After driving across the bridge spanning the Mississippi River into Arkansas and, several blithely traversed miles later, seeing only farmland, it occurs to me that I am not in Memphis anymore.
I scan the horizon. I seem to recall Memphis having buildings, some of them tall. No buildings around here, not even short ones.
Employing deductive-reasoning skills finely honed from years of waywardness, I conclude that if my destination is a barbecue restaurant in East Memphis (which it is) and the highway signs all say West (which they do) and Memphis is a city and the only thing for miles around is dirt, then I am probably headed in the wrong direction.
I knew this would be a problem, accidentally leaving my GPS at home and not renting one at the car rental place.
It means that I routinely get lost on my way to yet another barbecue joint.
That, in turn, means less barbecue.
And that is a problem here in Memphis. (Well, there in Memphis.)
Especially if you are here, as I am, to see if there is any merit to the saying that you can get too much of a good thing.
IF THERE WERE a barbecue hall of fame, the entire city of Memphis would be in it. From world-famous downtown institution Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous to heralded dive Cozy Corner to perennial list topper Interstate Barbeque to venerable nearly 60-year-old local chain Tops Bar-B-Q to more upscale multistate franchise Corky’s Ribs & BBQ to literally scores of others, Memphis is barbecue’s Babe Ruth.
To push the too-much-of-a-good-thing, uh, thing, I’ve come to the city’s annual barbecue championships, aka the three-day Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the granddaddy of cook-offs. Walking among the more than 300 teams competing in whole hog, pork shoulder and pork ribs, I felt as though I was at Barbecue Fantasy Camp.
Wood smoke hovered above the makeshift tent city like a cloud of barbecue perfume. Tents ran the gamut from the humble — lawn chairs beneath white cloth on metal posts — to the elaborate — mini-nightclubs, complete with twinkling lights, blasting rock music and full bars. Whether humble or showy, all had make-ya-smile (or groan) names like Natural Born Grillers, Piggy Stardust and Hogapalooza.
The only downside was that teams had roped entrances like posh New York City nightclubs and signs that said “private party.” Turns out, when you cook thousands of dollars worth of meat, you’re not all that enthusiastic about every Tom, Dick and Jim crashing your party.
I crashed a few anyway, and if the hosts minded, they were too gracious to show it. In true Southern-hospitality spirit, they led me to their grail — piles of sumptuous pulled pork, usually — where I left without shaking hands because my hands were too gloriously greasy.
I was lucky enough to sample the sublime barbecue from the three finalists in pulled pork, each one more amazing than the one before. So, of course, I had to try them all a second and, well, just to make sure, a third time. Yep, each was more amazing than the one before, all right.
Throughout the day, I’d also buy some ribs at Willingham’s and pulled pork at Corky’s, two retail outlets operating at the festival, and dash out to someplace nearby, such as Cozy Corner or the Bar-B-Q Shop where, years ago, I ordered plastic jugs of their searingly hot Dancing Pigs sauce (they now ship in proper bottles). In the evenings, I’d catch dry and wet ribs (dry isn’t dry; it’s unsauced) or (but usually and) a pulled-pork sandwich at a place out near my hotel in East Memphis, such as A & R Bar-B-Que or Central BBQ.
Every single time, I got lost.
You’re wondering, How? How could this guy make the same mistake not just twice but over and over? I could explain. But, would it really matter?
The fact is, here I was, again, in the farmland of Arkansas, nowhere near even the Smithsonian’s Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum or Graceland or the National Civil Rights Museum or the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, let alone a Memphis barbecue joint.
Truth to tell, though, I am full. Really, really full. Thanksgiving full. Stoopid full.
I guess there can be too much of a good thing.
It’s probably more a blessing than a curse that I don’t have the GPS here in Memphis. Saved me from myself. I couldn’t eat another bite.
I turn the car around, glance down at the clock.
They say the pie is fabulous at the Germantown Commissary. Wouldn’t be polite, though, to take up a Saturday dinnertime table just for pie.
To be hospitable, I’d have to order the ribs. If I do that, I should probably try the pulled pork.
If I step on it, I think I can make it before they close.