Memphis is Barbecue

People come to Memphis for many things-Elvis and Graceland, Memphis in May, Beale Street, the music, the fine medical center. But the one thing they most always take home as their fondest memory is the aroma and flavor of the indescribable Memphis barbecue. And the one place that they always remember if they sample the many varieties of barbecue in and around the city is Charlie Vergos’ Rendevous. But I get ahead of myself.

There are many different theories about the origin of barbecue-where it really began and when and how it is different from grilling. They are two entirely different animals, believe me. I remember when traveling and living briefly out west in Arizona that the term “barbecue” is bandied about with no concept of what it means. When we tried to get real Memphis barbecue in Flagstaff, Arizona, what we sat down to was a mass of gooey limp meat with no crust, no aroma, and no taste. It was soaked in a thick, sweet goo that they called their “home-made” barbecue sauce. In essence, what they were calling barbecue was no more than an overdone but lump hunk of pulled roast pork sopped with an inedible ketsup-based sauce. There was no smoke flavor and no texture at all. And people would drive miles just to stand in line at this place. Huhhhh?

Real barbecue, to Memphians, is pork-never beef. I know the Texans and the Kansans know how to barbecue, but their beef has two drawbacks to it in my opinion. First off, it has nowhere near the fat and content and that slight sweetness and mildness that lends pork loin its flavor. Secondly, it doesn’t crust up the same and glaze as well as a good hunk of loin ribs. No Way. Pork loin is simply the best cut because it is tender, very meaty, not too awfully fat and doesn’t have anywhere nearly the amount of gristle that you’ll find in spareribs, which can be tough as whit-leather.

I grew up, like many Memphis kids, with back yard barbecues on the concrete pit behind our house. We played hide-and-seek or kick-the-can or jacks on the porch floor while the aroma of barbecue wafted through the warm June and July air. In the spring, summer, and fall in every neighborhood you would see a drift of smoke waving upwards from some backyard grill. Barbecue was a staple for most large families in the summer. It was light on the clean-up and the center of very casual social gatherings. It could feed an army and satisfy any and all. In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of the barbecue was and is the conversation and company. Everyone contributed-even the children who carried out forks and knives from the kitchen and played while the grown-ups cooked, ruminated about politics, the weather, their children, the state of the world and just about any local gossip that was circulating at the time.

When we didn’t cook on Sunday, my father would load us in the station wagon and run us all down to Baretta’s on Park St. where we’d sit at funky booths with oilcloth table cloths and listen to the jukebox while we ate ribs and slaw and potato salad.
The smoke is what makes the barbecue what it is. It is a slow cooking process that is controlled and the flame has no business anywhere near the meat. Grilling cooks by direct flame while barbecue cooks by indirect heat and smoke. There are as many recipes and methods for cooking barbecue and you can imagine-all of them claiming their own virtues and superiority-but basically they can be broken down to two distinct methods. You can slop the meat with a thick sauce and slow cook or you can moisten the meat with a light vinegar/water spray and cook slowly while adding a dry rub on near or at the end to add a crusty and very spicy touch. I prefer the dry-cooked method and it is really what Memphis barbecue is most famous for. It is also the method that is closest to the original which some say originated in the West Indes centuries ago. Since meat didn’t stay fresh long, smoking preserved it somewhat as well as adding flavor.

There are literally hundreds of local joints that specialize in barbecue. They offer ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, sweet iced tea, piles of slaw and all kinds of side dishes. You can get wet or dry ribs. You can get just a sandwich with slaw. One place even served a specialty of smoked Cornish game hens. Most of these places are just dives. They are family places and spare on the dÃ?©cor. Most will cater to parties and almost all let you order and take out. But one thing’s constant-every one of them is just a little different.

My all time favorite is, as I said at the beginning of my piece, the Rendevous. It has been in business since 1948 and has been run by and owned by the same family the entire time. The original Rendevous burned in a kitchen fire but was relocated near the old site and business was soon booming again. Both were located in alleys and the present Rendevous is in an alley across from the famous Peabody Hotel . Just ask any local where it is and they’ll tell you. This place is more than a “restaurant.” It’s an experience. You actually go downstairs into what are its main dining areas-really the basement of the building above, which is for parties and receptions. Going down the stairs you see large fading old pictures of members of the Memphis Bar Association from back as far as the 1950s. Then you are in the belly of the dining area-noise, waiters who are as much acrobats and entertainers as skilled servers. There are pictures covering most every square inch of the walls of the various rooms, with a main bar in the center where you can sit and drink if there’s room and the tables are all taken. This place is usually major-league busy. Nick Vergos serves and ships over a ton of barbecue every day! To even speak of “ambiance” implies that there’s something deliberate and artificial about this place, which is patently not true. The Rendevous is the south personified, with its love of great food, camaraderie, and laughter. Stories abound on the walls and at the tables.

The floor is old and creaky and the people are from all walks of life. Just to examine all the pictures of the famous people, the buildings and landmarks, the trophies and paraphernalia from the area is an event in and of itself and would take literally days. The waiters are legendary and for good reason. They’re expert servers and can all tell a good tale. These servers are real pros and most have been there for years-if not decades. I would hazard that many take home well more than a good stockbroker or Fed Ex manager. They know the food and they know people.

You really don’t have a choice if it’s your first time here. You have to order the ribs. When they come there’s not a chance in the world you will leave with clean hands. The dry rub powders your fingers and nails and some of the table sauce inevitably ends up on your shirt. But once your order arrives, you might as well forget conversation. You will be too busy knawing, licking your fingers, wiping your hands, and moaning in delight at the ambrosia that is Memphis barbecue. The homemade tiny slaw is delicious-a tiny bit creamy but not sweet. It is spicy and more on the vinegary side than the typical packaged slaw served up by many restaurants. They have a cheese plate and a sausage appetiser and chicken lovers can even order barbecues chicken if they aren’t pork lovers. The iced tea and icy cold beer are wonderful accompaniments to the spicy main courses. The side dishes are interesting and tasty but ribs are king and they steal the show.

A usual meal is an experience that invades the tastebuds, the nose, the ears, eyes and the fingers. Though there is -or was – a jukebox, it is never on. Instead, the sounds of the squeaky floors, the drone of talk, waiters hollering orders in, and the dishes clattering is all the music you will hear at this delightful place. For the usual one and a half or two hours at the Rendevous you are steeped in a delightful experience so intense that it will remain with you for a lifetime. While native Memphians have it engrained in their memories it doesn’t lessen one bit the sheer pleasure of indulging over and over again. For anyone who has not experienced real Memephis barbecue, the summer is a great time to wander on down to the city, enjoy the river, the trolley, Graceland, Beale Street and the Peabody. And then stroll down that little alley and drop into a world that has not changed basically for decades. Thanks Heaven for places like this

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