling to the honored country is not a part of the public festival, the experience taught me more about that aspect of Memphis In May. Most people don't know that we send a group of Memphis students to that country for a foreign exchange program, that there are economic development meetings, and that guest chefs, BBQ pitmasters, musicians, artists, and more are invited to the city for a true cultural exchange.

This Year

There's no point in denying that the weather at Memphis In May can be unpredictable. Growing up in South Mississippi, I'm used to a little rain, so for me it's always been a part of the fun. I learned quickly - by listening to experienced locals - to dress appropriately and be prepared. Most of my personal experiences at the festival were sunny and mild, though I still usually adhere to the unofficial ladies' uniform: tank top, jean shorts or a skirt, colorful rubber rain boots, and a flower crown. Just kidding, flower crowns are so 2015.

I can't wait for this year's festival, and I know that Memphis will bring some big bicentennial energy to all the events.

Like everyone else, I'm pumped for Cardi B's set on Sunday of Beale Street Music Festival. She's on top of the world right now, and I'm absolutely certain that the crowd's energy will reverberate through the entire tri-state area that night. Mayor Strickland, if you're reading this, I would like to humbly request a citywide holiday on Monday, May 6, so that we can fully recover from BSMF.

I'm also excited for the World's Longest Picnic at Celebrate Memphis. I have faith that Memphians from every neighborhood are going to show up and make this record-breaking picnic happen. I'm also proud (and not surprised) that Memphis would choose a food-related record to break for our Guinness Book inclusion attempt. Our city has some of the best food on the planet, and we love to eat.

Celebrate Memphis will also be the first time that we've coordinated a huge fireworks display with our Mighty Lights bridge lights, and that’s a major must-see after a long day of other must-sees at Celebrate Memphis (music, food, activities, shopping, and an air show).

Finally, it's an exciting time to come to Memphis. There are plenty of new places to go and things to do, especially downtown. There's an energy in the air and it's not just because it's the city's official 200th anniversary. Memphians have really embraced their city in recent years, and it's time you come see for yourself.

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