Memphis, Tennessee isn’t just barbecue and fried chicken anymore. Today, it honors its traditional food culture while embracing multiethnic cooking, vegetarianism, locally sourced foods and white tablecloth dining.
There are still plenty of local pitmasters offering visitors their take on barbecue, including barbecue pizza, the local dish known as barbecued spaghetti, and barbecued Cornish game hens from Cozy Corner Restaurant.
But diners can also find tamales, charcuterie, soul food, fine dining with French and Spanish roots, and an array of sweets, including Phillip Ashley Rix’s designer chocolates featuring wild flavor profiles such as bacon caramel shortbread and barbecue sauce; downhome desserts from BJ Tamayo of Alcenia’s; and cookies and cupcakes from Kat Gordon of Muddy’s Bake Shop.
Even St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s culinary operations, headed by chef Miles McMath, is known for its innovative food sourced within 250 miles of the hospital. McMath said St. Jude’s food staff works to pack maximum nutrition into foods kids will tend to like, such as brownies.
During their conference in Memphis in September, members of the Association of Food Journalists got to taste all of that and more at the “Smokin’ Taste of Memphis” at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Getting plenty of attention were two pickle dishes — pickle sandwiches from Felicia Willett of Felicana Suzanne’s Restaurant and the St. Jude peppermint pickles. The peppermint pickles, from McMath and Ernest Dickson, featured a giant peppermint stick stuck in a big sour pickle. Dickson said the idea was to suck the pickle juice through the candy.
Later, in a session called “One Table, Many Voices: Understanding Memphis’ Food Culture” AFJ members learned that food has always been intertwined in Memphis’ history, from its barbecue joints to the fried chicken box lunches served to civil rights marchers in the 1960s.
Commercial Appeal food writer and dining critic Jennifer Biggs led a discussion on the city’s foodways and introduced Nick Vergos, of Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, Desiree Robinson of Cozy Corner, Memphis native Karen Carrier who began her culinary career in New York City and now owns several restaurants in Memphis, and chef Erling Jensen, a native of Denmark, who has lived in Memphis since 1989.
Nick Vergos said his father, who came from a Greek family, opened the Rendezvous in 1948, mainly serving beer and sandwiches made with smoked ham. Charlie Vergos later began cooking ribs. “He used a seasoning mix from my grandfather and added paprika for its red color,” Nick Vergos said. “He went from serving a box to a ton a day.”
Biggs said Memphis “never had a real boom in construction so there’s no large Hispanic population, but we do have a lot of Mexican restaurants. We have a lot of different ethnic restaurants.”
After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968, the downtown area around Beale and Monroe streets was no longer vibrant, but by the 1980s, the downtown area began to see a resurgence, she said.
Local people didn’t eat pizza, but personnel from a Naval air station wanted pizza. “The only people who would eat it were from New York and other places. We made it local by adding barbecue.”
Memphis residents also like barbecue nachos. “They just put barbecue sauce on anything,” including egg rolls, Biggs said.
Erling said that when he arrived in Memphis 25 years ago, there was only one white tablecloth restaurant. “In the last 10 years, the dining scene has just exploded,” he said.
Bourbon is the drink of choice in Memphis, with brew pubs gaining ground, they said.
“Restaurants survive by paying attention to details and with great staffs,” Erling said. “They can’t get comfortable.”
The food writers’ conference was held at The Peabody Memphis, famous for its ducks, which march-waddle from their rooftop residence to the hotel’s lobby each morning to spend the day swimming in the lobby fountain. Don’t ask for duck for dinner. Duck is not on the menu in any way — except for cookie-shaped cookies and butter.
Some of the city’s prominent chefs have Louisiana connections. Chef Kelly English incorporates the flavors of his childhood in south Louisiana in his premier restaurant, Restaurant Iris, and the more casual The Second Line. And Feliciana Suzanne Willett, chef-owner of Feliciana Suzanne’s Restaurant in downtown Memphis and creator of the Flo’s Homemade Goodness product line, worked in New Orleans for eight years as Emeril Lagasse’s assistant.
Daisy Miller, who has been cooking soul food for 55 years at the Orange Mound Grill, provided sweet potato pie and offered a different view of the Memphis dining scene in a program on Memphis dining before and after 1964. She said she came to Memphis in 1959 to work for her aunt and uncle, who had built the restaurant in 1941 in Orange Mound — the first neighborhood in the United States to be built by African-Americans for African-Americans. In 1974 she bought the place for $22,500.
The secret to her restaurant’s success? “I do a lot of work myself, I get up early, and keep my prices low,” she said. “When I started working, dinner sold for 52 cents. Now it’s $9.”
The food journalists not from the South were taken aback when Miller listed macaroni and cheese among the options available on a vegetarian plate.
“I don’t focus on (her food’s) looks” she said. “I put my heart and soul into cooking it.”