Sky Full of Bacon

Having been found fully compliant with Apple’s strictures against using iTunes to produce a weapon of mass destruction, Sky Full of Bacon is now available at iTunes here.

Why should you subscribe?

1) It’s the most painless way to see Sky Full of Bacon in the best quality— the file may be honkin’ big, but it downloads while your computer is just sitting there, so you don’t notice. It’s just there, ready to play when you’re ready to watch. Then delete it when you’re done, completely recycling the hard drive space. It’s the green choice!

2) It helps me by giving me a measure of how many people are actually watching it. It’s much better to be able to say “I have X subscribers” than “I got X hits.” So give me a reason to keep it going by keeping the numbers up.

What are you subscribing to? Jump to the most recent podcast announcement.

The Reader’s current Best of Chicago issue has five of my blurbs/choices (chosen in consultation with the editor, but I’m happy to back all of them), as well as other food ones by fellows named Hammond, Wiviott, Sula, etc. Here’s my favorite one, just because it amused me so to introduce our loveliest, most artful bakery with this analogy (I think it was a Tim Cahill piece in Outside many years ago). Others here, here, here and here.

Note that somebody is already taking issue with the choice of Uru-Swati as best vegetarian in the comments. While I’m happy to acknowledge that my picking best vegetarian is humorous, let me just say that the vegan dorm food being served up at Handlebar or the bland on bland Chicago Diner are exactly why Uru-Swati is an infinitely superior choice.

P.S. In non-food-related writing news, my review of the old movie convention I went to in May is in the current issue of Classic Images, found at really really complete newsstands. It’ll be here soon, for a short time.

At last, the main reason for this blog: the first episode of Sky Full of Bacon is up!

Sky Full of Bacon 01: How Local Can You Go? from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Local is a hot word in food these days. In How Local Can You Go? I visit two people who are taking different approaches to trying to bring local food into the mainstream in Chicago. Cassie Green runs a market in West Town called (what else?) Green Grocer, which features a lot of the producers who sell at Green City and other farmer’s markets. One of the knocks on local and organic food is that it’s the kind of thing only yuppies with extra money to spend can worry about, but the market that sustains something like local growing and eating usually starts with a cute little shop in a trendy neighborhood, and Cassie’s enthusiasm for the wonderful-looking food she sells is infectious.

Meanwhile, Bruce F. is a Wicker Park resident who read about Earthboxes in the Reader, and subsequently built about 30 DIY ones out of Rubbermaid tubs on his garage, as well as a Flickr page that tell you all about how and why you should do it too. He’s a thoughtful guy who really brings a lot of perspective to the broader issues surrounding the act of growing your own food in the city, in a way that kind of reminds you of John Cusack’s character in Say Anything.

The total podcast runs 19:39, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel like it. As the season progresses I’ll check back with both Cassie and Bruce to see what else is growing, and include the updates in future podcasts.

Green Grocer
1420 W. Grand (just west of Ogden), Chicago

Links for further exploration:
Green Grocer Chicago
Bruce’s Flickr page, and his Daily Kos diary
Reader article on Earthboxes
LTHForum thread on Earthboxes (with posts by both Bruce and myself)
Links to blogs and articles shown in the montage of locavore press toward the beginning:
Eat Local Challenge
Vital Information (essential Chicago locavore blog)
NY Times
Food & Wine

About Sky Full of Bacon

I’m very interested in your comments on this first Sky Full of Bacon effort. Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

When I saw the title In Defense of Food, my first thought was that the thing food most needs defending against at the moment is Michael Pollan. His The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the feel-bad food book of the last few years, telling us everything that’s messed-up about our industrialized food-producing system. I have no doubt that it’s fine reporting and largely true, but I just couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred pages of that— and I have a certain conviction, deep down, that there is a portion of the populace which feels guilty about our comfy lifestyle and likes to read that things are irredeemably doomed and our punishment is on its way. (An Inconvenient Truth is the ultimate such hairshirt book; so are all those Oprah books about how your childhood scarred you forever. Again, it’s not that there may not be a lot of merit in their arguments, but people also read them to wallow in gloom.)

