History of Memphis Barbecue

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The city itself

The city of Memphis as we know it was founded in 1819. Like the biblical namesake on the Nile, Memphis TN is located on a bluff just above the banks of the Mississippi. The location had been populated regularly by various Native American tribes over millennia. As a port city two of the goods moving through Memphis, in addition to cotton of course, were hardwoods and molasses. And that is an excellent starting point for barbecue!

nile river vs mississippi river comparison

Early on in the civil war, the Union took over the city and held it throughout the conflict. As a result it was a bastion of escaped slaves with the population booming. The influence of the black community and their music also brought another Memphis export, the King, Elvis Presley, along with B.B. King, Muddy Waters and a number of musicians who came to Memphis to record.

Why barbecue?

As long as we’re waxing historical, when Columbus arrived in the islands, the natives were cooking meat, mostly Manatee, on wooden racks called ‘barbacoa’ by the Haitians. From there we got the term barbecue. Of course the French heard the term from a different indigenous group, it was ‘boucan’, and a ‘boucanier’ meant a pirate, and a curer of meats through the use of a ‘boucan’.

boucan grill for cooking meat

If ‘boucan’ sounds familiar, you probably know the modern word ‘buccaneer’. To tie all this together, in his book “Kitchen Confidential” Anthony Bourdain talks about the allure of working in a steamy kitchen with cursing earring wearing miscreants and their pirate attitude toward life – it was barbaric place where anything goes.

kitchen quotes by Anthony Bourdain

The practice of cooking meats over open fires was very common in colonial America, and is credited with beginning our storied food history called barbecue. Back then the settlers basted meats with butter or vinegar to keep them moist during the cooking process. As slaves were brought into the kitchens from the Caribbean islands they brought with them the exotic spices that started us down the road to modern barbecue flavors, recipes and techniques.

Caribbean islands slaves contribution to the flavors of BBQ

The right critter

General consensus is that there are four dominant regions in the world of barbecue. In no particular order they are; Texas, Kansas City, Carolina and Memphis.  As a geographic cross roads, KC used all kinds of meat. Texas is known for its beef. The Carolinas are famous for whole hogs and some good ribs. Memphis is very rib centric in its meat of choice with pulled pork a close second. These are broad categorizations, and cross over abounds. Not to mention there are countless sub-regional variations as well.

dominant regions in the world of barbecue

So much food, so little time.

We are going to focus our exploration of Memphis barbecue on those two items, ribs and pulled pork. We’ll also break down the basics of dry rubs and saucing as it applies to the Memphis barbecue scene.

An origin story of sorts

You’d think Tennessee would take a well-deserved break after bringing us Jack Daniels, the first licensed distillery in the US.  But they still had pigs as a cheap meat source, with hardwood and molasses flowing through the region on the mighty Mississippi, creating a perfect storm to evolve the distinctive flavors of Memphis barbecue. By the turn of the century barbecue as we know it was an actual thing in Memphis. In the early 1900s a gentleman named Henry Perry actually left Memphis to Kansas City where he opened a barbecue joint using everything he gleaned from Memphis. With access to different ingredients he created some of the signature traits associated with KC barbecue.

. First BBQ restaurant opened in 1910 by Henry Perry in Kansas City

It was really post World War II when barbecue’s commercial viability exploded, with little joints popping up all over. Because the ingredients ran to the less expensive end of the spectrum, a great deal of this growth was in the lower income areas. Like any great movement this resulted in even better techniques and some codification of the style.

You might laugh if you saw this plot in a movie. Charlie Vergos opened his ‘Rendezvous’ diner in 1948. He discovered a coal chute in the basement that he turned into a pit for barbecuing, staying very close to the literal definition of the word by cooking underground. The business migrated to being exclusively a barbecue joint, in particular when he moved the entrance around to the alleyway, creating that hole-in-the-wall ambience. As a landmark in the industry, you can still experience ‘Rendezvous’ barbecue to this day. Just one amongst many shops, this was the kind of building block that went into Memphis becoming such a key region in the barbecue world.

experience ‘Rendezvous’ barbecue

Moving toward modern

The WWII influence brought home local sailors who kept asking for that newfangled pizza exploding in other markets. The founder of Coletta’s Italian Restaurant, already in business since 1923, sent his son to Chicago to learn this new cuisine. Being from Memphis though, it had to be done their way. These cool cats brought us the BBQ Pizza, back in the day mounding pulled pork and savory sauce on a crisp crust like a pork hand sandwich. This has tormented pizza purists for decades, recurring with its decidedly southern taste popping up on menus in pizzerias across the country ever since, and was even said to be a favorite of Elvis the King himself.

