Just right: Memphis and the World Barbecue Championships, Part II
During our stay in Memphis, I fell into a conversation with a charming, 84-year-old porter at our hotel. When I told Zac we lived in Toronto, he broke into a big smile and told me he'd spent seven years up north working for the Canadian Pacific Railroad about fifty years ago.
"I've been everywhere: Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie, Moosejaw, Calgary, Whistler." Every time he named a city, he checked it off by raising a finger. "I remember one time I met this man at Union Station in Toronto," he continued, "and when I asked him how he was doing, he said, 'I'm just right.'" Then his face lit up in a smile. "I liked that so much, that whenever anyone asks me how I'm doing, I always say the same thing, 'I'm just right.'"
I like it too. A lot, actually.
Our trip was all about "just right." The "meat blindness" I described in the first post about our trip indicates "too much," I know, but a barbecue excursion implies excess. Being "just right" under such circumstances demands a certain boldness of appetite -- the southern US is, after all, a corner of the world where macaroni and cheese is listed as a vegetable on most menus. Memphis did not become the fourth fattest city in the United States by equating "just right" with moderation, that's for sure.
It was in that spirit that we descended on the World Barbecue Championship.
We soon discovered, however, that there is not that much barbecue on offer at the event itself. The competitors are there to compete, not cook for a crowd. Luck was on our side, however, because we started chatting to a stranger who turned out to be a member of the Big Bob Gibson family. Falling into conversation with strangers seems to happen a lot in Tennessee.
After a lengthy chat, he very kindly brought us a plate of spectacular barbecue. For those who don't know, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is legendary. They have won numerous trophies at the World Barbecue Championships, including an unprecedented four consecutive awards for best pork shoulder. As if that weren't enough, Alabama's characteristic white barbecue sauce was born in the Big Bob Gibson's kitchen. The ribs were wonderful, tender but meaty, and dressed with an appropriate amount of the family's award-winning sauce.
The barbecued pork loin was really special. This is not a cut of meat that is often barbecued -- the meat is already tender and lacks the fat and connective tissue that make a cut ideal for barbecue -- but, damn, was it great. Served alongside a salad of crumbled cornbread, tomatoes, kidney beans and green onions with ranch dressing, as well as a fat slice of chocolate cream pie for dessert, it's enough to make this man agree to a glutton's Faustian bargain. Did I mention I'm now supposed to cheer for the Tennessee Volunteers whenever I watch US college sports?
Man cannot live by barbecue alone, though I'd like to try, so we diversified our appetites with some fried chicken. A little research led us to Gus's Fried Chicken in downtown Memphis, considered by many to have the best fried chicken in the region. The chicken is fantastic -- not just spicy and crispy, but exceptionally moist, even the breasts. We were also blown away by two other dishes, the deep fried pickles and chess pie. Deep fried pickles might be the only Dixieland/Jewish deli fusion dish in the culinary pantheon, but they're so good Rachel's been craving them ever since. Chess pie is the most basic pie I've ever eaten, just a custard of eggs, sugar, butter, and some flour in a shell. For that very reason this dessert is all about the unmistakable and irresistable taste of caramelized sugar. Sweet.
We eased into the almost twenty hour drive home with a day of pure relaxation and one last barbecue feast. I wish I could say we feasted at one particular restaurant, but it would be more accurate to say the feast began with a couple of slabs of Cozy Corner ribs to warm up for the meal proper at Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue. Sorry, but those ribs are so good we just couldn't leave without enjoying them one more time.
Jim Neely's enjoys a stellar reputation. Jeffrey Steingarten describes the ribs and pork shoulder as the best commercial product he's tasted. One of the guests at our hotel, unaware that we were on our way there, was more than happy to share his opinion that Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue serves the finest 'cue on the planet. High praise indeed, but I'm not sure we agree. The pulled pork was the best we tasted, of that I have no doubt. The ribs, which are usually served sauced, were very good, but not the best. I even ordered the ribs without sauce to confirm my opinion (oh, the sacrifices I make for our readers!), and found the dry rib to be tender and moist, but very bland. Cozy Corner's rib reigns supreme in Memphis, no doubt about it.
Three days of gluttony and a second serving of ribs didn't leave much room for dessert, but after careful self-reflection I identified a walnut-sized corner of my stomach that remained empty. So I filled it with Sock-It-To-Me Cake, another southern treat made with sour cream, pecans, and a little cinnamon.
If you think we were painfully full at this point, you wouldn't be far off the mark. In a matter of days, we'd each consumed kilos of pork. Worse still, sweet potato pie, fried pickles, and buckets of slaw constituted our vegetable consumption. We slept in late the next morning, and then visited Graceland before making the drive home. After all that, how would we describe the trip?
Two words: just right.