Memphis blues again (the glories of barbecue, soul food & wine matches)

Oh, mama, can this really be the end? Thank you, Mr. Dylan, for your prophetic line.

I absolutely adore Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee: historic epicenter of the blues, place of birth and final rest of Elvis, and once my temporary home. I could feel these gods in the air whenever I walked outside my Downtown apartment onto Main St., steps away from Beale and the mighty Mississippi. The view from my rooftop overlooked the muscular, bending river and the picturesque Memphis Bridge connecting to Arkansas. It was with genuine regret that I finally departed, after finishing up a six month job back in 2007.

Besides music, Memphis is all about barbecue. They hold by far the largest, wildest, most extravagant barbecue fest in the world each May, right alongside the Mississippi (imagine row after row of barbecue tents, extending about five football fields long and wide). Although the entire South boasts great barbecue (having sampled it, from the Mississippi to the coastal islands), I never had to leave Memphis proper for, perhaps, the smokiest, sexiest, most succulent pulled pork, rib tips and pork slabs in the world. Memphis is known for dry rub – piquant mixes of red spices, charred and caramelized on roasted pork – but the city’s barbecue sauces take the back seat to none.

Then there’s soul food. I always wondered exactly what it was, but living in Downtown Memphis brought it home for me. One of the first places I visited when I landed in the spring of 2007 was the Cotton Museum, housed in the historic Memphis Cotton Exchange on Front St. (i.e. fronting the Big River), one block from my doorstep. There they bring you the centuries old story of the South – King Cotton, slaves from Africa, the resulting cultural mix, the momentous musical evolution, and then, of course, the diets. Essentially, the masters ate the loins, and the slaves got the tails, feet, skin and chitterlings (intestines) of the pig. Like much in our culinary history, necessity turns into predilection; or if you will, misery into the foods, as well as music (i.e. the blues) that inspire and feed our souls today.

Soul food, of course, is also fried or smothered chicken, cat and buffalo fish, meatloaf (gourmet quality here), yams, collard greens, boiled cabbage, okra, peach cobbler, pecan and sweet potato pies. Then there’s one of my favorite Memphis idiosyncracies: barbecue spaghetti. Reminds me, in a different way, of chili spaghetti of my youth (and most of my adulthood, for that matter) in Hawai`i. Barbecue spaghetti is as roll-in-the-mouth sticky, spicy, sweet and succulent as it sounds.

So that’s what I miss about Memphis. And always, of course, for me there must be a beverage. During my six months there a favorite thing to do was walk into a joint (new one or favorite), order up two or three plates to go, take it back to my apartment and sit down with glasses of wine (always a new one, and two or three opened ones in the fridge). I’m a big believer in leftovers, of course; so I could go for days in Southern bliss, washing down barbecue with fruits of the grape.

Some of my tried-and-true matches:

Interstate B-B-Q’s Rib Tips
Always having a oral fixation (as a baby, a famed drooler), my rib preferences have always been for the soft, chewy cartilage on the bone ends, and Interstate’s was my favorite. Jim Neely and his family smothers his smoky tips in a vinegary picquant red sauce. Favorite wine choice: red, picquant zinfandel, especially from Lodi (Earthquake, Macchia and Jesse’s Grove being three house favorites), although the snappier Sonoma grown zins (like those of Quivira and Ridge Lytton Springs) always did just as well for me. Why? Lush, almost sweet jammy fruitiness combined with snappy acidity, blackpepper/clove spices and thick, meaty bodies typical of classic zins make the consumption of sweet/spicy/vinegary rib tips all the more juicy – like the most natural wine/food combination in the world.

Melanie’s Soul Foods’ Oxtails
I was often off on Tuesdays, which is oxtail day at Melanie’s. The trick was always to get there by 11 a.m. (a tall order for us night owls), because after that you’re out of luck (lines at Melanie’s are longer and more continuous than the Krispy Kremes’ in their heyday). But when I made it, I could never wait to break out a good bottle of Rioja (two reasonably priced favorites: Bodegas Bretón’s Loriñon Crianza and the Coto Real Reserva), which always provided just the right amount of breathy earthiness, soft leather-glovy textures, and pinch of acidity to match the melted fat, gelatinous, meaty taste of Melanie’s stewed oxtails. Beaujolais (preferably a plump, unsulfured Morgons from one of the infamous “Gang of Five” – Thévenet, Lapierre, Breton, Foillard or Chamonard) would be my second choice; although once I enjoyed the oxtails with a dense, earthy, brazenly sun-ripened yet rounded red from the Terra Alta region of Spain’s Catalonia called Sexto, made by Heron Wines. You get the picture: make it a smooth yet rich, soulful red (preferably European), and you can’t go wrong.

