The Food in Memphis Will Kill You in a Month. It’s Worth Every Bite.
It’s the only American city, besides New Orleans, that makes me hungry.
Editor's Note: This is the latest installment of our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
I’m crazy about this funny old Dan Penn song called “Memphis Women and Chicken” in which the singer dreams of visiting women in Memphis, but mostly he’s thinking about what they cook: biscuits and ribs and apple turnover “beyond compare.”
I know there’s a sexual angle to the song, the usual mashup of lovin’ and eatin’, but trust me, it’s mostly about the eatin’. And I feel for the guy, truly I do.
This song popped into my head recently after I spent a couple of days in Memphis, right behind the thought, inspired by the third big meal of the day, that if I lived in Memphis, I’d be dead in a month.
It’s the only American city, besides New Orleans, that makes me hungry. Which is, I guess, about as good a way to judge the cities we visit as any other.
And, mind you, food is just one measure. You could like a city for its baseball stadium, you could like another for its nightclubs, its railroad station. If I didn’t like New York for any other reason (and there are days I don’t), I’d like it because I know where they keep the Vermeers.
In the case of Memphis, I like it for food, music, and the quality of the light.
I’ve spent hours wandering around this city that lights up like a candy store, and I’ve never caught it on a bad day. So, given how many of us have enlisted in the army of smartphone photographers snapping everything in sight, I think it makes sense to recommend a city according to the way it looks photographed. Maybe you favor Rome or Portland. I like Memphis.
Memphis music past and present needs no defense from me or anyone else. Jug bands, blues players, country singers, soul bands—any city that produce Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Memphis Minnie, Elvis Presley, and Al Green bows to no place else. Except, again, New Orleans.
To be clear, these two cities complement each other more than they compete. New Orleans soul is rhythmically and lyrically more sophisticated. Memphis takes rawness to the level of art (Elvis, Otis Redding). The same with food. New Orleans has it all over everybody when it comes to range: It can do the basics and it can do haute, and it can do it all better than anyone. Memphis, on the other hand, simply makes the best food in America that you can eat without a knife and fork.
Having discovered the gold mine that is musical tourism, the city brilliantly showcases its past. You could spend a week in the city doing nothing but touring Memphis museums and attractions inspired by music. There’s Graceland, Sun Records Studio, the Stax Museum (been twice, would go again), the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum. There are also driving tours, statues erected of musicians, streets named after musicians, and restaurant menus offering food fit for the King (honestly, I hope Memphis is the only city in the world where you can order a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in public).
Memphis is luckier than most places: It had two extraordinary musical moments in back to back decades. In the '50s, Sun Studios hosted the birth of rock and roll. Ten years later Stax and Hi Records retooled rhythm and blues and called it soul.
Then fashion changed. It was Memphis’ turn, and then it wasn’t. Other places became the hot musical cities. San Francisco, Seattle, Austin. But while Memphis may never again find itself at the red hot center of everything, it won’t be for lack of trying. There are plenty of homegrown artists who, given the right breaks, could become national stars—for starters, check out Marcella and Her Lovers (she’s the daughter of zydeco great Terrance Simien, but she needs no pedigree to knock you flat), Talibah Safiya, or Lahna Deering. The one thing they have in common is tons of talent.
But perhaps even more important than its vibrant club scene, Memphis is determined to not only honor its deep musical tradition but to also give that tradition a footing in the future. The Stax Music Academy, connected with the Stax Museum, is a world-renowned high school conservatory that has graduated more than 4,000 students since it was founded in 2000, and has a 100 percent placement rate for college acceptance. For those a little further along, the Consortium MMT (Memphis Music Town), the brainchild of renowned songwriter David Porter (“Soul Man,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”), educates, advises, and supports fledgling musicians across the city.
All of this ensures that never again will the city allow the sort of cultural indifference that reduced legendary blues musician Furry Lewis to work as a street sweeper for the city in the '60s (while just down the road in North Mississippi, the equally legendary Fred McDowell was pumping gas at a Stuckeys).
Where to eat:
For breakfast: Arcade Restaurant, The Liquor Store
For lunch (or, as we say in the South, dinner): The Four Way (a stone’s throw from the Stax Museum in the Soulsville neighborhood, The Four Way serves what is now commonly called soul food, but when I was growing up, it was just what everyone ate in the South. I guarantee The Four Way does it better than your mama.)
For ribs: Rendezvous (let’s not fight about this. I’m sure you have your favorite rib joint that’s better than mine, and maybe you do, but the simple fact is that it’s hard to get bad barbecue in Memphis, where you’re good or you’re gone. Otherwise it’s just a matter of personal taste. Moreover, the Rendezvous is located in the heart of the city, and when it’s open, you can smell it all over downtown—if heaven doesn’t smell like this, I don’t want any part of it).
I’m Not Dead, I’m Just Gone by Jim Dickinson (grew up in Memphis and spent most of his life in the city or close by; played piano on “Wild Horses;” produced records for damn near everyone; wrote this warm and illuminating book about the life of a professional musician, Memphis variety)
Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth (a 100 proof collection of pieces about everyone from Furry Lewis to Elvis to Otis Redding—Booth was in the studio the day they cut “Dock of the Bay” )
The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston (America’s greatest color photographer has lived nearly his entire life in Memphis, and the city through his eyes is magical, tragical, surreal, and altogether wonderful).