Memphis is the epicenter of Tennessee’s barbecue culture. Here they host an annual festival dedicated to barbecue, and bona fide barbecue pits burn daily. In Memphis, they’ll douse anything with barbecue sauce, hence the city’s specialty: barbecue spaghetti.
Barbecue restaurants are usually humble places by appearances, with characters behind the counter and in the kitchen. Most swear by their own special barbecue recipe and guard it jealously. Nearly all good barbecue, however, requires time and patience, as the meat—usually pork—is smoked for hours and sometimes days over a fire. After the meat is cooked, it is tender and juicy and doused with barbecue sauce, which is tangy and sweet.
Pork barbecue is the most common, and it’s often served pulled next to soft white bread. Barbecue chicken, turkey, ribs, bologna, and beef can also be found on many menus.
The Southern Foodways Alliance, part of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, conducted an oral history project about Memphis and West Tennessee barbecue in the early 2000s. You can read transcripts of the interviews and see photos on the SFA website at www.southernfoodways.com.
Fried catfish is a food tradition that started along Tennessee’s rivers, where river catfish are caught. Today, fried catfish served in restaurants is just as likely to come from a catfish farm. For real river catfish, look for restaurants located near rivers and lakes, such as those near Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee, or the City Fish Market in Brownsville.
Fried catfish (it’s rarely served any way besides fried) is normally coated with a thin dusting of cornmeal, seasonings, and flour. On its own, the fish is relatively bland. Tangy tartar sauce, vinegar-based hot sauce, and traditional sides like coleslaw and baked beans enliven the flavor. Hush puppies are the traditional accompaniment.
Farmer’s markets are popping up in more and more Tennessee communities. Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis have large markets every Saturday (Nashville’s operates daily). Dozens of small towns have their own weekly, seasonal markets.
There is a great deal of variety when it comes to the types of markets that exist. Some markets take place under tents, provide entertainment, and invite artisans to sell arts and crafts as well as food products. Other markets consist of little more than a bunch of farmers who have arranged the week’s harvest on the back of their tailgates.
Regardless of the style, farmer’s markets are a great place to meet people and buy wholesome food.
The State Department of Agriculture (www.usda.gov) maintains a listing of all registered farmer’s markets, including locations and contact information.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition