Who knew Memphis had pandas?
Elvis, on the other hand, everyone knows Memphis has, and Sunday morning seemed like an ideal time to go to Graceland without a crowd of churchgoing folks around us, and pay our tributes mainly surrounded by Brits and Japanese. This was my second trip to Graceland, a decade apart, and the main difference I noticed was that the audio tour is blessedly shorter (no doubt to squeeze more folks in, but a benefit all the same).
Afterwards, we followed Elvis Presley Boulevard north, out of the nice neighborhood where Elvis bought a home after he made it big, back into the black ghetto north of Graceland with its badly paved roads and ramshackle, peeled-paint buildings, reversing Elvis’ evolution out of black music (at some point, shouldn’t the name of the street become Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup Boulevard?)
Our destination was a cinderblocked structure was A&R Bar-B-Que, “Anyone Can Put The Heat 2 The Meat But Only a Few Can Bar-B-Q.” Or rather, our destination was an understanding of Memphis-style barbecue, which I’d only had in authentic terms once on that previous visit, at the decidedly white and yuppie Corky’s.
Chopped pork, a sweetish sauce and sweeter cole slaw, a few not especially memorable sides (including fried pickles, rather harsh pickles in a corn meal type breading)… it was a pleasant enough lunch after a morning with the King, and the parade of dressed-for-church types was fun to watch, but I came away without the keen understanding, the man-to-meat meeting of minds of this style which I had hoped for. The parts– pork, sauce, slaw, bun– didn’t quite seem to make a whole which made sense to me. If anything, it seemed to me that good pork was being buried under a lot of sweetness. In Texas they’d never hide the meat like that.
It took a visit to another black-run BBQ restaurant to finally produce my barbecue breakthrough. Neely’s is a branch of the Interstate BBQ empire, run by various Neely family members; this particular one had come recommended by my friend Pigmon, and the moment I bit into chopped pork with slaw on it, the style came together for me:
I’ve often written about the “30s style burger,” the archetypal thin patty slid onto a bun with mustard, pickle and onion and wrapped in white paper, which allows it to steam in its own vapors to form a harmonious whole not dominated by beef, the way the typical modern 1/2-lb. slab of meat burger is. When I tasted the combination of Neely’s meat, the mustardy cole slaw, and the soft, sweet white bread, I understood why Memphis barbecue was so different from Texas barbecue, that it wasn’t about swaggering, meat-drunk excess but about a genteel hint of meat mixed in with the more civil flavors of mayo, cabbage, and white bread. Call it barbecue for ladies who lunch if you like, compared to the testosterone-smoked bronto-que of Texas, but the South is the South and meat without white bread and a touch of sweetness would just be naked.
We ate at one more barbecue shop in Memphis proper, called… The Bar-B-Q Shop. This time I made sure to order a plate of ribs, the first I’d had in the Memphis style since Corky’s a decade earlier. If I’d overcome my bafflement at the Memphis style of pulled pork, I’m still a little flummoxed why Memphians love the gritty rub, which makes every rack of ribs feel like it’s been dragged through a litterbox. But the flavor on Bar-B-Q-Shop’s meat was fine, and the service couldn’t have been friendlier. Emboldened by my success in coming to understand the Memphis style, I even took a bite of my son’s barbecued spaghetti, another beloved Memphis specialty, Spaghetti-O-mushy noodles in sweet barbecue sauce with hunks of chopped pork…
Well, some mysteries will have to remain mysteries.