It took approximately 16 hours to travel by plane from Australia to the southwest of the USA. Quite a distance really, so how can one not include a stop at Memphis, Tennessee? Missing a visit to Memphis would be a crime! The largest city in Tennessee is known for its good food and music… home of the blues, jazz and as many maintain, is the birthplace of rock n’ roll. For music lovers, Memphis is a compulsory destination and for avid fans of Elvis Presley like my husband, (who would have thrown a fit if we missed this stop) Graceland- is the mecca for Elvis believers. I, on the other hand wanted to experience Beale St for its famous nightclubs and cafes and its world-renowned barbecue (pork) ribs in America. Memphis style barbecue hold its own when pitted against the other southern states of North Carolina, Kansas and Texas also renowned for their barbecue culinary techniques.
‘Chasing the American barbecue’ and learning the history and culture of the American south through this mouth-watering cuisine was my underlying excuse for going to Memphis. Food historians believe that in the South, the technique of smoking meat slowly over low hickory fire became the conventional method of cooking large amounts of meat to feed a mass of people. By the 19th century it became the accepted staple for social gatherings. Pork was also considered the main meat because it was inexpensive, abundant and therefore affordable to the poorer classes, particularly the Southern African Americans. In addition to the barbecue, fried chicken, corn bread and hush puppies have strong links to the African-American community and known simply as “soul food”. Juxtaposed with music-the soulful Mississippi blues or the delta blues- the obvious influence of southern American cooking is largely contributed by the Africans, brought to America in the 17th century as slaves. Much of American cooking in the south were contributions from Africa- red beans and okra, were integral ingredients to their staple food.
Memphis is really known for its pulled pork-shoulder, smoked, slow cooked and served either “wet”, with sauce, or “dry”, without sauce. Either way, Memphis ribs are delicious, savoury and tender, falling off the bone.
For foodies and rock n’ rollers, Memphis is definitely worth the long haul from home. And so, continuing our train journey from Dallas, and New Orleans, we boarded Amtrak’s ‘58 City of New Orleans’ train departing New Orleans, Louisiana crossing the state of Mississippi to stop at Memphis, Tennessee. Approximately 400 miles and about 8 hours later on the train, we arrived late at night (10 pm) and went straight to the Memphis Marriott hotel downtown to recover from an overload of senses, seeing the marvellous sights along the train track going north.
The next day, we set off to explore Graceland mansion. (What else?) . To get there, we took the free shuttle bus from Sun Studio in downtown Memphis to Graceland, only a 20 minute bus ride. Sun Studio runs a free shuttle bus to and from Graceland every hour on the hour. For more information on this free shuttle service, please contact Sun Studio at 1-800-441-6249 or visit the Sun Studio website.
Elvis’ Graceland colonial style mansion was what I expected, only smaller than what I imagined.
A true reflection of the glitz and glamour associated with Elvis, Graceland was home to the king of rock n’ roll for 20 years. The organised tour takes the visitors from the foyer, to the living room, kitchen, TV and poolroom and the ‘King’s’ favourite relaxation place, the Jungle room. For me, other attractions such as the Elvis Presley Automobile museum housing over 15 of his vehicles as well as his customised jet were just as interesting as his abode. The 1958 Convair 880 jet named after his daughter Lisa Marie is an extravagant bespoke mode of transport that features a living room, conference room, sitting room and private bedroom.
Ending the Graceland tour at the Meditation Garden, millions of fans would have paid their respects (as we did) to the place where Elvis was laid to rest. Seeing this, I convinced my husband that Elvis is well and truly dead! I say this, as it seems millions of true believers still have hopes he is alive and some think Elvis is still really alive! In fact just before his 25th death anniversary (August 16,2002 marked the 25th anniversary of the official death of Elvis Presley) a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 respondents found that eight per cent who participated in the survey said that they believe there is a chance that Elvis could be alive. The poll estimates that there would be approximately 16 million American adults who believe Elvis is really alive. In Australia, the new compilation (If I can Dream) made number one on the ARIA (Australian recording industry association ) album chart
No wonder then that the long queues of visitors to Graceland have not abated to this very day.
From Graceland, the shuttle bus dropped us off at Sun Studio which is a ‘must’ for anyone who has an interest in music, specifically, rock n roll and the blues.
A guided tour in this quaint little studio is undeniably an education on the history that introduced legendary rock n rollers to the world… like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and many more. The small studio is a treasure trove of relics, memorabilia and rock n’ roll history. So with limited time, it’s best to plan ahead. Sun Studio is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Beale Street was the other reason why we had Memphis on our itinerary- our next ‘must experience’ destination. Known as the USA’s most iconic street, Beale St is right in the heart of downtown Memphis; runs from the Mississippi River to East Street and is approximately 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long. The street has a long and interesting history that started in the early colonial years of the USA. Due to its proximity and easy access to the Mississippi River, in those days, Beale was a place bustling with merchants and traders doing their business. From here it was inevitable that in addition to merchants, entertainers flocked to the street. In the 1860’s musicians started performing there, which soon led to the transformation of Beale as a place where the population would congregate to socialise; where music was the common denominator. Beale’s heyday was in the 1920’s to 1940’s as blues and jazz greats like Albert King, Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King (B.B. stands for Blues Boy) graced Beale St with their presence. Historians argue that this was when and where the Memphis Blues or Delta Blues style of music was born.
If New York is a town that never sleeps, then Beale St must be the street that never sleeps – a serious contender to New York’s Times Square. The carnival atmosphere was undeniable the night we were there. People in cafes and bars, music blasting from the clubs that lined the street; the young frolicking with various cocktail concoctions in their hands, some half boozed, very boozed but all seemed harmless and merry, having a fabulous time as we did.
The Blues City Café was our chosen place to try the famed Memphis barbecue ribs. On the menu, there was quite a large selection of Southern style food but we couldn’t go past the barbecue ribs. In fact, I had the combination platter of half rack of ribs and a catfish fillet served with baked beans, cole slaw, new potatoes, Texas toast, and tartar sauce. I didn’t regret this choice. It would have been the best ribs I’ve ever had and Blues City Café’s claim of having the best ribs in Memphis was justified. So much so that we purchased their ‘secret’ seasoning in a jar.
On our second and unfortunately last day, we took the MATA heritage streetcar to explore Memphis resulting to an impression that during the day, the town lacked the glitz and glamour we witnessed the night before. Because of this we thought we would head back to Beale St. It turned out to be a good move as we were rewarded with the parade of various interesting floats. Apparently it was part of the annual Memphis music festival. Not quite the same as the Rio Carnival floats but a hoot nevertheless.
As luck would have it, our visit to this incredible food and music town coincided with the event dubbed as ‘Memphis in May’. It is a month long event held each year to celebrate what I believe is Memphis’s undisputed reputation of dominance in music and food. We settled down to enjoy and experience The Beale Street Music Festival held at Tom Lee Park on Beale with an entertaining line-up of musical local and national artists. The bonus was watching the uninhibited audience dancing to the rhythm and blues. It was a great afternoon.
Memphis in May is also known amongst serious foodies in America for the World Championship Barbecue Contest, earning a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest pork barbecue contest in the world.
The finale of our Memphis visit was another meal of barbecue ribs and fries while being entertained by blues music at BB King’s café on Beale. At the time of our visit to Memphis, BB King was still alive, but alas, he was nowhere in sight.