It smells like pig in the Memphis airport. Big, fat, succulent, juicy pig. Ribs. Bacon. Pork chops. A virtual storm of swine smacked me in the nose the second I walked off the airplane. I pity the rabbis who travel to Memphis.
When I got in the rental car, and turned the key, the local public radio station pumped 1950's rockabilly into the mid sized sedan.
This is why I came to Memphis: music memorabilia and barbecue. And good old fashioned kitsch. Eleven years after my mom and I boarded a double decker bus in Liverpool for the Magical Mystery Tour, here we are touring Graceland, Sun Studio, and being Baptist-for-the-day at Reverend Al Green's Sunday morning service. Oh, and depleting the world of its WetNap resources at several hands-on barbecue joints.
Pork is to Memphis as Barbra is to the gays, so it would be wrong to resist the fine swine available at BBQ joints like A&R Bar-B-Que on
Elvis Presley Blvd.
The A&R magicians are behind this sensationally sloppy pulled pork and coleslaw sammich, and a slab of fall-off-the-bone sweet-sauced ribs. Use the two slices of soft, government issue white bread as edible napkins. Avoid the sickeningly sweet tea if you're not into getting cavities. Order more fried, beige food in the form of crunchy, breaded deep fried pickles.
I didn't go into this barbecue business blindly. With only two-a-half days to gnaw meat off bones, I sought the advice of down-home-Americana-food gurus Jane & Michael Stern then cross-referenced their picks on chowhound.com. I also wore horn rimmed glasses, made pie charts and briefly held a protractor. But not in vain. Without my sacred list of rundown barbecue restaurants, Mommy and I would have been driving aimlessly around the horribly depressed city, resorting to Church's Chicken drive-thrus.
The List lead us to Interstate Bar-BQ, whose owners (The Neely's) are apparently the stars of a new Food Network show. When the folks at Interstate get bored, they stack meat. Here is a link-n-log cabin made out of pork ribs, beef ribs, pulled pork and links. After a few bites of the chewy beef, I decided I was wasting my time and precious stomach space. I needed to save room for a Memphis specialty, a side dish that has furrowed the brow of every non-Southerner I have described it to. Barbecued spaghetti. Spaghetti with barbecue sauce, and yes, more shredded pork. Meh. I vote for the plastic urine-sample cups of crispy slaw and smoky beans. Yeah, that's right, I aint afraid to ruin your appetite with my crude descriptions.
After an enthusiastic, fist pumping, two-day meatfest (I also ate ribs at the Blues City Cafe on Beale Street before my mom arrived), we decided to detox....with two pounds of crawdads (fondly nicknamed Mud Bugs) and a dozen Louisiana oysters on the half shell. Our lips and tongues zinged and burned, as we sucked the tail meat from the spicy, Old Bay dusted crustaceans. Unfortunately the oysters belonged on an episode of Bivalves Gone Bad. Freakishly large and absolutely flavorless, we had to console our taste buds with a tart, custardy-smooth slice of Key Lime pie.
You know you are a food obsessed freak when you nearly miss your flight because you insist on eating at Memphis' very first cafe, even though you've spent your allocated lunch time getting obnoxiously lost searching for said historic cafe. With only fifteen minutes to order, eat and pay, I did something I never do: quickly ordered a meal. No hesitation. I only asked one question, and only changed my mind once (soup, salad, corn, green beans, mashed potatoes. Pick one!? Are they crazy? What do I fucking DO?!)
I came to Memphis with a curiosity and a craving for an Elvis sandwich: peanut butter, banana and bacon pressed between two slices of buttered and gilled bread. Arcade Restaurant was rumored to be the only dealer in town, but it turns out the King's creation is baconless (the nerve) so why bother?
At the adorably vintage Arcade, $7 bucks will get you chicken with dumplings more like planks of fat, cushy noodles than airy blobs of dough. You will run your tongue over these gravy slicked dumplings and savor their smooth texture for as long as possible before chewing and swallowing. You know you're in the deep South when the menu asks you to pick two vegetable sides, and macaroni and cheese has made the list. The frills may be few, but the noodles are tender and the cheese melty and plentiful. I nibbled a few bites of corn bread muffin, dipped my fork into a tiny plop of spicy peach cobbler, slapped a $10 on the table and ran out the door mid-chew.
Needless to say, I left Memphis with a full belly and a major mega crush on Elvis Presley. I plan to hang his pompadoured poster above my bed, and passionately fan-faint every night while imagining that he's serenading me. I already bought one of those pork scented Plug-Ins, to really get into the Memphis mood.
"Hold me close, hold me tight
Make me thrill with delight
Let me know where I stand from the start.
I want you, I need you, I love you.
With all my heart"