"MEMPHIS IS ABOUT grit and grime, flamboyance and spice – you can see that all around us, from the music to the food," Lance Silkes shouts over his shoulder as we speed past the neon lights of Beale Street, the throbbing centre of blues city. "Most American cities have become homogeneous, but Memphis is an exception to that rule," he states, as we enter our fifth barbecue restaurant of the afternoon. We are on the so-called Tastin' 'Round Town tour of the best barbecue joints in the city, led by Silkes, who moonlights as a professional barbecue judge – not the worst part-time job.
Barbecue was originally introduced to the Southern States alongside the slave trade. While the slave owners ate "high on the hog" – meaning the choice cuts of meat from the back and upper leg of a pig – the slaves had to find a way to make their scraps of meat edible. They developed a process of curing the meat with a spicy, dry rub and smoking it, and the American love of barbecue was born.
Slaves developed a process of curing the meat with a spicy, dry rub and smoking it, and the American love of barbecue was born
Contemporary Memphis barbecue still favours pork, which is slow-cooked in a pit and served either with a dry rub, or smothered in a tangy, thick sauce. The city now boasts 130 barbecue restaurants, each offering their own unique slant on this process. In much the same way as a fine whisky is created, there are many factors at play when creating the perfect barbecue – from the type of wood used to the length of time the meat is cooked, which can range from one to 24 hours. A visit to Memphis also confirms that there is very little that can't be given a barbecue twist, from egg rolls to nachos, from spaghetti to Elvis Presley's favorite – barbecue pizza.
No visit to Memphis would be complete without trying Charles Vergo's Rendezvous restaurant. Over the years it has attracted American presidents and, more recently, Prince William and Harry, all stopping by to sample its famous charcoal ribs. It is also located just across the street from The Peabody, a grand hotel that has become a tourist attraction in its own right, with a flock of ducks that parade twice daily through the lobby along a red carpet.
If you want to eat like a local, though, head over to Cozy Corner. It may look like a shack from the outside, but once inside you'll discover ribs, beans and even small Cornish hens smothered in its delicious house sauce. If you need a quick break from BBQ then try the fantastically retro Arcade restaurant in the South Main Historic Arts District. Visitors can enjoy a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the booth that Elvis used to sit at, located next to the back door in case he needed to make a dash from his over-enthusiastic fans. The restaurant has since been immortalised in films such as Mystery Train, The Firm and Joaquin Phoenix-starring Walk the Line.
Visitors can enjoy a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the booth that Elvis used to sit at
Southern-style cooking is now big business for the Memphis tourist industry, according to Karl Friedrich, manager of the luxurious River Inn hotel. "Memphis features more restaurants honouring the famous pig than any other city in the US, attracting tourists from all over the globe," he says. "BBQ travellers come asking for tours of the famous Rendezvous Restaurant, Corky's, or any hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves pulled-pork sandwiches and dry-rub ribs."
To truly immerse yourself in the world of barbecue, visit Memphis in May when the city hosts one of the largest barbecue competitions in America. Karl recommends booking early as many of the Downtown hotels can sell out a year in advance.
Memphis BBQ spots – in pictures
Of all the memorable meals that Memphis offered, the one I shared with the Reverend Al Green was champion. Perhaps better known as a 1970s soul sensation, Al Green went on to become an ordained pastor of Memphis's Full Gospel Tabernacle church, which welcomes both local worshipers and curious tourists to his Pentecostal sermons. The Grammy award-winning singer can still be found here on Sunday mornings, preaching and singing rousing gospel, backed by a full band and choir.
Visitors are then often invited to eat with the congregation, where Reverend Green blesses the meal of meatloaf, greens and barbecue spaghetti. Having enjoyed the generous meal, I thanked Reverend Green, who in turn clutched my hand, looked me in the eye and said: "I love you".
This wonderfully surreal moment perfectly highlighted why the city of Memphis – built on struggles, faith, music and good old-fashioned Southern hospitality – is well worth a visit. ■