Irish Food History and St. Patrick’s Day

Happy March!  In our half-Irish household, St. Patrick’s Day is kind of a big deal, so I was interested to read Tom McLaughlin’s article “A Taste of Irish History.”  We all know about the Irish food staples of potatoes, cabbage, corned beef and soda bread, but there are historical, political and economic forces at work behind these historic food choices.  In the case of traditional Irish cuisine, the staple food items have one thing in common:  they are cheap, and have historically been known as the food of the poor.  This extends to preparation methods, which tend to be primitive (i.e. boiling meat and potatoes).

As the Irish migrated to America, traditional Irish peasant foods became Americanized in the larger East Coast cities, mainly New York.  Most Irish ate pork and lamb in their homeland, but beef would have been beyond their means.  When they arrived in mid-19th century America, beef would have been more plentiful.  Picking up the practice of salt-curing, or “corning,” their beef from neighbors such as Jews, the Irish could then substitute the corned beef in place of pork in dishes with cabbage or potatoes.

Here in Richmond, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with traditional Irish food and, hopefully, a pint or two of Guinness:

*  Church Hill Irish Festival – The city’s oldest and most traditional Irish festival, celebrated in Church Hill, where Richmond’s Irish have lived and worshipped for over a century.  March 22 and 23.

*  Shamrock the Block – Long-running festival with food, music and beer.  This year’s festival will feature expanded entertainment options for families and children.  Sat., March 15.

*  Shockoe Fest – The new kid on the block, Shockoe Fest was formed to offer a St. Patrick’s celebration in the traditional Shockoe Bottom neighborhood.  Bands, beer, food and a Kid Zone promise a fun-filled day.  Sat., March 15.

Also, if you’ve never checked out the city’s plethora of Irish restaurants, be sure to stop by one of these:

*  Sine Irish Pub & Restaurant – Located in historic Shockoe Slip, Sine is a mainstay for quick business lunches, casual dinners out and a traditional pub atmosphere after dark.  On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, guests enjoy complimentary entertainment.  The interior is reminiscent of a Dublin pub, and the food is delicious, especially the Fish n’ Chips, Shepherd’s Pie and Bangers & Mash.

*  McCormack’s Irish Pub – This Shockoe Bottom pub has live music many nights of the week, pub food and brews on tap.  Stop in on a Sunday evening for HorrorSundays and watch vintage horror movies on the pub’s tv’s.

*  Rare Olde Times Public House – A West End pub started by a chef and Dublin native who relocated to Virginia, Rare Olde Times opened in 1994.  Traditional Irish musical entertainment, great food and a wide variety of beers make for a fun and friendly pub experience.

*  Keagan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant – Upscale Irish food and brews in Short Pump.  Keagan’s has creative menu options, like their award-winning Wicklow Wings with your choice of sauce, Donegal Bay Mussels and Irish Chicken Boxty.  Both local and imported beers are available at Keagan’s.

*  O’Toole’s Restaurant & Pub – Richmond’s oldest Irish restaurant and pub, O’Toole’s has been in operation for over 47 years.  From traditional pub fare to pasta and American bar standby’s, as well as brunch, O’Toole’s has repeatedly been voted Richmond’s best Irish restaurant.

Wherever and however you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, don’t forget to say “Slainte!”

Day 4 in Memphis

Note – OK, so I’ve been super busy and haven’t gotten a chance to finish blogging my Memphis trip – sorry!  I promise to post days 4 and 5 quickly, because I have a cool blog project on the horizon for the holidays.  So read on for the rest of my Memphis blogs.

