I’m convinced that an invisible perimeter radiates from the Bluff City, home of Elvis and the blues, where cooked pig is almost sacred. I’m not sure of the exact boundaries, although on Nashville-bound Interstate 40, there should be a gargantuan marker or tangible red line on the bridge crossing the Tennessee River, distinguishing the end of the Memphis barbecue trail on the east side.
On many subjects, I am liberal, open-minded, progressive — except when the topic turns to barbecue. On that one, I am willing to acknowledge other viewpoints, but I am generally not willing to concede to them.
In early June while listening to the Sunday broadcast of The Splendid Table on National Public Radio, I bristled when I heard two food critics express an opposing opinion. According to their website, Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood.com “drive around America looking for good food and exploring popular culture.”
During the broadcast, they suggested that “good barbecue is no longer confined to the South.” They then proceeded to tout an establishment located in Wingdale, New York called Big W’s Roadside BBQ, about 80 miles northeast of New York City.
Don’t misunderstand me: I love New York for its theaters, museums, restaurants, and the frenetic pace of people who pulse through the city at all hours of the day and night. I do not go, however, to the Big Apple for barbecue. I was immediately reminded of that 1980s Pace Picante Sauce commercial decrying a competitor’s brand of salsa made in New York. “Get a rope,” the grizzled man in the advertisement grunted. I feel even stronger about my barbecue.
I then visited the Splendid Table website, where the pair describes Big W’s as “a casual roadside barbecue… that offers a round-the-nation taste of excellent smoked meats: brisket, pulled pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends. The menu also includes chili, hot wings, and very good side dishes.”
That succint description put to rout any credibility I might have been able to invest in the roadside eatery, as any true barbecue gourmand knows that a serious barbecue producer specializes. Furthermore, those of us serious about Memphis barbecue may pretend to allow Texans to think their beef brisket is just as good as pulled pork — just as we play along with the charade of allowing them to believe Texas is located in the South — but we know better.
Next, I decided to see what my friends on social media had to say about the matter. I entered the following post on Facebook that afternoon: “I heard a couple of food critics say on NPR that ‘good barbecue is no longer confined to the South.’ What are these people’s credentials, and have they truly been to Memphis?”
I knew that posting about a topic so controversial would surely elicit a number of responses — and it did: over 20 of them. My friend Art responded almost immediately: “One can only assume that question is rhetorical in nature...” My friend Jane said, “It’s called ‘delusional.’”
My friend Lynda said, “All I can say is...I’m always optimistic when [storrm] chasing through the Plains and have yet to find any BBQ as good as we have.” My friend Larry said, “People that wouldn’t know a sauce mop from a lollipop talk about BBQ with less than two cents to add to the subject other than, ‘Dang that was wonderful!’” My friend Deborah added, “ Yes, and I bet they think the Mojave Desert is as beautiful as the soft, rolling, green hills or the mossy oak woods of the South. For their sake, they need to believe what they say.”
My friend Adam, a west Tennesseean who now lives in Austin, Texas, proceeded to defend pork barbecue over beef brisket, after which my friend Ed, a Corinthian, disagreed vehemently, calling pork barbecue “blashphemy.”
See? I knew all along there was a connection between barbecue and religion.
My friend Melissa digressed by discounting the source, saying “Well, you were listening to NPR.” I took up for public radio but hoped the post would be salvaged from hijacking.
Finally, my two favorite responses—underscoring my own opinion—came from my friend Leslie from Corinth and my brother Loyd, who lives in Germantown. Leslie wrote, “I’ve tried BBQ in the Carolina’s, Texas, and Kansas. They all claim to have the best. Beef brisket is good, but it ain’t BBQ. We have the best. Hands down with no contest.” My brother Loyd said, “I have lived in North Carolina and Alabama, and what they call BBQ can’t hold a candle to west Tennessee. I did have some pretty decent ribs and pulled pork in Kansas City. Had some really good brisket at a couple of places in Texas, but nothing compares to here.”
And so two public radio food critics may truly believe that good barbecue exists outside of Memphis — heeavens, outside of the South! For me, pulled pork and pork ribs are, as I’ve said, like a religion, so I’m a doubting Thomas. I’d have to taste it to believe it. Anything else is heresy.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and U.T.-Martin and serves on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She loves being a downtown Corinth resident.)