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May 24, 2006

Just right: Memphis and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Part I

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Looking back at the photos I took during our road trip to Memphis for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, I can't help but notice how many of them are out of focus.  After discussing it with Rachel, I've come to believe that the only logical reason for these blurry images is the condition known as meat blindness.  Meat blindness, for the unitiated, is the temporary impairment of vision associated with the over-consumption of barbecue and other traditional foods of the southern United States.

Mercifully, those afflicted don't suffer -- meat blindness is a condition usually accompanied by a host of other, more enjoyable side effects like rib euphoria, pulled pork tingle, and sweet tea dementia.

Now that my symptoms have eased, I feel a duty to share what we've learned.

It began with lunch.

After almost twenty hours on the road, we -- Rachel, me, and our friends Ryan, Dave, Dan, and George -- arrived in Memphis tired and hungry.  Mainly hungry.  The clerk at our hotel told us that Corky's was just down the street.  We hopped in the van and rushed over.  Lunch was a flurry of ribs, pulled pork, slaw, and beans.  For rank amateurs like we were, this was no more than dipping a toe into a vast ocean, but it was a good start.  Corky's is the largest of Memphis' barbecue restaurants, and among its most famous, serving high quality versions of Memphis staples.

What are the fundamentals of Memphis-style barbecue?  Above all else, Memphis barbecue orbits around the pig.  Go further west, to Texas and Kansas City, and you'll find more than your fair share of beef, but in Memphis pork is the alpha and omega.  The two most prominent cuts are the rib and shoulder (aka butt).  In Memphis, ribs are typically served without sauce, that is "dry," while shoulder is usually served with a generous amount of it.

Sauce is an issue in and of itself, and styles vary widely from city to city, and region to region.  In the Carolinas, the sauce is usually vinegar-based, in Kansas City, tomato is the standard.  Memphis' sauce strikes a balance between the two insofar as it is normally made with healthy amounts of both tomato and vinegar.  The panoply of sauces doesn't end there, however.  In Georgia, sauces are normally mustard based, for example.  Alabama may have the most unique sauce of all: a mayonnaise-based white sauce.  To learn more about meat and sauce preferences, I urge you to click here.

Whether you prefer your barbecue from Memphis, Kansas City, or the Carolinas, there is only one way to cook it: "low and slow" over wood smoke for many hours.  No surprise here, the type of wood to use is also a contentious issue.  In Memphis, at least, hickory is almost always the wood of choice.  I suppose I should take the time now to emphasize the difference between grilling and barbecue, because most people confound the two.  Grilling is what backyard warriors do when they crank up the barbecue (for clarity's sake, let's call it an outdoor grill) and slap a large piece of meat on it, like a steak or a burger.  That's decidedly not barbecue; in fact, it's the exact opposite of barbecue, because grilling is a quick cooking method over exceptionally high heat.

A typical pork shoulder, by contrast, is cooked in a smoke-filled chamber no hotter than 93-121C (200-250F) for as long as an entire day.  Ribs usually take about six hours under similar conditions.  The result is meat that is fall apart tender, with an unmistakable smokey taste and, when done properly, a small pink or red band around the outer edge of the meat known as a "smoke ring."

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Of course, it's one thing to know all this, it's quite another to finally apply that knowledge in four days of almost non-stop gluttony. Corky's, you see, was just the beginning.  For dinner that night we followed several recommendations and went to Charles Vergo's Rendezvous. Rendezvous had its highs and lows: the restaurant itself is a vast, subterranean labyrinth tucked into a back alley.  Despite having the best beans we tried in Memphis and a reputation for some of the best ribs in town, Rendezvous was a letdown.  The ribs were dry and tough, a far cry from the lofty standard one expects in a city with Memphis' reputation.  We all enjoyed Rendezvous' sausage and cheese plate, a dish we had to order after asking our server about it, largely because we were given no other option.  "What kind of cheese is it?" we asked. "Cooked," came the reply.  "Don't worry, I'll bring you two."  The cheese is cheddar sprinkled with barbecue dry rub, and it's not cooked, though it is good.