“I went to the crossroad.  Fell down on my knees.  Asked the Lord above, have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please.  He’s standing’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride, I tried to flag a ride.  Ain’t nobody seem to know me, babe.  Everybody passion’ me by.  Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ son, goin’ down.” – Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues”

While I had planned out our first three days in Memphis, days 4 and 5 were pretty open.  I knew I wanted to try to hit up the Memphis Food Truck Court on Sunday, but other than that, we didn’t have any definite plans for Sunday and Monday.  On Saturday night, while watching the UFC fights in the hotel room, I got on the computer and started researching Memphis blues history.  I discovered that one of my favorite blues musicians, Robert Johnson, was born in the neighboring state of Mississippi.  His parents did not stay together long, and during his young life he moved around often, as his parents sought work on the various farms of Mississippi, such as the Abbay & Leatherman plantation in Commerce.  I figured we could drive down the “Blues Highway” into Mississippi and have a look at some of the historical sites associated with Robert Johnson, then I found out that the infamous crossroads where he is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for an otherworldly ability to play guitar was apparently only a few more miles down Route 61.  That sealed it – the next day’s agenda was set!

We got up bright and early, ate breakfast and headed down Route 61.  One of the most well-known female blues singers, Memphis Minnie, grew up in a town just across the state line called Walls, Mississippi.  She died in 1973, and is buried in the churchyard of the New Hope M.B. Church.

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From there, we continued on down the “Blues Highway” through miles and miles of flat fields.  A ways down the road, we came across a visitor’s center, which was, of course, closed since it was Sunday morning.  The visitor’s center was in an old-looking building, and there was a historical marker explaining the significance of the “Blues Highway.”

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We started to see huge billboards for the casinos of Tunica, and after a few more miles, we came to the turnoff that leads to the casino area, which also happened to be the turnoff towards the Abbay & Leatherman plantation.  We were tempted to hit up the slot machines, but ended up deciding that we’d probably just lose money and waste time, so we pulled over at the historical marker for Abbay & Leatherman.

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Many of the most well-known blues musicians lived on or near Abbay & Leatherman and other farms and plantations throughout the fertile delta region, leading to the term “delta blues.”  During the 1920′s, 30′s, 40′s and 50′s, many blues musicians traveled throughout Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, playing clubs in larger cities, such as Memphis and New Orleans, and in smaller towns that had only one juke joint.  Some of the delta blues musicians that got their start in the region ended up migrating to Chicago or New York, taking the blues with them.  Musicians like Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Ma Rainey and Muddy Waters all came from the Mississippi delta.

The “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, met her end in a tragic car crash on Route 61 in 1937.  On her way from Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, with her lover, Richard Morgan driving her Packard, the pair came upon a slow-moving truck in front of them.  Richard misjudged the speed of the truck and ended up swerving to attempt to avoid hitting it, but instead ended up sideswiping it.  Bessie had her arm hanging out of the window on the side of impact, and she died early the next morning at the hospital, her arm having been nearly severed at the elbow and later amputated by doctors.

About an hour and a half South of Memphis, the tiny town of Clarksdale lies just off Route 61.  I had expected a moderately-sized town, but it was really just the crossroads and a few small surrounding roads – a few restaurants, shops and a gas station and that’s about it.  But the highlight of the town is the signpost in the middle of the infamous crossroads998445_10201156161882030_299405864_n

It’s nothing more than a large sign in the middle of the intersection of Route 61 and Route 49 – another Mississippi highway immortalized in songs by Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf.  I’m sure the people in town thought I was crazy pulling over in the parking lot of the fried chicken joint, hopping out and running into the street to snap a picture, but maybe I could tell them I had a hellhound on my trail!

After we checked out the crossroads, we made our way back up the “Blues Highway” to Memphis, passing many a dead armadillo on the side of the road (according to a friend who’s lived in the deep South, they are apparently the squirrels of the region).  We ended up at Shelby Farms Park, a gorgeous municipal park on the edge of the city where the weekly Food Truck Court takes place.  The park had a lake, with kayaks and paddle boats for rent, bike and running trails and a really nice lobby and welcome center.  The only downside – it was HOT!  Like, so hot I would have rather gone and sat in the air-conditioned car to eat, except for the fact that I’m stubborn and somewhat of a masochist.  Regardless, the food was delicious!

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I had a yummy beef brisket sandwich, with parmesan rosemary fries and glazed donut bread pudding (which should not even be legal it was so sweet).

