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Goin' Down to Memphis : The Mississipi River Town Known for Blues 'n' Barbecue Lights Up With New Civic Enticements : The Food

August 22, 1993|CHRISTINE ARPE GANG | Christine Arpe Gang, food editor for Memphis' The Commercial Appeal, has been enjoying Memphis-style barbecue for 20 years

MEMPHIS — Barbecue is such an important part of life in the Mid-South that many former residents put getting a fix of it high on their agenda whenever they return. Some have it sent to them in the far reaches of the world by overnight courier. Others rely on visiting friends and relatives to bring it with them.

During stops on the presidential campaign trail, Vice President Al Gore often left Memphis with foil-wrapped racks of ribs, according to a Memphis friend. When he was a Tennessee senator, he was an honorary member of a barbecue team, one of the 200-plus groups that compete annually at our famous Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (although some say he did more handshaking than cooking). But when it came to eating, he was a champ, gnawing his rib bones clean.

Memphis native Cybill Shepherd stops by the barbecue restaurant Cozy Corner on her visits home, and has had barbecue Fed-Xed to Los Angeles for parties.

Other celebrities are not immune to the lure of barbecue. The crew from "The Firm," which filmed the movie here last year, ordered ribs and barbecue from Interstate Bar-B-Q, according to its owner, Jim Neely. Even Tom Cruise, who doesn't indulge much in red meat, sent his driver out for barbecue.

Similarly, during the 1988 filming of "Great Balls of Fire," Dennis Quaid took Meg Ryan with him to chomp ribs at Neely's, and then proclaimed them the "best ribs in town" on an autographed picture of himself that now hangs in the restaurant.

Elvis Presley and his entourage would arrange to go to the original Leonard's at Bellevue Boulevard and McLemore Avenue (relocated last year) after closing time, eating family-style and talking until the early morning hours.

Yes, barbecue is a revered part of our culture and there are many places to eat it.

The restaurants are generally unpretentious and inexpensive, ranging in price from $3.50 for a pork shoulder sandwich to $12 for a large order of ribs with all the trimmings. They are packed with customers of all socioeconomic backgrounds and ages (most are so lively that even crying children cannot be heard), and the dress is always casual. Shorts and sandals during the summer. No silk for women (the food's too messy). No ties for men (ditto). No white tablecloths. No entertainment, except possibly a TV for essential sporting events. Just lots of food, American beer and soft drinks (although some of the places do serve wine). And--mandatory during our sultry summers--the air conditioning is excellent.

Geographically, few of the barbecue restaurants are located downtown, but most are within a 40-minute drive. Reservations are only necessary for large groups.

Pork is the barbecue meat of choice in Memphis, although beef occasionally shows up and some restaurants are making nods to the fat-conscious by offering barbecued versions of chicken, Cornish hens and shrimp. When Memphis natives discuss "barbecue" generically, they are talking about pork shoulder--not ribs. A "barbecue," then, is generally thought of as a pulled pork shoulder sandwich on a bun, topped with a modest amount of sweet but tangy barbecue sauce and a dollop of coleslaw. Slaw and pork may seem like an unusual combination, but it is a surprisingly good marriage of flavors. Those who can't imagine it can ask for the slaw on the side.

Picky people will order their sandwiches either "white" or "brown," "chopped" or "pulled." White refers to the juicy interior meat, while brown means some of the chewy exterior pieces are included. If you don't ask, you will end up with a bit of both. You will also find that a "pulled" sandwich has bigger chunks of meat than the "chopped" version.

Finding the perfect barbecue is a pleasurable quest. The meat should be juicy but not greasy;tender but not mushy;slightly charcoal in flavor but not overwhelmed by smoke. Though it should stand on its own, a drizzling of a well-balanced sauce is meant to enhance the meat flavor, not mask it.

To reach this perfect state, 18- to 20-pound pork shoulders are cooked a minimum of 10 hours in a closed pit over indirect heat from charcoal, hickory or both.

Two styles of pork ribs are commonly served: dry and wet. When done correctly, dry ribs shouldn't really be dry to the bone. The meaty portion is rubbed with spices to create a dry, thin crust that seals in the moisture of the ribs. Sauce is served on the side, but it's not a necessary component. With wet ribs, the sauce is slathered on to pork ribs during the last hour or so of cooking.

Most restaurants serve barbecue with baked beans (often with pulled barbecue pork stirred in), coleslaw on the side and onion rings. A dessert of lemon ice box pie--though not light in fat or calories--refreshes spice-worn palates.

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