If Omnivore was Old Testament judgment and wrath, though, In Defense seems to be New Testament hope and practical advice for living the go-forth-and-sin-no-more lifestyle. As Pollan, downright cheerily, says at the end of the foreword, “I doubt the last third of the book could have been written forty years ago, if only because there would have been no way to eat the way I propose without going back to the land… Eaters have real choices now.” Basically his argument— and who can argue with it?— is that food is getting ever more unnatural, we shop for nutrients and numbers (fat grams, RDAs, etc.) rather than actual food, and yet we’re fatter and more prone to diseases of affluence than ever, so if we just stop shopping for weird fakey stuff because it promises the magic bullet of the moment and simply hunt for and gather real, whole foods, we’ll be better off.

As it happens— and this is why I am writing about a book after having read only its foreword— just as I was leafing through the book, my own folly had put in front of me a perfect example of, in Pollan’s words, an edible foodlike substance. After the bookstore I took the kids to the adjacent Panera, where they like the bagels (no, you may not have chocolate chip, you may have Plain), and I should have ordered either the Asiago roast beef sandwich, which is decent, damn the cholesterol, or the Mediterranean salad, which is gooped up a little, but still might actually have some tiny resemblance to the Mediterranean diet.

Foolishly, though, I tried to square the difference by getting a healthier™ chicken sandwich, and found myself ordering something bearing the ghastly neologism Frontega Chicken (its daddy was Frontera Grill, its mama was a Chevy Vega, I guess), simply because it didn’t have bacon in it like nearly everything else (except the chocolate chip bagels).

This proved to be some sort of unnaturally smoked chicken, engoobed in a lucite-like preservative of melted cheese-like substance, warmed-to-mush tomatoes and panini’d-to-crunchy bread, which recalled nothing so much as a brand of microwavable sandwiches I used to take to high school lunch once upon a time, which contained some sort of Soyuz-program cheese goop that would ooze out of the crustily-warmed sandwich like a coolant leak. Like the cheese, my skepticism about Pollan’s message melted away as I ate the minimum necessary to stave off hunger and wrapped the rest to take home, to spend its obligatory leftover waiting period in the fridge before being disposed of guilt-free. The book, on the other hand, will be consumed in its entirety.

Little do you know what you’re getting into when you go on a chow-expedition. Four years ago, I took my kids to the Lake County Fair, and they fell in love with the idea of doing 4-H projects and getting a ribbon for something you made or grew. Last year, when Myles was old enough at last, he joined the (somewhat adapted to city/suburban living) 4-H program at Wagner Farm in Glenview, and he’s now helping raise a sheep (which we do not have to keep, unlike in real country-living 4-H) and helping on Saturdays around the farm. Here’s a little four-minute video I made showing Myles “doing his chores” on an active day of visitors at Wagner Farm:

My Lamb Triskaidekaphobia from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Please note: The embedded version is reduced resolution/frame rate. To see it in its full HD glory, go here. (If video isn’t streaming properly, I find it helps to let it start, pause it, then wait for it all to load before playing.)


Contact Me

Email mikegebert@gmail dot com.

About Michael Gebert

Michael Gebert, editor-publisher of the Chicago-based online food magazine Fooditor and author of The Fooditor 99, is widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable and innovative journalists on food in Chicago.

Born in Kansas, he worked for many years in Chicago as an award-winning copywriter for many top brands and advertising agencies. The author of a book on film, he began writing about Chicago food online non-professionally in the early 2000s, first at Chowhound and then as one of the creators of the Chicago discussion site LTHForum. In 2008 he launched his nationally-acclaimed video podcast and blog, Sky Full of Bacon, and began writing for publications including the Chicago Reader, Time Out Chicago, Saveur, the Sun-Times, Where Chicago, Maxim, First We Feast and Air Canada’s in-flight magazine, among others. From 2011 until its closing in 2013 he was the Chicago editor for Grub Street, a daily food blog owned by New York magazine, and followed that by two years as a regular columnist for the Chicago Reader. In 2015. he launched his own site Fooditor, and in 2016 published The Fooditor 99: Where To Eat (And What To Eat There) in Chicago.

His video work has earned national acclaim for its in-depth and personal approach to the food scene, and to date he has been nominated three times for James Beard Foundation awards, winning in 2011 for the “Key Ingredient” series for the Reader, for which he’s produced over 100 episodes. He’s participated as a food expert, speaker or judge on PRI’s Marketplace, Chicago Public Radio, WGN Radio, the Hamburger Hop/Chicago Gourmet, the Printers Row Book Festival, the Good Food Festival, Cochon 555, Baconfest, the Greater Midwest Foodways Association, 2nd Story and many other local events.

He lives on the north side (but eats all over town) with his wife and two sons, who think it’s normal when the chef comes to your table during dinner and asks if you want to see the kitchen.

Hey, Do You Have a Shorter Bio We Could Use? Michael Gebert is the editor and publisher of the online Chicago food magazine Fooditor and a James Beard Award-winning food writer and video maker based in Chicago. He has been a contributor to the Chicago Reader, Time Out Chicago, Where Chicago, Serious Eats, Thrillist, Air Canada’s in-flight magazine and others, and was the editor of Grub Street Chicago.

Photo: Click for upscale image:

photo: David Hammond

Click for downscale image:

photo: Myles Gebert

Work Samples

Go here.

What Is Sky Full of Bacon?

1. It’s Michael Gebert’s acclaimed series of video podcasts about food in Chicago and the midwest, which have been praised by the likes of the Chicago Tribune (“A great story… mouthwatering”), Michael Ruhlman (“great video”), Evan Kleiman (“Have you seen these videos? I think they’re fabulous”), Francis Lam (“Long but lovely”), Serious Eats (“always enlightening”), (“a blog that’s truly great”) and many more. Sky Full of Bacon-produced videos have been nominated three times for James Beard Foundation awards (in 2009 for these videos, together with Chicago Reader writer Mike Sula’s mulefoot pig stories in the multimedia category, in 2011 as half of the Chicago Reader’s Key Ingredient series, also in the multimedia category, which it won, and in 2012 for “A Barbecue History of Chicago.

Chefs and food world figures who have participated in Sky Full of Bacon-produced videos include Grant Achatz (Alinea), Charlie Trotter, Nathan Myhrvold (Modernist Cuisine), Paul Kahan (Blackbird), Jean Joho (Everest), Doug Sohn (Hot Doug’s), Mike and Amy Mills (Blue Smoke/17th Street BBQ), Paul Virant (Vie), Stephanie Izard (The Girl & the Goat), Sean Brock (Husk), Fabio Viviani (Siena Tavern), Homaro Cantu (Moto), Dave Raymond (Sweet Baby Ray’s), Roberto Trevino (Budatai), Mike and Pat Sheerin (The Trenchermen), Takashi Yagihashi (Takashi), and Sarah Grueneberg (Spiaggia), as well as prosciutto makers Herb & Kathy Eckhouse (La Quercia), Zingerman’s owner Ari Weinzweig, cookbook author Nancie McDermott and Texas barbecue legends Bobby Mueller and Vencil Mares.

2. It’s also Michael Gebert’s blog about food in the Chicago area, which was named Best Local Food Blog by New City in 2009, nominated for a Time Out Chicago Eat Out Award in 2010 and a Saveur Best Food Blogs award in 2011, and featured as one of Saveur’s Sites We Love in 2011.

3. It’s a food video production company which makes low-glitz, high-interest online videos about the world of food for media outlets such as the Chicago Reader, Eater, Time Out Chicago, WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio)— and could do so for you, too. Check out our latest collaboration with the Chicago Reader, the James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient series, with top Chicago chefs such as Grant Achatz, Stephanie Izard and “Hot Doug” Sohn.

4. And it’s an audio podcast about Chicago food and food media. Go here.

To jump to the first part in this series, click here.

You can hardly go two steps in Chattanooga without running across a promotion of some sort for a series of tourist attractions outside of town on Lookout Mountain. While “Rock City” and an incline railway held less appeal than their tourist-trap prices could probably sustain, we did pay our fare for Ruby Falls, a 150-foot natural waterfall deep inside the mountain which was discovered and excavated in the 1920s and 1930s, and “improved” on various occasions since then, but still has a relatively low-key, roadside attraction feel that means the actual sensation of going deep inside a cave hasn’t been entirely malled over.

The sensation of having gone back to at least the 1950s persisted for much of the drive back from Chattanooga; with the mountains limiting radio reception, often times we’d scan the AM dial and turn up only a single working station, playing lugubrious white gospel music interspersed with bits of earnestly unvarnished preaching, as if the blow-dried “happy talk” televangelism of the 70s and 80s had never happened.

A similar out of time air, Dairy Queens of the Ford Administration, hung over our lunch stop, Scott’s Barbecue in Lexington, Tennessee (I point out the state so you don’t confuse it, as I did at first, with Lexington, Kentucky). Pigmon, again, had highly recommended this stop, having taken some marvelous photos of whole hogs cooking there last year, and so had the entire Southern Foodways Alliance. Unfortunately for us, it became something of an object lesson in how you can be at the right place and yet fail to have the right experience. The sky was gray so my pictures were dull:

I foolishly ordered hot sauce on my sandwich, largely negating the flavor of the meat:

and anyway, I later learned as I read the walls that I was supposed to order what part of the pig I wanted my meat from (clueless city slickers!) What part of the pig? Jesus, how should I know? And so what had been one of Pigmon’s culinary high points was just in the middle of the pack for me.

* * *

Some notes on other places we grabbed a bite in Memphis:

Flying Fish— a mostly fried seafood place just north of the Beale Street tourist singularity, blurring the line between real and ersatz pretty completely. The kids really liked it for some reason, so we went twice, it was useful to have a reliably decent place near the tourist stuff.

Gus’ Fried Chicken— When it comes to famous fried chicken places, I’m all for pan-fried over deep-fried, deep-fried requires an armor-plated coating to withstand bouncing around in the fryer. But as deep-fried goes, Gus’ is top-notch, comparatively delicate and with a vinegary tang to the crust. I bought my older son a Gus’ T-shirt to go with his Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles one.

Automatic Slim’s Tonga Club— This turns up on as if it’s a genuine 50s tiki place. In fact it’s a modern yuppie theme restaurant serving the usual square of grilled fish on a mound of black rice, that sort of thing. Not bad of its type, but not what I thought it would be at all.

Blue Plate Cafe— Another place mentioned on Roadfood, the bigger downtown branch of a well-loved little neighborhood cafe serving the standard southern breakfast stuff. Unfortunately everything— pancakes, biscuits, you name it— fell a little short of what it should have been; I was very glad to make it (also on the Sterns’ recommendation) to Blue and White in Tunica the next day, and have the real deal, first rate.

Huey’s— A much-loved, collegiately-oriented burger joint that routinely wins Memphis’ Best Burger in the local publications. Well, nobody said Memphis was a burger town.

* * *

Saturday we had hours to kill before the train left late that night, and did every little museum open within walking distance of The Peabody, where we had stayed the last couple of nights after our Chattanooga sojourn (well worth the money, especially since it’s half the money of a comparable five-star place in a bigger, coastal city; the kids loved the duck parade in the lobby and saw it five times in two and a half days, I thought the sheets were the nicest I’ve ever slept on). Most interesting was the Cotton Exchange, the one-time exchange floor where cotton was traded, which spawned a whole subculture (from raffish after-hours poker games where the real deals were made, to the high society Cotton Ball— and, inevitably, its counterpart in the black community).

At last our train arrived from New Orleans, and boarding, we went quickly to sleep. Morning would bring our last meal of the trip:

which was not, by any means, terrible. Having ended our trip at the genteelly white Peabody and Cotton Exchange, we had strayed pretty far from our original intention of retracing black migration, and yet the trip was still evocative of so much we had seen. The winter Illinois landscape in pale morning light was worthy of Andrew Wyeth, the industrial landscape of the south side echoed with memories of when it had called to the black South like a promised land. A new generation of immigrants to the North was busy making tacos and pambazos at Maxwell Street as we rumbled by on the tracks above them. And then, like so many on this train before us, we were home, sweet home Chicago.