Disappointment is an emotion with a short shelf life in Memphis, because the next meal is never far away.  For lunch the next day we visited Cozy Corner, yet another of Memphis' barbecue landmarks.  Cozy Corner is on a run down strip just outside downtown Memphis.  The place is stiflingly hot and the walls are covered in dingy wood paneling, but the food is the best we ate on our trip.  My mouth waters at the thought of one of the house specialties, barbecued Cornish hen, the thigh meat of which is perhaps the most juicy, tender, and flavourful piece of fowl I've ever had the pleasure to devour.  The homemade sweet potato pie and sweetened iced tea (known as "sweat tea" down here, thank you) are also fantastic, and the barbecued bologna sandwich is not to be missed.

Famished, we ate the sweet potato pie as an appetizer while waiting for the kitchen to plate our lunch.  This led to the sort of decision that causes meat blindness: ribs for dessert.  I know what you're thinking, but despite appearances, we were restrained.  As proof, I offer as evidence the fact that we limited ourselves to just one slab between the six of us.  I am at a loss for words to describe Cozy Corner's ribs, but I'll try my best because they are, without doubt, the finest ribs I've ever tasted.  Served dry, they are still incredibly moist and tender.  The dominant flavour is pork -- as it should be, in my opinion -- but there are unmistakable salty, smokey, and spicy notes as well.  Sure, you could squirt a little barbecue sauce on this rib, but why?  It's already incomparable.

Vision blurred and stomachs filled, we made the short trip to the banks of the Mississippi, home to the barbecue contest that had drawn us to Memphis in the first place.

In part two, I'll discuss our impressions of the barbecue championship as well as further Memphis dining experiences.

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Comments

Joel Silverman

Georgia sauce is not mustard-based, except for cities like Augusta that border South Carolina where mustard sauces are prevalent. Classic Georgia sauce is more like that of Alabama, with thick, sweet ketchup-based sauces most common by far.

Vanessa

meat blindness for me would be the dizzying effect of focusing in on delicious sizzling meat that I would be propelled forward by the sheer lust my tastebuds would have.

and ribs for dessert, eh? oh how well i am acquainted with this situation. unfortunately not specifically bbq, i had just finished a meal with my sister that included an already consumed dessert... but we couldn't stop eyeing this cut of beef sitting at the counter of an open kitchen. a quick look at each other and an entrecote of beef was ordered up, cooked and eaten in 15 minutes. i still haven't determined if this is truly a shining point in my life ;)

tejal

Oh wow, I'm actually a wee bit jealous, that sounds like such a fantastic trip! I've never heard of a bbq bologna sandwich before, (and I'm not sure if I find it interesting or gross) is this a pretty common thing?

J

hi rob, thanks for the low-down on memphis barbeque - it's something i've read and heard so much about but sadly have yet to try. this is a print-and-keeper for me...am now looking forward to part 2!

Drew

Nice rundown on the Memphis Q-scene. I am a life-long Memphis native, and it is nice to hear what other people think about our pig shacks. Sorry you had a bad experience at the 'Vous. It can really be hit or miss, sometimes perfect dry rub goodness, other times not so good. It is different from other Memphis places as it is not real barbecue, "low and slow" ribs. I believe the 'Vous ribs are grilled directly over hot charcoal for about 30 or 45 minutes. If you notice on the sign, it doesn't say they have barbecue ribs, they call 'em charcoal ribs. Nevertheless, they can be heavenly...sometimes. Next time you are in Memphis, check out Central Barbecue or The Barbecue Shop, both in Midtown about 5 minutes from one another. Great dry ribs at Central, and for a new take on Q, try the barbecue spaghetti at Barbecue Shop. Happy trails! Drew

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