“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
― Kurt Vonnegut
Ah, Memphis. So many things could be said about it, and many of them have been already. In a busy weekend, or maybe a week, you can see all the sights, sample the BBQ, sweet tea and local craft beers, and take in some music. But to truly appreciate the city—her people, her past, and diverse cultures—that takes more time than I have on this trip. So we’ll go with what I can do.
2:30 p.m. My lodging for the night is a vintage room with ensuite bath, in a charming Evergreen District home. If you read my post on Cincinnati, you’re probably expecting me to mention Airbnb. And you’re right. My hostess is a lovely lady named Taryn, who also runs a small bakery, and has been featured in Edible Memphis for her incredible biscuit breakfasts, and hospitality. Oh, yes. Coffee and breakfast are part of the deal, which, for this particular room, on this particular night, is $54.
Thanks to the fact that I’m arriving about an hour and a half prior to check-in time, Taryn’s not quite ready for me. But she lets me in, with a warning not to try to pet the cat—a ball of territorial fur and claws who hisses and stares evilly when I walk in the door—invites me to drop a bag off, and asks what I’m looking to do in Memphis. I tell her I’m excited about the food. This is the right thing to mention to someone with a food stylist and catering business. Taryn writes me a list of places to check out, quite apart from Beale Street. Like any good local (or in this case, transplant), she seems to be of the opinion that Beale Street is for tourists, and the real life of the city is to be found elsewhere.
Give me some BBQ
Turns out, my hostess is onto something. Go figure. Sadly, I’m only in town long enough for three meals, so I won’t get to take advantage of all her other suggestions. I know; I’m slackin’.
So I leave the neighborhood I’m in, with its broad, tree-lined streets and close proximity to Overton park and its colorful bicycle arch, and meander on down to the Bar-B-Que Shop. Yes, that’s really what it’s called. In a city famous for its BBQ, this restaurant claims to be the best. It’s definitely good, no question about that.
3:15 p.m. Curious about the local brews, I plunk myself down at the bar and start eyeing the taps. There aren’t that many of them, so it doesn’t take long to settle on a pint of Tiny Bomb, a 4.5% ABV American Pilsner from Memphis craft brewery, Wiseacre. I prefer Czech to American style pils, when I can get it. Which is rarely. But Tiny Bomb is refreshing and dry, with a hint of something that I don’t expect in a pilsner. Further research reveals that they make it with local honey. This lager doesn’t taste much like honey, but I’ll bet the extra fermentable helps to dry it out.
Tiny Bomb certainly proves a fine accompaniment to the BBQ pork sandwich (on Texas toast) fries, and slaw that I order for lunch. Before tax or tip, the sandwich plate is $9.29. The pint might be as low as $3.50. With tip, I get out of there for around $15 (I think). Thus far, Taryn is 1 and 0 on her recommendations.
4:00 p.m. Stomach way too full of succulent BBQ pork (not pulled, chopped), drenched in both sweet and spicy Dancing Pigs sauce, and refreshing pilsner, I take myself off to Beale Street. For tourists? Yes. Also, a not-to-be-missed experience if you’re in Memphis.
My route takes me past Sun Studio, and some more questionable areas of town; run-down and neglected. But there’s only a bit of that, and pretty soon I’m downtown, struggling to navigate the one-way streets and find a reasonable parking garage. Finally accomplishing that just up the block from Beale Street, I begin my pedestrian adventure.
4:30 p.m. Bounded on one end by the B.B. King Blues Club and a church on the other, about four blocks of the street are prohibited to car traffic, and open for free-range drinking. From The Pig (which we’ll get to later) to Wet Willy’s, and a bunch of other places in between, everyone is advertising alcohol. I’m a little slow on the uptake, but when I see tourist dad-type chillin’ outside of a shop with a big plastic mug of beer, it dawns on me that people are drinking on the street. Awesomeness! It’s like a permanent pub crawl, which I find super cool and crazy; the only other time I’ve experienced something like it was in Savannah, for Saint Patrick’s Day.
Dusk is still several hours off, but the area is already seeing a reasonable amount of business. Besides BBQ joints and bars, Beale Street is home to a number of shops selling…everything. Soaps, scarves, purses, toys, hats, and all the Elvis, B.B. King, Gibson, and general Memphis kitsch you can think of (and a great deal that you probably can’t), some of it crafted by local artisans. Contrary to the evidence presented by my constant picture taking, I am not on a tourist budget, and purchase none of it. I’
m saving my dollars for BBQ, baby.
Tighten your Bible belt
6:00 p.m. Leaving Beale Street for a bit, I wander down South Main Street. It’s about the end of the work day, and the classily dressed folk sitting on the patios of stylish-looking restaurants offer a marked contrast from the somewhat-less-tasteful fashions on display down the way. I pass a cigar lounge, and regret my own sweat-soaked tee-shirt and shorts. At least I’ve got a cool hat. The Civil Rights Museum is down this way, but I’ve just missed closing time. Too bad. The struggle for equality is at least as much a part of Memphis as BBQ and the blues. And we’d have neither the art of slow-smoking and sauce-slathering tough-to-eat portions of meat, nor the incredible music, without the tumultuous circumstances that birthed them.