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My hubby had crab salad.  Everything was delicious, especially the glazed donut bread pudding!  In a food coma, we headed back to the hotel and rested for a few hours, then drove back to our spot at the park by the Mississippi River to jog off some of the calories from lunch.

That evening, inspired by our historical marker scavenger hunt, I wanted to hear some real blues.  There are a bunch of really touristy bars on Beale Street, but the only place I wanted to be was Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall.  I realize the decor may be more kitsch than authentic, but the place was awesome – laid back vibe, live blues and cheap (tall!) beers.  There was a band playing when we arrived, and when they took a break between songs, a gentleman came in via the alley door and struck up a chat with the band, who knew him as one of the regulars at various blues clubs.  A few words were exchanged, and he joined them on the stage with his harmonica and a song.  It was pure Memphis magic.  Later that night, as we headed back to our hotel, that man’s raspy voice and jangly harmonica filled my head.

Day 3 in Memphis

“Now the world’s in a revolt because Dr. King is gone.”

Otis Spann – “Blues for Martin Luther King”

Saturday morning dawned gray and drizzly – the perfect opportunity to visit some of the sights of Memphis that are indoors.  First on the list: the legendary Sun Studios.  We headed a few blocks down Union Avenue, where the studio and attached museum sit diagonally, facing Marshall Avenue.  With as much music history as this building has seen, I was a little surprised by how small the building was.  The original studio where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas and so many more famous musicians recorded consisted of only one small building with an office in the front and the studio in the rear.  Years later, when the world came to see the importance of the building to the history of music, the space next door (which used to be a soda shoppe) was also purchased.  That two-story building now houses the gift shop (in the space formerly occupied by the soda shoppe – and with real fountain sodas!) on the ground floor and the museum on the second floor.

Before we went inside, we snapped some pics of the exterior of the building:

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As we learned during our tour of the museum, the picture on the left was referred to as the “million dollar quartet.”  As the story goes, Carl Perkins was in town holding a recording session, and Sam Phillips, Sun Studios’ founder and owner, called up a new acquisition of his record label to come sit in on the session.  That new acquisition just happened to be Jerry Lee Lewis.  As the session stretched on, Elvis Presley, who was in town for the holidays, popped in.  Johnny Cash had also wandered into the studio, wanting to hear Carl Perkins’ work.  The famous photograph above was snapped, and the sound engineer started rolling tape, capturing forever the legendary jam session of these four amazing musicians.

In the museum, we got to see the priceless memorabilia collected by Mr. Phillips over the years, including a guitar used by Elvis in the studio, vintage ads and recording equipment.

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We also got to hear the true story of the rise of Elvis Presley, which was mostly thanks to the persistence of Sam’s business partner, Marion, who was also his receptionist.  Apparently, when Elvis first came into Sun Studios to record, Marion made a copy of his recording and left it on Sam’s desk.  Sam, unfortunately, was not impressed, but Marion was persistent in her support of Elvis, and eventually Sam asked him back to record with some local musicians.  During that session, Elvis and the musicians began to jam on Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” an old blues song.  When Elvis and the other musicians started to jump and dance around the room, Sam knew he’d hit on something special.  He recorded an acetate, dropped it off to his DJ friend Dewey Phillips, who played it the next night on his radio show, and the rest was history.

Once our tour of the museum was complete, we headed back downstairs and next door to the studio itself, where our tour guide showed us exactly where, according to tape marks still on the floor tiles, each of the musicians in that famous recording session had stood, including the gouge in the tile where the upright bass player had propped his bass.  She also pointed out the “x” on the floor where Elvis’ microphone stand had been, then she pulled the stand itself out for everyone to gawk over.  I was amazed that everything in the room is still original to that day back in 1954 – even down to the acoustic tiles on the walls and ceilings that Sam Phillips himself installed.

