Anyone who knows me knows I’m an avid sweepstakes enterer (if that’s even a word!). In a typical week, I enter 150 to 200 different online sweepstakes, and I’ve won trips, cash, shopping sprees and all kinds of other things (makeup, hair and skin products, video games and systems, etc.). Yes, I get lucky sometimes, but I also put in the time to enter a LOT of contests. A few months back, I came across the National Pork Board’s “Pork Passion Pursuits” sweepstakes – a contest offering a $5,000 prize to winners in each of five different categories to fulfill their pork passion dreams. I’d been hearing the song “Walkin’ in Memphis” a lot, so I typed out a quick entry in the Lifestyler category mentioning how much I love Memphis-style barbecue and the fact that I blog about food history and would love to learn about the history of this delicious style of pork barbecue.
I promptly forgot about my entry until about a month later, when I received an email from a marketing and PR firm stating that I had won the Lifestyler category, and would be presented with a $5,000 prize to carry out my pork adventure! The first emotion I felt was shock, of course, but once the excitement set in I quickly set to work planning my trip to Memphis. I visited the websites of the Food Network, Cooking Channel and local bloggers in the Memphis area to discover which barbecue restaurants were the best. I began researching the history of Memphis-style barbecue: the combination of spicy dry rub and sweet, thick sauce that is just irresistible. My research led me through centuries of food history.
The area comprising and surrounding the present city of Memphis was inhabited first by the Chickasaw tribe, a group of mound builders who were part of the larger Mississippian culture. In the mid-1500’s, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto navigated the Mississippi and surrounding rivers and tributaries and discovered the settlement on the bluff that is now the city of Memphis. It is known that when de Soto landed in Florida, he had with him a herd of pigs. It is likely that some of those pigs were brought with him as he traveled up the Mississippi River, and that some may have escaped into the wild. In 1540, close to present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe, in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto, cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa. This was the very first “Memphis barbecue!” In the early Colonial days, settlers hunted pigs and other native game in the woods and wilds surrounding their settlements. The pig was an important food source for settlers, as pigs could be domesticated easily, but could also be released back into the wild should food sources become scarce, then hunted and even re-domesticated later, when food stores were greater. The method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals and green wood seems to have originated with native peoples, and the name “barbecoa,” which later became barbecue, comes from that practice (from “The History of Barbecue in the South“). Southerners quickly picked up the practice, using it to cook the abundant pig population to the point that they eventually ate an average of five pounds of pork for every one pound of cattle. From colonial times up to the antebellum period and beyond, “barbecues” were popular social functions, taking place at community gatherings and political rallies throughout the South.
In Memphis, one of the staples of the barbecue scene is the slab of pork ribs. The cooking of ribs, and much of the process of slow cooking pork over low heat, most likely originated from slaves and, post-Civil War, poor blacks having access only to less-desirable cuts of meat, and thus needing to cook it “low and slow” to tenderize it. In Memphis, the proximity to the Mississippi River and the city’s status as a port and trading hub allowed residents access to imported products, such as spices and molasses. The textbook Memphis style of barbecue – spicy dry rubbed meat cooked low and slow, then sauced with a thick, sweet sauce – likely developed over many years, and each major barbecue restaurant in town has its own blend of dry rub and sauce. The spice blends are almost always based in paprika, and the sauces are rich with tomato flavor, vinegar and molasses.
There are a number of iconic barbecue restaurants in Memphis, and I added them to my list of “must-visit” places. Over the next few posts, I’ll introduce you to them, and recap my trip. My husband and I had such a great time, and I’m so happy that the National Pork Board chose me to have this experience. I really feel like I got to live out my “Pork Passion Pursuit” in Memphis, and I learned so much about barbecue, the blues and the history of this delicious style of barbecue. Stay tuned for more!