ROAD TRIP USA 2010: WALKING IN MEMPHIS
Hard though it may be for me, or indeed many of the people who read this blog, to believe, there are folks out there who choose not too to predicate their entire existence on what they shove down their throats.
Strange, I know. But my friend Neal is just such a person. Now, don’t get me wrong, Neal likes good food well enough and can certainly appreciate it when it is put in front of him. However, unlike the rest of us normal souls, he is not driven to travel miles out of his way to find something unusual or delicious to eat.
That being said, travelling with him does have some benefit as, very much like HP, Neal is one of life’s organisers. So, when we began to organise this road trip, we divided our tasks. Neal began to make itineraries and lists as well as marking up maps with the interesting and quirky sites that litter my newly adopted homeland. At the same time, I began to make a similar list of weird and wonderful things we could eat along the way.
I have to say that, with only a few stops to go before we part ways, it has all worked out rather well and, as if to prove the point, our short stay in Memphis proved to be the perfect combination of decent eating and memorable sights.
We left our friend, Chris in Nashville after a whirlwind tour of a couple of US Civil War battle sights and stayed the night in an entirely charming B&B in rural Tennessee that Neal had discovered on the Interweb. After taking breakfast on the deck, we made the relatively short journey from Tennessee to Mississippi and stopped en route to visit one of the more odd sights Neal had marked on his map. Billy Tripp’s Mindfield is the work of local artist, er, Billy Tripp. He began work on the ever-growing sculpture in 1989 and will continue to build until he dies and his remains are interred there. It is quite a sight and we were delighted when Billy showed up in his pick up and chatted to us for a while before getting on with his work.
Our stop meant we reached the outskirts of Memphis a little late for lunch at Melanie’s Soul Food Restaurant. It had come highly recommended and I was really looking forward to some down home cooking. However, by the time we arrived, the locals had beaten us too it and all that was left of what is, I am told, a normally impressive selection, was a few bits of chicken and a couple of pans of stewed vegetables. All very depressing and it took a Mint Julep at the famous Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis to cheer me up.
The next morning, we headed out to Graceland. It was my second visit to the home of The King. The first, nearly a decade ago, had been both exciting and moving for such a huge fan of Elvis and it would have been hard for a repeat visit to live up to it. It was still a very enjoyable experience, despite the in your face merchandising at every opportunity and seeing THAT suit still gave me a shiver just as it did the first time I saw it.
Visits to both the legendary STAX and Sun studios were preceded by lunch at one of Central Memphis’s very best BBQ shacks. Payne’s BBQ is the real deal. Inside, there are a few mismatched tables and chairs, an ageing menu board and a small window through which to order your food. Memphis 'Q is all about the pork at Payne’s is served in a classic mopped style where ribs are basted as they are cooked and then doused in a sweet, spicy sauce. The “wet” style is not to everyone’s tastes and would give my friends in Texas (where they declare “if you need sauce on your BBQ, then there is something wrong with your BBQ”) the heebeegeebee’s. But, I rather liked the messy fun of polishing off a whole slab of tender ribs alongside a pulled pork sandwich topped with a sharp vinegar slaw. After the failure of lunch the day before, I felt I had kept up my side of the bargain.
After a short breather back at our hotel, it was time to hit downtown Memphis and we walked quickly up and down Beale Street, which looked no more appealing a place to hang out than it had done nearly a decade before when I had visited with HP. Moving on quickly, we found our way to another Memphis institution, Rendezvous BBQ and dipped inside to join the growing line of tourists.
Rendezvous has been churning out their special dry rub ribs from this location for over 60 years and, judging by the lines, now looks even more popular than ever. We grabbed a gassy beer and waited in the upstairs bar until the cute young hostess shrilled “Table of two for Simon” through the tinny speaker and then found our way to a small table. The ribs were not at all bad and I would certainly kill to have anywhere close to this good near me in London or California. But, they were nowhere near as good as Payne’s and, in fact, it was Neal’s surprising choice of lamb ribs, which proved more successful.
Finally, on our last morning, as we headed out of Memphis towards Arkansas, a place that we were both determined to visit. The Civil Rights Museum stands on the sight of The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th 1968. The museum is thoughtful, well organised and surprisingly moving. As we turned one corner, we found ourselves looking at reconstructions of Room 306 left very much as it was when Dr. King was shot. Through a window, we could see down to the parking lot where, in front of the plaque marking his death, an African American woman was weeping unashamedly.
The sight brought a tear to both our eyes. For once I had to agree with Neal that some things are more important than food.
Next stop Arkansas and Mississippi in search of the Delta Blues.