Nathan, I, and the entire Modernist Cuisine team were saddened earlier this month when barbecue legend John H. Willingham passed away.
This year, I had the opportunity to be a member of his River City Rooters team, which competed at the Memphis in May World Championship a few days after his passing. Although Willingham’s absence was keenly felt by everyone on the team, it strengthened our determination to honor his memory by delivering strong showings in both competition and vending. Willingham’s daughters, Karla, Kara, and Kristi, were a constant presence in the pit, always working, encouraging others, and keeping spirits up. Willingham’s son-in-law, Clay Templeton, orchestrated the vending, and Paul Holden, long-time pit-master of the Willingham team, simultaneously managed six W’ham Turbo Cookers, including a giant version built inside a trailer!
Although Willingham was most famous for his contributions to barbecue, he was a true renaissance man. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals, served as a county commissioner, and was known for providing shelter to the homeless. An accomplished inventor, he held 17 patents, including the patent for the nasal spray bottle. Perhaps his most intriguing invention was the W’ham Turbo Cooker, which was unlike any other barbecue cooker at the time and offered a giant leap forward in the accuracy and consistency of cooking over a live fire. Electronic controls in the turbo cooker slowly feed pellets into a firebox to generate heat and smoke, which waft into an offset chamber where food is hung on rotating racks. The system ensures even heating and flavoring of the food. The influence of Willingham’s inventive ideas is clearly visible in many other cookers; vision and offset fireboxes with electric controls are now very popular on the competitive barbecue circuit.
Willingham was an avid participant in barbecue competitions for decades. He crisscrossed the country to compete in events from Boston to Alabama, collecting trophies almost everywhere he stopped. Over the years, he twice captured Grand Champion at Memphis in May (once when he invited Nathan to join his team) and also took Grand Champion at the American Royal in Kansas City, two events that many be considered the most competitive in barbecue.
During my time in Memphis this spring, I soaked up Willingham’s wisdom on how ribs should be cooked. By combining those insights, with tips mined from Willingham’s cookbook, I was able to produce the recipe below, which consistently produces delicious ribs and can be reproduced at home even if you don’t have a dedicated smoker. Although this recipe might not win any trophies, it will definitely result in a great meal. I hope it inspires you to get out your grills and gather your family and friends for some fun outdoor cooking. That would be the perfect way to remember John H. Willingham.
-Sam Fahey-Burke, Research and Development Chef