6:30 p.m. The Orpheum Theater is down here, too. I watch the trolley pass it, admiring the glimpse into an earlier era. By now, hydration is becoming a concern, so I duck into a coffee shop and enjoy the air conditioning while I wait for my artisanal tea–iced. Thus refreshed, I traipse back up to Beale Street.
Just a tad footsore, I sit down on a bench in Handy Park, and listen to the live music spilling from a neighboring bar. You can’t escape music ‘round here. And who would want to? It’s the soul of the city.
Up and down the street, neon lights are on, and business is picking up as dusk approaches. At The Pig, there’s a wait for seating, but I’m in luck, because the bar is nearly deserted. So long, folks. You can wait twenty minutes to get your party of five seated; I’m going to plunk down at the end of the bar. Yeah, that’s kind of a habit.
7:30 p.m. The upside to having a party of umpteen, as I soon discover, is that you can order a huge feast, with several smoked meats (ribs are requisite) and sides for your hungry horde. For just me, a BBQ plate of 4 ribs is on the menu at $12.95, and sides are a la carte. So I order some ribs, and a glass of genuine Luzianne sweet tea. Oh, yeah. That’s what I’m talking about.
Seated alone at the end of the bar, I’m easily overlooked, and service for me is a bit slow. I’m not worried, but the waitress is apologetic, and when she refills my sweet tea, she replaces it with a giant plastic cup; the same kind everyone’s been carrying around full of beer. I’m little-kid excited when I learn that I can take that giant glass of sweet tea out and wander around with it.
Oh, you want to hear about the ribs? They’re delightful. Tender, juicy, easily ripped off the bone with my carnivorous little teeth, and slathered in sauce that I can only describe as deliciousness. No sides for me. I’ll just eat this carne and its accompanying Texas toast, and be happy as clams are purported to be.
8:30 p.m. The sun’s finally going down, and the real crowds are coming out to play. Also, more police are visible at both ends of the pedestrian zone. I wander around a bit more, stopping to glance in the open door of Coyote Ugly. Sure ‘nuff, there’s a girl doing a dance atop the bar. It’s still early, and she doesn’t have many admirers yet.
Farther up the street, a man offers me a small rose. After I take it, he asks if I can spare anything for the homeless. I’ve been operating on cash all day, so I fish a decent handful of change out of my pocket.
Something’s happening; a group of bare-chested boys and men draw a crowd in the middle of the street. Several of them kneel on hands and knees, while a compatriot turns a serious of flips, culminating in a giant backflip over the kneeling group. This, I have never seen before. Later, I’ll learn that these guys, the Beale Street Flippers, are quite famous. They’ve been on America’s Got Talent, and everything.
Calling it a night
9:30 p.m. I’ve been wandering around downtown Memphis for about five hours, and I’m beat. There’s a free concert at Overton Park, but all I want at this point is a shower, and a soft bed. Thankfully, Taryn’s got that covered. She asks about my explorations, and I (somewhat sheepishly) admit that I mostly hung out around Beale Street. Though I hasten to add that I loved Bar-B-Que Shop, and wandered down South Main a bit, too.
Taryn’s left me some snacks—a couple pieces of fruit, one of her giant chocolate chip cookies, and a little snack bar of some kind—but my stomach’s too full to admit more than water. A carafe of which sits on a low table in my room.
On the road again
8:00 a.m. From the sound of it, we’re the first people up, so Taryn and I chat while she brews a pot of coffee and prepares my breakfast. Yes, just mine. Each of her biscuit breakfast creations is prepared fresh, right before her guests are ready to eat. I’d been expecting Cracker Barrel-esque biscuits and jam, but no. What I got was a plate with two large, almost scone-like biscuits, one covered in savory, cheesy goodness, the other bearing a generous dollop of fresh-made caramel sauce, dusted with powdered sugar. Accompanying this amazing-ness was a giant mug of coffee, with optional cream, turbinado sugar, and Toblerone chunks. Yes, please!
8:45 a.m. Not only is breakfast wonderful, Taryn and her other two guests—a couple on their way to visit their musician son in Nashville—provide pleasant morning conversation. I’d like to stay longer, but it’s time to head out. I’ve had a mahvellous time in Memphis, and found that I can explore it decently well without spending a fortune. One the list for next time: Absinthe Room and Civil Rights Museum.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Quotes About Blues.” Goodreads. Accessed July 12, 2016. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/blues.
Creamer, Colleen. “36 Hours in Memphis.” Weekend Guide, January 14, 2015. Accessed July 12, 2016.