When Jim Leff, founder of Chowhound, was sent on a road trip to get him out of the hair of the folks who’d just bought his baby, one of the places he visited was Chattanooga… and it was probably the place he bitched most mightily about.

Well, I went to the brewpub (Big River Grille) he complained about, for instance, and had a perfectly pleasant steak and beer, neither one of them adorned with excessive cheese. He is right, that it’s a big generic place in a neighborhood of generic places, and could be in any suburb anywhere in America where they like to eat meat and watch sports (which is all of them), but it wasn’t that bad. Neither was Magic Mushroom for pizza, or the Italian place (Tony’s) or the coffee/muffin place (Rembrandt’s) attached to our B&B.

But they weren’t that great, either. We spent two days in Chattanooga, which is a cute and very friendly town, which has a great pair of aquariums (aquaria?), one of them very interestingly devoted to the wildlife of the river/delta systems of the south, which has a totally charming arts district up on the bluffs overlooking the river, which has fun public art and interesting things like this (somewhat unnerving) glass walkway over a highway:

I would absolutely recommend Chattanooga, and the Bluff View B&B complex (great rooms/setting, incredibly nice people), for a weekend getaway for anybody… anybody who wasn’t hoping to eat the kind of interesting food we’d been having in Memphis and elsewhere, that is. Us, we took it as a break from barbecue, a chance to eat salad and get ourselves back in shape for the next round.

Pardon me boys—is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo? Yes it is, at the old railway station, now a Holiday Inn.

* * *

One reason Chattanooga didn’t detract from the food side of our trip was that we had had one of the best— maybe the best?— meals of our trip on the way there. Pigmon had urged, cajoled, implored me to make a stop in Nashville to eat at Arnold’s, a nondescript meat-and-threes cafeteria he, Trixie-Pea and Mike Sula had visited and the latter had written about for the Reader, but I had assumed it would be a major detour. Looking at the map, though, I realized that because of the mountains, we actually had to drive northeast nearly to Nashville to then head southeast again to Chattanooga. Arnold’s hardly added 20 minutes to the trip, and 20 minutes have rarely been better spent.

Sula had raved about garlic-studded roast beef, seen here carved one-handed by one of the family who runs Arnold’s, while he guided an employee by phone through the process of making a purchase at Costco. The meats were all good, the desserts (chess pie and banana pudding) were very good, but it was the threes that made the leap toward greatness— especially the greens, whose pot likker was Bordeaux-complex in its depth of flavor, smoky, porky, cognac-y.

One thing that keeps me from becoming a vegetarian is a certain deep-seated prejudice that vegetables’ flavor, however bright and satisfying, is all on the surface; you need meat to find complexity and profundity in a dish. Okay, so a big reason these greens were so good is undoubtedly bits of smoky ham down in the likker. But still, a dish like this, mostly vegetable in its flavor with ham for counterpoint, goes a long way toward proving that veggies, too, can swim in the deep end of the pool.

go to part 5 

I suppose everyone knew that Highway 61 was the road from New Orleans to Memphis (and all the way to Minnesota), and that that’s why Dylan used it as opposed to, say, Route 66 or Ventura Highway. Well, I didn’t, shows how much attention we in Chicago ever pay the South, so it was with a real frisson of being somewhere historic that I took off south out of town on the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul and Bessie Smith died. Such things seem more mythical than real, so to actually be in the places, and to think that they happened within living memory, is less like being where Lincoln or John F. Kennedy did something, and more like being where King Arthur (or at least Billy the Kid) did.

But never discount Americans’ ability to trash a landscape, however mythic. Tunica, Mississippi, the first major town on the river south of Memphis, has become a riverboat casino town, and the ten miles either side of it are blighted with ugly new gaming complexes and, even more, billboards for same. Luckily there is one gleamingly gorgeous establishment predating this fresh hell, the Blue & White restaurant, which by itself redeems this stretch of the road by encapsulating everything the traveler would have dreamed of finding on 61 back in the 40s or 50s.