By the late 1950’s there was a lot going on in Memphis. Sun Records had been rolling for a while, going beyond recording just Elvis, with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison crooning in their studios. In 1957 Elvis bought Graceland, and you can just imagine cruising the streets in an iconic candy red ’57 Corvette, top down listening to Elvis on the radio singing ‘All Shook Up’ and enjoying the visceral smells of smoking meat all around you.

Elvis Presley

Bring it forward a couple decades

Memphis in May celebration

The confluence of music and barbecue began in 1977 with the ‘Memphis in May’ celebration. During the month long event activities happen all over town, including the Beale Street Music Festival. With an unbelievable collection of talent performing from locally born Aretha Franklin skyward to stars from Willie to Weezer, this is a festival to be reckoned with, and it was about to get better.

In 1978 the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC) began with 26 teams and a grand prize of $500. That’s the time to be cruising in your Rockford Files gold ’78 Camaro with the T tops out, listening to your favorite cassette of Elvis live from Hawaii as you get parked and ready to enjoy some championship barbecue. Now the prizes top out over $15,000 and nearly twenty tons of meat are being prepared over 4 days. No wonder they won a ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ record for largest barbecue.

Jim Neely Interstate number one BBQ in Memphis

A year later in 1979 Jim Neely’s Interstate BBQ Restaurant began its path to renown. He built his own pits, using natural gas to keep the fire burning the hickory, creating the steamy vapors and controlled temperature to cook meat for five hours until tender. It took him another couple years to perfect his sauce recipe. It worked though, because in 1989 People magazine named his the number two barbecue in the country and Vogue placed him as number one in Memphis.

The Mechanics

Competing in the WCBCC you are only allowed to use actual wood or charcoal in the preparation process. Fortunately we can use a multitude of techniques at home to get great results. The most prevalent wood moving on the Mississippi back in the day was Hickory, and as a result this became the basis for barbecuing. Hickory is a natural for cooking pork because it imparts a distinctively strong and sweet flavor. It is still the wood of choice for smoking bacon and ham, and it does the same great work for ribs and shoulder cuts.

Most commercial ‘pits’ are actually more like a locker than a pit in the ground, which is the origin of the term. Home versions can be made with everything from a filing cabinet to a garbage can to the ubiquitous 55 gallon drum. The goal is a controllable heat source and racks or hooks to hold the meat in the smoke filled chamber. That’s what distinguishes barbecue from grilling on an open flame. We may casually refer to throwing a steak on the barbecue, but for true aficionado barbecuing means slow cooking with smoke and heat.

It’s all about the rub

The star of Memphis style barbecue is unquestionably the rub. Oddly, Columbus played a role in this as well. We know he wrongly thought he was on the sub-continent, half the world away as he named the locals ‘Indians’. He didn’t do any better with the food he saw the locals eating and using in their cooking. He labelled them as peppers. Blame him for the confusion between pepper the seed we grind as a spice and the whole line of fruit that we also refer to as peppers. That being said, Columbus took them back to Europe and within 50 years “peppers” had circumnavigated the globe better than he did. To this day one quarter of the world’s population eats some pepper variation every single day.

Paprika, which is ground dried mild peppers, fights for first place on most rub recipes. The competition is sugar. Since it is hard to argue that any meat is more receptive to being sweetened up than pork, it makes sense that sugar vies for the top spot.  Although you’ll still find more pepper components on your ingredient list. Mild chili powder and cayenne appear, as does ground black pepper and even ground white pepper. Two other items in most every rub are garlic powder and onion powder.

