Sunday, May 22, 2011

Walkin' in Memphis

Every city has a feel to it. A vibe. New York has the hustle and bustle of the "city that never sleeps." New Orleans has that Creole/Cajun laid back-have a good time feel. San Francisco is the cool "city by the bay." Memphis is the blues city; birthplace of Stax Records, Sun Records, home to Elvis, and BBQ. Every year, Memphis puts on a grand show called "Memphis in May," and a key ingredient to that festival is the World Championship BBQ Competition, an event that draws the BBQ elite from all over the world. And this year, we were among the throngs of visitors that descended on the town to feast on some of the best pork to ever be thrown on a smoker!

Over 250 teams compete for prizes in three different categories: whole hog, shoulder, and ribs. This is serious business. Alot of time and money goes into preparing the entry, elaborate tents are set up, teams stay up all night tending the pork; all for 15 minutes with the judges to determine who is the best at Memphis style BBQ. 

The average visitor to the competition (held over three days) does not get to taste the competitive entries, but we purchased VIP tickets which enabled us to get up close and personal with the teams and their pigs. Some of the best 'que we sampled came from teams with names like "Cool Smoke," "Natural Born Grillers," "Yazoo Delta Q," "Fatback Collective," and "The Shed BBQ." 

BBQ royalty was also on site in the form of Myron Mixon, whom some of you might know from his show on The Learning Channel (that's him in the photo below). Myron put out quite the spread for our VIP group - pulled pork with his own BBQ sauce, some of the best beans I've ever tried (made with peaches), and top-notch cole slaw. 

Since this was our first time in Memphis, we did a little sightseeing, too.  The city has a wonderful trolley system that will take you all around for a buck. It's a quaint throwback to a simpler time. Riding the trollies, we got a look at the swollen Mississippi River that has wreaked havoc up and down its shores.
Of course we didn't eat BBQ the whole time. We had a terrific dinner the first night at Sweet Grass, a neighborhood bistro offering low country cuisine. We sampled the Low Country Shrimp and Grits, overflowing with shrimp (natch), scallops, house made sausage, and Benton's country ham. 

Another fine dish was the Pork Osso Bucco, served with collard greens, smoked bacon shitake grits, bourbon peach butter, and mushroom jus (I just love what those Southerners can do with grits and bourbon!).

And for dessert, a twist on traditional Carrot Cake - more like a carrot cupcake, split in half with cream cheese frosting in the middle, a scoop of vanilla gelato on top, and a caramel swoosh across the plate!

We had breakfast more than once at the Blue Plate Cafe.  It was a nice walk from our hotel to their location on Court Street, and a good walk back to help us feel slightly less guilty about devouring the feather-light biscuits that come with almost every order.

Memphis is more than just blues and BBQ. It's also home to the St Jude Children's Hospital. Founded in 1960 by Danny Thomas, it is now a world-class research center and beacon of light to many families dealing with devastating diseases. No child is denied treatment due to the family's inability to pay. 
And no trip to Memphis would be complete with a visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. However, not being big Elvis fans, we opted for a drive-by, and a lovely photo of the landscaping visible from the street.
We also got a good look at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. The hotel is now part of the Civil Rights Museum and still a powerful presence. A simple white wreath hangs on the balcony where he was standing when he was shot. The motel was used as low income housing until it was turned into a museum, and the last person to live there still goes there every day to protest the fact that the motel would have been put to better use as a home for the less fortunate, rather than a museum. She's out there every day on the corner, been there for 23 years now.

Going to the BBQ Competition was a blast! We ate BBQ almost three times a day (some days more!).  But what impressed me even more than the BBQ (cooked "low and slow"), was the camaraderie that the teams have for each other.  When the judging comes down to the final three in each category, all the other teams are present rooting on the finalists.  It's a true fellowship that these teams embrace.  And I can't wait to go back next year!

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