“Barbecue Competition” is something of an oxymoron. Competition connotes seriousness, rivalry and victory at all costs. Barbecue is a laid-back, slow, beer-in-hand, chewing the fat, pleasurable experience. Yet, when there’s a prize to be won with a bunch of casual cookers working very, very hard to show they’re the best, competition becomes the word.
Chip and Mike Armstrong have been having one heck of a good time competing since the second Memphis in May Barbecue Cooking Contest. The fact of the matter is, that their 32-year run began years before there was a MIM. For them, first there was the “Saturday Night Group."
“Our parents, Luther and Provy, had a group of friends that got together every Saturday night at one of their houses for dinner and a party. I’m talking – every Saturday night – hence, the name,” says Mike. “They would cook for each other and rotate locations.”
“Dad’s first job was at a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint in North Carolina. He always made his own sauce, and when they moved to Memphis, the vinegar Carolina style became a hybrid with the tomato base,” recalls Chip. “It is called “Uncle Lou’s." Our brother, Drew, has the recipe and still bottles it for friends and business associates. They go crazy for it. Dad wanted to start us in the competition when he heard about it after the first year.”
Their brother, Guy, started to compete in the second year of MIM on a different team, The Hobbie Hogs. Mike, Chip and Luther were entered as, what else, The Saturday Night Group.
Guy recalls, “We had the best cook and great marketing. That was our strong suit.”
Mike, “We had the best organizational skills.”
In 1986, the two teams brought together their individual talents into what is now Swine and Dine. The group is indeed highly organized, competitive in the sense of winning year after year in the higher categories, and fully marketed on T-shirts, cups, visors, koozies, sunglasses and you name it.
Swine and Dine’s organization consists of some 80 team members involved in a dozen committees, including set-up, tear-down, decorating, beer and bartending, cooking, green recycle, security, special events, T-shirts and apparel.
“We start in mid-February meeting weekly – sometimes twice a week with work sessions on weekends, but I always emphasize the fun. I tell our folks that we want to win, but that it would be way too much work if it weren’t fun,” says Mike, team captain.
Work sessions involve trial runs for cooking, when members get together to cook out on the weekend, just like their parents’ Saturday Night Group – eating and partying.
“The family core consists of our family and the Bob and Janet Schully family. We go way back and are now into the third and fourth generations of the competition. The third is very active. Its sort of the Armstrong / Schully Friends and Family,” says Chip.
All this fun can be expensive, too. The Swine and Dine group, which is not unlike all the other competitors, spends around $20,000 per year on entry fees, food, equipment, etc. Revenues come from members dues, sale of apparel (to themselves), and of course prize money – “we’re counting on that!” smiles treasurer, Chip.
Over the years, Swine and Dine extended what Mike and Chip call the “common denominator value” of barbecue to new friends from all over. They have CEO’s, laborers, bankers and regular Joes from Tennessee, Chicago, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina and beyond coming to rub elbows over barbecue.
These competitions are win/win, regardless of who comes away with a trophy. The process is that great reprieve from the work environment, where people get to get dirty, sweat, dance and walk away with smoke embedded in their pores and smiles on their faces. Each team, as its own entity, contributes to the party.
“It’s true of the whole festival,” says Mike. “You’ve got hundreds of teams trying thousands of different ways to get to the same thing – good barbecue and good times. Because it’s a slow process, we mix and mingle, shoot the breeze, have fun and get to know one another. Everybody has a story or a tweek to how they do it.”
“It’s great to have this to look forward to each year. It is a continuation of our family on one hand, and on the other we are keenly aware of how important an event it is for the city. We consider ourselves ambassadors for Memphis,” concludes Chip, glancing at Mike for affirmation.
“That’s it – ambassadors for Memphis!”