Cozy Corner’s Barbecue Chicken and Cornish Game Hen
Cozy Corner’s barbecue meats –best partaken with Cozy Corner’s spicy barbecue spaghetti and cole slaw (even the cole slaw is spicy at Cozy Corner) – are inundated with nostril penetrating smokiness, packed with thick, phenomenally expressive sauces (their spices touching all the taste buds – sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and umami). The fruitiness of softer style zinfandels (like Jesse's Grove's Earth, Zin & Fire and Laurel Glen's ZaZin) makes an the effortless match, but the more blatantly sweet oaked, smoky, sun ripened fruit forward qualities typical of Australian shiraz might be even better. I’m always partial to the syrahs of winemaker Sparky Marquis (co-originator of Marquis-Philips), who now makes an amazing South Australia shiraz under the Mollydooker label. Other top, value priced choices: Torbreck’s Woodcutter’s, d’Arenberg’s Footbolt, and Gemtree’s organically grown Tadpole.

Central BBQ’s Dry Rub Rib Slabs
Each specialty house in Memphis has its own “secret” rubs (variations of paprika, onion powder and cayenne, and taking it from there), and it’s in the roasting mediums that you get further distinctions. Central’s slabs comes out of the slow cook ovens extremely earthy and caramelized: lessons in sensory overload (you can also order “wet” slabs at Central BBQ, but sauces can blur the subtleties – yes, even jackhammer sensations have refinements – of dry rubs). The best wine matches are thick and meaty, with enough tannin and chewy wood to absorb the fat and stinging red pepper spice. Sounds like a job for petite sirah, and it is. For starters: those of Earthquake, Rosenblum and Two Angels deliver the uncontained tannin and sweetness of fruit (like peppery blueberries) you expect in this grape; although my current fave-rave petites are those of Truett-Hurst, Carol Shelton’s Rockpile Reserve, C.G. di Arie, and Parducci’s True Grit. Pure syrahs, of course, often have enough cracked pepper qualities to dial in the red and black peppery spices of Memphis dry rubs (the syrahs of Paul Lato and Skylark in California, and Spangler in Southern Oregon are among the most peppery I have recently found). Then again, there are never enough excuses to reach for an actual petite sirah… so there!

Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Give Gus his due: his chicken hits you like a wall of red-hot lava (presuming you’d ever survive that) – crackling sharp and unrepentantly spicy on the outside, lusciously drippy on the inside (I’m a thigh man, so that’s the way it comes out). Nothing is pre-made at Gus’s – whether you’re at a table or waiting for take-out, the wait is a good 20 to 30 minutes for your food… you just can’t hurry this. But as soon as I’m out the door with my fiery packages, I’m running as if I were carrying a time bomb. And when I finally make it to my door, it’s still ready to explode (ka-boom!). How do you spell relief in wine lingo? White wines with slight sweetness and samurai sharp acidity, which means riesling – especially the German off-drys, like Zilliken’s scintillatingly tart Saarburger Rausch Kabinett, and Gunderloch’s racy, stony Jean Baptiste. If you opt for either the steely sharp styles of riesling from the Saar (von Hövel’s are my second favorites, after Zilliken’s) or the emphatic, dried honey veneered styles of the Rheinhessen (besides Gunderloch’s, look J&H.A. Strub’s and Heyl zu Herrnsheim’s), you can’t go wrong.

Sidetrack: these rieslings also do the trick with the country style hams of Tennessee; with one caveat: this style of ham entails extreme, heart stopping salt consumption -- something you might not think is still done in this supposedly sane day and age – but no matter, because German riesling cures all!

Williams St. Grocery’s Chitterlings and Pig’s Tails
What can I say? The intestinal tracts and tail-ends of the trusty hog are truly gelatinous, razored-vinegary, toothsome experiences, best mopped up with the store’s buttered “hot water cornbread” (something shaped like swollen pancakes… don’t ask, just eat): delicacies as much at home with razor sharp rieslings (i.e. like the aforementioned – look for their driest bottlings, called trocken or halbtrocken) as with light, dry, but unmercifully tart whites, such as Austria’s grüner veltliner, Spain’s albariño, Savennières from France’s Loire, or else a mouth puckering Picpoul or Jurançon from the South of France. Whatever you do, if you’re consuming Southern style chitterlings and pig’s tails, do not go half-way with your choice of high acid in the wine (a California sun-kissed fumé, for instance, would be a wimp’s way out), for if there ever was a time for wine steeped in lemon or lime sensations, this is it.


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