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After Sun Studios, we headed across town to the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum.  In April of 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to support striking black sanitation workers.  As he stepped out onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel the evening of April 4, a shot rang out.  Dr. King was struck by the bullet and later died at a local hospital.  The museum takes visitors through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, from the earliest days of indentured servitude and the slave trade, to the present day.  The timeline of historical events combined with more in-depth information on major accomplishments of the Movement was moving and profound, and really opened my eyes even more to the ways things once were for black Americans in this country.  When I try to explain to my son, for example, that hundreds of years ago people were enslaved only because of the color of their skin, or that black Americans could not use the same restrooms or water fountains as whites, I am at a loss for words.  My son’s school is very diverse, and he has friends from every ethnic and religious group you could imagine, so I think it is hard for him to understand how different American society used to be.  I, too, have trouble wrapping my head around the treatment black Americans received at the hands of racist whites.  To see how hard-fought a struggle the Civil Rights Movement has been – how difficult it must have been to remain peaceful and focused when so much hatred and bigotry was against you – gives me so much appreciation for the work of Dr. King and so many others.

The capstone to our visit was the “balcony experience” – the ability to mount the steps of the Lorraine Motel and see the room Dr. King stayed in and the balcony where he was killed.  There is nothing that can prepare you for such an experience.  It was very emotional, and I could feel the weight of the importance of the site as I climbed the steps.  The gray skies made the few moments I spent on the balcony even more somber.  The balcony is a place for reflection on Dr. King’s life, and on how far we have come as a nation towards his vision of equality, and yet how far we still have to go.

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After our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, my husband and I were starving, so it was quite convenient that Central BBQ was located directly behind the Lorraine Motel.  We headed inside and made our way to the order window, where we picked the full slab of ribs for two – wet – which came with two sides apiece, as well as two rolls each.  We both picked macaroni and cheese and barbecue baked beans for our sides.  The ribs were delicious – rich, smoky flavor and just the right amount of sweet, spicy sauce.  And the sides were hot, fresh and had that home-cooked flavor.  We also tried a local beer that was on special.

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After lunch, we headed back to the hotel to chill out in the pool for a bit, then drove over to the Beale Street Landing to board a Memphis Riverboat cruise down the Mississippi River.  The cruise was about two hours long, and had commentary on the history of Memphis and a few funny stories from the city’s past, such as the story of Hopefield, Arkansas.  According to our guide, in the early 1900′s, Hopefield had become a den of vice.  Gambling and prostitution were common there, and since it was right across the river from Memphis, many men from the city would cross the river on boats to take part in these illicit activities.  Some of the women of Memphis, tired of their husbands staying across the river at all hours of the day and night, contacted the Memphis police department, who organized a “rescue” party to cross the river and encourage these men to return home to their wives.  When they arrived on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi, they found the men waiting for them, guns drawn.  The men ordered the Memphis police to strip naked, then put them back into their boats and sent them back across the way they’d come.  When the boats returned to the Memphis side of the river, the staid ladies on the shore were in for a surprise, as the naked police officers stepped out of their boats, embarrassed, and explained that there wasn’t anything more to be done.  At that point, the women of Memphis turned to prayer, which apparently worked out better for them in the end, as the town of Hopefield was swallowed up by the Mississippi River in 1912 after massive flooding.  We also learned about the time in 1812 when the river flowed backwards following a massive earthquake that made a crevice in the riverbed so large that the water had to flow backwards up the river to fill it in.

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That evening, my husband and I were kind of “barbecued out” (I know that sounds impossible), so we decided to have dinner at a sushi and Thai restaurant near our hotel, Bangkok Alley.  Our dinner was light and delicious, and we walked back to our hotel, where I spent the rest of the evening reading about the history of Memphis, especially relating to music.  That information would come in handy for Sunday’s activities!

Day 2 in Memphis

“I saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue.

Followed him up to the gates of Graceland, and I watched him walk right through.”

