The Memphis Blues Again (Soul & Barbecue 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 Memphis Bridge connecting into Arkansas. It was with genuine regret that I finally had to depart.

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. I never had to leave Memphis for the greatest (for many) pulled pork, rib tips and slabs in the world, but it was everywhere as well on the west side of the state, extending a few minutes away into the state of Mississippi, as well. 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 no others.

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 here last April was the Cotton Museum, standing in the old 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 loin and chops, and the slaves got the tails, the feet, the skin and the chitterlings (intestines) of the pig. Like much in history, necessity turns into preference; or if you will, misery into music and foods 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 Hawaii. 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 my 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. Some favorite matches:

Interstate Barbecue's Rib Tips -- Always having a oral fixation (as a baby, a famed drooler), my rib preferences for the soft, cartilagy ends. Jim Neely and his family smothers his smoky tips in vinegary picquant red sauce. Favorite wine choice: red, picquant Zinfandel, especially from Lodi (Earthquake and Jesse's Grove two house favorites). Why? Lush, almost sweet fruit combined with blackpepper/clove spice and thick, meaty body of these particular reds make consumption all the juicier.

Melanie's Soul Foods's Oxtails -- I was often off on Tuesdays, which is oxtails day at Melanie's. Would always need to get there by 11:00 a.m., though, because after that it's gone (lines at Melanie's are longer and more continuous than the Krispy Kremes' in their heyday). No problem for me: a good Rioja (best value is Bodegas BretÛn "LoriÒon" Crianza) always provided just the right amount of breathy earthiness, soft glove leather texture, and pinch of acidity to match the fatty, meaty taste of oxtails. Beaujolais (preferably a plump Morgon) would be my second choice.

Cozy Corner's Barbecue Chicken and Cornish Game Hen -- Cozy Corner's barbecue meats (best with Cozy Corner's spicy barbecue spaghetti and coles slaw -- even the cole slaw is spicy here) are inundated with nostril tingling smokiness, the sauces as thick and palate expressive (spices touching all the taste buds -- sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and umami) as anyone's. The fruitiness of softer style Zinfandels (like Earth, Zin & Fire) 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 those of Marquis-Philips, but part of winemaker Sparky Marquis's new portfolio is an incredible value, the Mollydooker South Australia Shiraz.

Central Barbecue'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 comes out earthy and caramelized -- lessons in sensory overload (you can order "wet" slabs at Central Barbecue, too, but sauces sometimes blur the dry spice sensations). 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. Pure Syrahs, of course, also have enough peppery spice to dial in the red and black peppery spices of Memphis dry rub. But there are never enough excuses to drink Petite Sirah, so there.

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken -- Give Gus his due. His chicken hits you like a sledgehammer -- crackling hot, unrepentantly spicy on the outside, drippy and luscious on the inside (I'm a thigh man, so that's the way it comes out). Nothing pre-made here -- whether you're at a table or waiting for take-out, the wait is a good 15 to 30 minutes for your food. When I'm out the door with my order 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!). What spells relief? Whites with slight sweetness and samurai sword 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 or the emphatic, dried honey veneered styles of the Rheinhessen, you can't go wrong. These Rieslings, by the way, also do the trick with the country style hams of Tennessee (caveat: the style entails salt consumption you might not think still possible or sane in this day and age; no matter, because German Rieslings smooth it all out).

Williams St. Grocery's Chitterlings and Pig's Tails -- These are vinegary, textured experiences, best mopped up with the store's buttered "hot water cornbread" (shaped like a swollen pancake), as much at home with Rieslings (like the aforementioned) or light, dry, but unmercifully sharp whites (like Austria's Gr¸ner Veltliner, Spain's AlbariÒo, and Southern France's Picpoul). Don't go half-way with your choice of high acid in the wine, for if there ever was a time for lime/lemony wine, this is it.

(November, 2007)

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