The name comes from the Pure Oil gas station it originated as— I’m pretty sure none of those are Robert Johnson covers— and though it’s marred by the presence of TVs tuned to CNN, the interior is still classic American diner. So too were the doughnuts, the last two of the morning:

We followed those with biscuits and gravy, grits, country ham— all of it exactly what you hoped for, plain, not gussied up, but damn near perfect of the type. A blue and white vision of Heaven, for anyone with a hellhound on his trail.

* * *

The terrific museum at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan includes an outdoor “town” consisting of houses and workshops belonging to a lot of his fellow tinkerer-tycoons— Edison’s lab, the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop, etc. It invites you to imagine a small town 1900s America in which every house held a genius— a white, Protestant genius of engineering, that is.

Clarksdale, Mississippi is like the real-life black version of Ford’s fantasy— look around this small town and you see the cabin where Muddy Waters was born, the hospital where Bessie Smith died, the house where Pinetop Perkins taught a kid named Ike Turner to play piano— and, more dubiously, the crossroads Robert Johnson supposedly sang about selling his soul at. How did so many blues greats happen to come from (or in Smith’s case, die in) such a small place? I suspect that the question really is, who were the blues greats who we never heard of, because, unlike the residents of Clarksdale, they didn’t live close enough to the train to Chicago to find fame? The train was the one way out of sharecropping poverty, and music was one of the tickets to the train. But you had to live close enough to catch it; and so it was mainly by being geographically able to send its best talents elsewhere that Clarksdale got a permanent place on the map of American music.

Today there’s a nice museum in the old train station of blues-related ephemera— records, guitars, shiny suits– the star attraction of which is the actual cabin in which Muddy Waters grew up. It’s interesting to note that the cabin, barely more than a pile of lumber, hasn’t actually been donated to the museum; it’s still owned by the white landowning family who, of course, owned it all those years the Morganfields lived in it, working their fingers to the bone but never getting any closer to owning something of their own— until young McKinley took the music they made in their few hours away from farm work, and turned it into international fame and (at least modest) fortune. What bitter irony it must have been for the white owners of the place that they skimmed the cream of their black sharecroppers’ labors on the farm all those years— and then the ungrateful blacks go and create something that’s really worth something, and the whites don’t get a penny from it.

It just doesn’t seem right. We’ll lend them the cabin for their museum, but we’re not givin’ anything that belongs to us away.

* * *

John T. Edge has written extensively on the subject of Delta tamales, a black tamale style which, though it undoubtedly had Mexican origins somewhere, became an authentically black food form over time (see Robert Johnson’s song “They’re Red Hot” for more details). My friend Peter Engler has spent some years trying to establish a link between Delta tamales and the tamales popular in black neighborhoods in Chicago. I think he and anyone else who’s thought about has assumed that there surely must be one, if blues and pork-based barbecue traveled up from Mississippi to Chicago it seems likely that tamales did too, but the problem is the near-total lack of surviving historical evidence for a product that would have often been homemade and sold out of a kettle or a cooler.

Peter hunts for Mississippi tamales in Chicago; I decided to do my part for this burning question by seeing how Chicagoan my Mississippi lunch could be. We trekked down the highway, no doubt a preposterous sight as a very white family of four trekked through the dodgier parts of Clarksdale, past the black hospital (my sons immediately started looking for evidence of Smith’s car crash— “I think her car hit this stick and its tire blew up!”), until we reached Hick’s Quality Foods.

To add to our preposterousness, they were drive-through only at lunch (one assumes this does not apply to deer in need of processing), and so we ordered a bunch of food— including today’s special of hog maw— and once it was shoved through a tiny window at us, trekked back to a park named, inevitably, for Martin Luther King Jr. to eat it.

It was the closest thing to Chicago food we ate on our trip. The rib tips could have been straight out of a south side BBQ joint; the (very greasy) tamales were, if not exactly like Chicago style, certainly even less like anything they make in Mexico these days.

We may not have found historical evidence, but we were certainly convinced. When the blues went north, rib tips and tamales like these went with them, I have no doubt.

go to part 4 

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.

go to part 3