Walking in Memphis – Marc Cohn

 

As the National Pork Board‘s “Pork Passion Pursuits” sweepstakes winner, my mission in Memphis was to soak up the local culture and to learn about the prevalence of pork barbecue in this city by the Mississippi River.  Friday morning, my husband and I had a quick breakfast at our hotel, then set out to explore the city.  We drove to the South side of town to check out an old, abandoned brewery from the late 1800′s that sits on the bluff high atop the river, then we walked down to the riverside to check out the view of the city.

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After our quick trip down to the river, we headed for Graceland.  In the classic movie “Pulp Fiction,” Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace tells John Travolta’s Vincent Vega “For instance, there are only two kinds of people in the world, Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis and Elvis people can like the Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”  My husband and I are polar opposites in many ways, so it should come as no surprise that, while I’m a die-hard Beatles person, he, on the other hand, is a self-professed Elvis person.  Our trip to Graceland was one of the things he was most looking forward to on our trip.

The first thing I noticed about Elvis’ home was that it is definitely big business.  There’s a fee to park in the huge lot adjacent to the ticketing/exhibit complex, and each of the exhibits exited, predictably, through a gift shop.  The home itself is across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the ticketing/exhibit complex, and a shuttle bus ferries visitors back and forth.  I was surprised at how small the house was – I guess I’d always assumed that Elvis – you know, the King – would have a massive home, but it’s really more of a large home than a mansion.  Of course, coming from poverty like he did, I’m sure the house was enormous to Elvis and his family.  I also had not been aware that Graceland was an historic home built in the 1930′s, and that Elvis bought it rather than having a house built.

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The home is in remarkable shape, and has been preserved just as it was when Elvis passed away in 1977.  In fact, the house is so well-preserved that you can almost imagine the man himself rounding the top of the steps and coming down to greet you.  The decor is decidedly seventies and just a bit tacky, especially in the areas of the house where Elvis spent most of his time, such as his basement tv and pool rooms and the infamous Jungle Room.  Despite the initial gaudiness, however, you soon realize that everything at Graceland was completely state-of-the-art when Elvis was alive, down to the triple tv’s in his tv room.

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After our tour of the house itself, we were led through the outbuildings, including several that have been converted to house Elvis memorabilia, such as his gold records, awards and various costumes he wore throughout the years.  The path through the outbuildings describes the history of his career, from the 1950′s through the 60′s and 70′s – his first hits to his comeback special to his residency in Las Vegas.  By the end of the tour, you arrive at the gravesite of Elvis, his parents and other family members.  The Meditation Garden was built by Elvis when he was alive, and it is his final resting place.  I was surprised by how moving the whole experience was.  Elvis was truly a great musician, and his legacy of bringing blues and country music to the mainstream music industry has profoundly influenced so many other artists.  Even my beloved John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

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After we crossed back over Elvis Presley Boulevard in the shuttle bus, we were free to visit the other exhibits included in our Premium ticket:  Elvis’ Automobile Museum, his private planes and a small exhibit chronicling his run in Las Vegas.  My husband is a gearhead, so he loved the chance to see some cars and motorcycles from Elvis’ collection.  The pink Cadillac he bought for his mother was the star attraction.  The planes were cool too, especially Elvis’ custom jet plane with his very own bed, outfitted in blue suede sheets – of course!

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After we finished visiting all the different exhibits and gift shops, my husband and I were starving.  What better place to stop for lunch than the barbecue restaurant down the street that The King himself used to frequent?  We made our way to Marlowe’s Ribs & Restaurant and settled into a weathered booth.  Like Graceland itself, Marlowe’s appears to be stuck in the 70′s.  The decor is vintage, and the walls are covered in Elvis memorabilia, articles and photos.  As with every barbecue joint in Memphis, Marlowe’s has a gift shop where it sells its own dry rub and bottled barbecue sauce.  We both got the pulled pork sandwich, which came with cole slaw and fries.  One bite and I could tell why Marlowe’s pulled pork has won award after award – the meat was perfectly smoked and sauced, and it was thick and juicy.  I was in pork heaven!