From there the floodgates open on herbs and spices used in rubbing pork for the barbecue. Dry mustard and powdered ginger add an exotic spiciness. Cumin, thyme and ground celery seeds bring mellower distinctive flavor components to fill out the taste. Dry oregano, ground rosemary or ground juniper will add aromatic aspects to your rub. For more on this iconic style of rub and recipes, jump over to our rub page.

To sauce or not to sauce

With rubs that carry so many flavors, it is very common to have Memphis style ribs served dry, sauce on the side, so that you can choose how to combine the tastes. Pulled pork will often have the slightly thick sweet and tangy Memphis style sauce mixed with the meat, or napped on top, when served. There’s also a style of sauce called a ‘mop’ sauce that is used in the cooking process called ‘swabbing’. These sauces are typically thinner and vinegar based. The acids in the vinegar will help to tenderize the meat in conjunction with the slow cooking process. A full circle from the early settlers mopping their meats with vinegar and butter, reminding us that it can be hard to find a new idea, but the old ones can be pretty danged effective. You can also get more details on making a Memphis style sauce here.

In 2002 Central BBQ opened, and they fall squarely on the no sauce in the pit side of preparation. Between the rub and the smoke, you get all the flavor you need. These clever people are also credited with perfecting the art of another hybrid meal, BBQ Nachos. Using fresh cooked potato chips, meat, cheese, cheese sauce, jalapenos and then sprinkling their own rub blend over the top for an over the top flavor experience.

BBQ Nachos at Central BBQ in Memphis

Grab some to go, driving off in a 2002 GT Mustang with the top down and a Best of Elvis CD rocking your world, and you’re living the Memphis experience.

Service with the sauce

It’s time to plate up the meal as the pros say. That means you have to have a sauce. Especially if you’re putting that pulled pork on a roll, or between a couple slices of white bread with sweet relish and onions. You have got to have your barbecue sauce.

It’s very common to let someone else do the hard work and build your own sauce from a catsup base, some good recipes don’t even require cooking again. The usual suspects, familiar from the rubs, will be popping up. Brown sugar, mustard, some form of pepper, onion and garlic are all players. Playing with liquid lets you bring in molasses, Worcestershire, prepared mustard, and of course vinegar. The most popular vinegar of choice is apple cider vinegar, again a natural flavor to meld with pork. The goal is that balance between the sweet spot and a vinegary tang.

Time to choose sides

Classic side dishes with bbq

The beauty of having lots of smoked pork bits around is that they make incredible base components for baked beans. Signature flavors carry over through the cooking process to make a perfect complimentary side dish to barbecue. Mac and cheese offers a contrasting richness to visit back and forth while enjoying the meaty flavors. It works so well that it serves up as an entrée with the pulled or diced pork is mixed right in.

Classic side dishes never go out of style. Coleslaw is still a top contender, offering cool flavors and crisp texture as contrast. Slaw is so popular that it is commonly put right on top of your pulled pork sandwich like lettuce on a burger.  And cornbread. Enough said. Collard greens, potato salad, corn, French fries, onion rings, and the list goes on. Follow it up with banana pudding or sweet potato pie and anybody’s appetite had better be satiated.

The new millennium

smoky food in Downtown Memphis, TN

So, here we are cruising into the century and the roaring 2020s. Admittedly with a rocky start to the decade. How awesome though, because we can still enjoy a tendril of smoky food that has been four or five hundred years in the making. Cargo still rolls up the river, and the same barbecue joints continue putting out their feast worthy food. Their pirate cooks eschew the fine linen and put out the messy products that are worth every smear of the eating and the stack of used paper napkins to show for your efforts. Now you can be cruising the Memphis waterfront in the latest iteration of the Corvette, the Camaro or the Mustang with Elvis, streaming through your phone singing Memphis Tennessee, a song about trying to get a hold of his gal on the telephone.

old school cars and Cooking Contest in memphis

The circles continue as the Beale Street Music Festival keeps bringing the soundtrack to accompany the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest year after year. The tapestry of life on the Mississippi continues bringing the confluence of cultures and history that both define and enhance our experience. Our need to feed is always there, and the Memphis style is there for every sense.

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