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After such a huge meal, we headed back to the hotel for a rest, and to check out our plans for the next few days.  Our hotel, the Hampton Inn Beale Street, had an indoor pool and hot tub, so we hung out there for awhile before deciding to head to Mud Island Park for a run.  The park runs alongside the Mississippi River, and the views of the river are gorgeous, not to mention the views of the massive and stylish homes that line the bluff atop the river.  We jogged along, watching the sun set over the Mississippi, then headed to grab a quick dinner of salads from Arby’s.  All the traveling, walking and jogging must have done us in, because we ended up tucking in early on Friday, ready for a busy Saturday in Memphis!

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Day 1 in Memphis

“Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane.

Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues in the middle of the pouring rain.”

Walking in Memphis, Marc Cohn

 

Well it wasn’t raining when my husband and I landed in Memphis, but I was still excited.  As the National Pork Board’s “Pork Passion Pursuits” sweepstakes winner in the Lifestyler category, I was eager to get to know Memphis and eat some barbecue!  We arrived on a Thursday, picked up our rental car and headed into downtown Memphis to check into our hotel.  I booked us at the Hampton Inn Beale Street because of its central, downtown location, its proximity to Beale Street (less than a block away) and the complimentary hot breakfast included in the room rate.  This hotel was the perfect base for exploring the city.  The staff were courteous and friendly, and even offered their tips on local barbecue, directing me to Blues City Cafe around the corner for the “best barbecue in town.”

My husband and I were starving after our flight, so we headed for Beale Street.  We could hear music as soon as we stepped out of the hotel, and we turned the corner and found ourselves in the middle of this historic entertainment district.  From the late 1800′s to today, Beale has a storied past as the birthplace of the blues, but it was also home to the first black millionaire in the United States, Robert Church, in the 1880′s.  Mr. Church paid the city to create Church Park, at the corner of 4th and Beale Streets, which later became a haven for musicians from the farms and plantations of the Mississippi Delta who came to the city to perform, including W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Rufus Thomas, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and a female blues singer from nearby Walls, Mississippi, “Memphis Minnie.”  I was somewhat disappointed to find that the street has largely been commercialized, with a Hard Rock Cafe now standing where Pee Wee Saloon, a meeting place for local blues artists in the early 1900′s, once did.  One of the remnants of Beale’s heyday is dry goods store turned souvenir shop A. Schwab, which even has a museum dedicated to the history of the shop.

As soon as we stepped onto the sidewalk of Beale Street, the unmistakable aroma of smoking meat filled the air.  We followed our noses down the block to Blues City Cafe, where a mister spritzed us with a cool spray of water as we opened the door.  The restaurant is open and spacious, and its corner location, with big windows on each side, lets in lots of natural light.  But the smell is the best part of Blues City Cafe (besides the food itself, of course!).  The smokers are along a side wall, and that section of the restaurant, behind a long bar, has been decorated to resemble an old-school barbecue shack, complete with tin roof.  The yummy-smelling scent of smoking, cooking meat fills the room and all I could think about was ordering up and devouring a big plate of ribs!

The menu is relatively small – only the front and back of one laminated page – but we quickly found what we’d come for.  I ordered a half slab of ribs, which is served with cole slaw, baked beans, fries and Texas toast, while my husband had the skillet shrimp – a dozen fresh shrimp baked in a sizzling skillet of butter and Cajun spices, served with the same sides as the ribs.  Our food came out shortly, and I was in heaven!  The ribs were delectable – so tender they were falling off the bone.  All I had to do was flake the meat off with my fork and it fell apart on my plate.  There was practically no fat, as it had all absorbed into the meat itself and left the ribs juicy and full of smoky flavor.  I ordered them wet, and the sauce was perfect – not too thick and just the right sweet, spicy flavor.  My husband’s shrimp were amazing too (I made him share!).  The spice mixture they were cooked in was full of spicy Cajun flavor and they soaked up the butter from the skillet.

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The front desk clerk at the hotel had advised me to save some room for an apple dumpling, and I’m glad I did!  Our dessert was served sizzling hot in an iron skillet, with tender apples and fried batter topped with vanilla ice cream.  It was so simple, and so delicious!  Overall, I give Blues City Cafe five stars for delicious, perfectly-cooked barbecue, a delicious dessert, a cool vibe and great staff.

After our meal, we headed back to the hotel and noticed that Autozone Park was crowded – there was a baseball game that night.  We walked the few blocks to the stadium (I told you the Hampton Inn Beale Street is centrally-located) and headed inside, where we got to watch the St. Louis Cardinals’ AAA affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, take on the Tucson Padres.

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When the game let out after a walkoff win by the home team, the music enticed us to walk back over to Beale Street.  We grabbed some nachos and beers at Silky O’Sullivan’s, a dive bar on the corner, and listened to the “Dueling Pianos” playing Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Journey and even a soulful rendition of “Walkin’ in Memphis.”

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Our first day in the city was filled with barbecue, beer, baseball and music on Beale Street!

Winning the Pork Board’s “Pork Passion Pursuits” Sweepstakes!

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an avid sweepstakes enterer (if that’s even a word!).  In a typical week, I enter 150 to 200 different online sweepstakes, and I’ve won trips, cash, shopping sprees and all kinds of other things (makeup, hair and skin products, video games and systems, etc.).  Yes, I get lucky sometimes, but I also put in the time to enter a LOT of contests.  A few months back, I came across the National Pork Board’sPork Passion Pursuits” sweepstakes – a contest offering a $5,000 prize to winners in each of five different categories to fulfill their pork passion dreams.  I’d been hearing the song “Walkin’ in Memphis” a lot, so I typed out a quick entry in the Lifestyler category mentioning how much I love Memphis-style barbecue and the fact that I blog about food history and would love to learn about the history of this delicious style of pork barbecue.

I promptly forgot about my entry until about a month later, when I received an email from a marketing and PR firm stating that I had won the Lifestyler category, and would be presented with a $5,000 prize to carry out my pork adventure!  The first emotion I felt was shock, of course, but once the excitement set in I quickly set to work planning my trip to Memphis.  I visited the websites of the Food Network, Cooking Channel and local bloggers in the Memphis area to discover which barbecue restaurants were the best.  I began researching the history of Memphis-style barbecue:  the combination of spicy dry rub and sweet, thick sauce that is just irresistible.  My research led me through centuries of food history.

The area comprising and surrounding the present city of Memphis was inhabited first by the Chickasaw tribe, a group of mound builders who were part of the larger Mississippian culture.  In the mid-1500′s, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto navigated the Mississippi and surrounding rivers and tributaries and discovered the settlement on the bluff that is now the city of Memphis.  It is known that when de Soto landed in Florida, he had with him a  herd of pigs.  It is likely that some of those pigs were brought with him as he traveled up the Mississippi River, and that some may have escaped into the wild.  In 1540, close to present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe, in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto, cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa.  This was the very first “Memphis barbecue!”  In the early Colonial days, settlers hunted pigs and other native game in the woods and wilds surrounding their settlements.  The pig was an important food source for settlers, as pigs could be domesticated easily, but could also be released back into the wild should food sources become scarce, then hunted and even re-domesticated later, when food stores were greater.  The method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals and green wood seems to have originated with native peoples, and the name “barbecoa,” which later became barbecue, comes from that practice (from “The History of Barbecue in the South“).  Southerners quickly picked up the practice, using it to cook the abundant pig population to the point that they eventually ate an average of five pounds of pork for every one pound of cattle.  From colonial times up to the antebellum period and beyond, “barbecues” were popular social functions, taking place at community gatherings and political rallies throughout the South.

In Memphis, one of the staples of the barbecue scene is the slab of pork ribs.  The cooking of ribs, and much of the process of slow cooking pork over low heat, most likely originated from slaves and, post-Civil War, poor blacks having access only to less-desirable cuts of meat, and thus needing to cook it “low and slow” to tenderize it.  In Memphis, the proximity to the Mississippi River and the city’s status as a port and trading hub allowed residents access to imported products, such as spices and molasses.  The textbook Memphis style of barbecue –  spicy dry rubbed meat cooked low and slow, then sauced with a thick, sweet sauce – likely developed over many years, and each major barbecue restaurant in town has its own blend of dry rub and sauce.  The spice blends are almost always based in paprika, and the sauces are rich with tomato flavor, vinegar and molasses.

There are a number of iconic barbecue restaurants in Memphis, and I added them to my list of “must-visit” places.  Over the next few posts, I’ll introduce you to them, and recap my trip.  My husband and I had such a great time, and I’m so happy that the National Pork Board chose me to have this experience.  I really feel like I got to live out my “Pork Passion Pursuit” in Memphis, and I learned so much about barbecue, the blues and the history of this delicious style of barbecue.  Stay tuned for more!

On Paula Deen

I almost didn’t want to use this space to make any sort of commentary on the whole Paula Deen fiasco.  As a white girl foodie, part of me feels out of my depth in even having an opinion on such a complicated, racially-charged issue.  But I have to admit I can see both sides.  Let me explain:

As a Virginian and Southerner by birth, I’ve grown up eating and loving Southern food.  There’s nothing better than a flaky buttermilk biscuit stuffed with Smithfield ham, or a big bowl of grits with red-eye gravy.  But, like Paula and so many other white Southerners and Southern food fans, I have been ignorant.  Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more interested in history, both family history and the history of Southern food – Virginia food in particular.  I’ve started to discover the tangled web of influences on the style of cooking that is most well-known in the South – how things like barbecue ribs carry the hidden story of the slaves who received the least-desired cuts of meat, combined them with familiar spices and ingredients as well as those native to the Americas, and created something new and delicious.  How the okra and squashes and peppers that came from Africa on slave ships were brought into the kitchens of wealthy planters and politicians and became something altogether unique.  How a man named Jefferson brought his slave James Hemings with him to Paris to learn gourmet French cooking techniques from some of the best chefs of the day, then ultimately freed him and paid him wages as he worked in kitchens at Jefferson’s residences at Monticello, in Philadelphia and New York.

I read Michael Twitty’s “Open Letter to Paula Deen,” and I nodded my head as he explained how the controversy surrounding Paula stems from so much more injustice than whether she did or didn’t say the n-word.  I felt guilty for not having known the origin of hoecakes myself until I attended the Dinner with Jefferson Davis a few weeks back.  And I cringed as I read Anne Rice’s accusation that the media backlash is part of “lynch mob culture.”  Could two older white women that I used to respect really be so out of touch?

I think that’s what’s at the heart of all of this.  Do I think Paula Deen is a malicious person?  Not really.  Do I think she’s a racist?  That’s harder to say.  I can’t know what’s in her heart, but I do know that she has made her career and fortune on the Southern food tradition without ever really giving an explanation or paying homage to where that tradition comes from.  Look, I get it.  Talking about race issues is hard.  Especially here in the South.  But Paula and so many other celebrity chefs and foodies have the opportunity to open a dialogue here.  When I can sit down to watch a show about a barbecue cookoff – a style of cooking so steeped in slavery and the black experience (see “Barbecue in Black and White“) – and all three of the judges are white dudes, there’s something a bit “off” about that.  When a white dude from New England is the face of New Orleans/Creole food, we’re missing a lot of the story.

I’m a history geek, a foodie, and a Southerner.  And I want to know where the foods I love come from, even if their backstory is pockmarked and hard to talk about.  I want to learn.  I want to give credit where credit is due.  I want the Food Network and the mainstream food media to talk about the issues surrounding the Paula Deen controversy in a deeper way than just keeping a tally of which of her sponsors have jumped ship.  Maybe I’m asking too much.  Maybe this discussion is one that needs to be kept smaller, more human – talked about by all kinds and colors of people over meals in their local restaurants.  As I try to do with most things, I hope so much that something positive can come from this, and I wonder if the world of food  - nourishment, hospitality, pride in one’s traditions – isn’t the best place to start this dialogue after all.

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