THE BBQ BELT WITH LEVINS: MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
I first visited Memphis with my family in 1997. I was 12 and had spent the prior week exploring every part of Disneyworld, so I was immediately disappointed by the lack of Splash Mountains in Memphis, instead trying to get myself excited about visiting Elvis’s house and the Titanic Exhibition inside The Pyramid. It was a dire time for my young mind, and if I had a time machine, I would go back to 1997, find my old self and tell him to chill the heck out, because it was during this visit to Memphis that I would first experience something that I would fall in love with and try to recreate from that day forward – pulled pork.
I wrote about this experience in my book that came out last year, and I’m going to quote myself talking about myself eating BBQ for the first time:
“We spent a week in Memphis, Tennessee, living with family friends Caroline and Tom Starck at their home in Germantown. One night, after a long day spent mourning the King at Gracelands, Tom took Dad and I to a BBQ joint called The Germantown Commissary.
At 12 years old, BBQ to me was the sound of thin beef sausages sizzling until they were burnt black on a cheap gas grill, covered in tomato sauce and wrapped in a slice of wonder white bread, eaten quickly as you watched steaks approach somewhere between ‘well done’ and ‘really well done’ while a big piece of beef roasting away in the rusty old Weber fought fiercely for the title of ‘the most well done’.
My idea of BBQ food at that point was pretty simple and although I still enjoyed it, I wondered why we were about to seek out some burnt snags in Memphis, and wondered even more why Tom was so excited to take us there.
Of course, in Memphis, BBQ is all about huge pieces of meat, cooked for as long as possible at as low heat as possible, for as many people as possible. Whole pork shoulders join massive pieces of beef brisket and Flintstonian ribs in a smoke filled paradise, dripping with sweet and spicy sauce. Heaven on a plate, with a side of beans.
So we get to this spot and the most American lady I’d ever met greets us immediately with a loud ‘what’ll you boys have?’ Instead of ordering the most overcooked steaks Memphis has to offer, he says two words that I’ve never heard together before: ‘pulled pork’.
Ten minutes later we were in Tom’s car, which smelt considerably better than it did before we put three bags full of pulled pork sandwiches inside of it. When we got back to his house Tom spread out the contents of the bags across his dining table and we all took a seat.
Tom showed us how you put together a pulled pork sandwich – first tearing apart a soft white roll, he piled on a big wad of the pork, which was softer than the roll. On top of the pork he spooned on some BBQ sauce, then added some deep brown, sticky BBQ beans and topped the whole thing off with some crunchy green slaw. He put one together for each of us and we ate them in silence.
I was a well behaved 12 year old, but after my first bite I had never wanted to scream HOLY FUCKING SHITBALLS more in my life. I did want seconds though so I kept my mouth shut.
We visited a lot more of America after that dinner but nothing stayed with me more than that meal. Not even when our flight got cancelled and we were put up at The Hilton for a night with a fifty dollar meal voucher each! Eating that pulled pork sandwich is the first memory I have of really loving food, and Dad and I would try to recreate it at least once a year using Dad’s Weber back home.”
Riveting stuff, right? Tell that to my editor, who whittled all this down into three paragraphs and took out all the colourful language like ‘Flintstonian‘ and “holy fucking shitballs‘. At the time I was mad but now I thank her for providing me with the opportunity to type ‘tell that to my editor“.
I hadn’t been back to Memphis since 1997. In the 16 years since, I’ve slow-cooked some thousand pork shoulders and even opened a restaurant that serves pulled pork. I was anxious to head back to the place that kicked off my barbecue obsession, but after a day spent inside Elvis’s House (two visits in two decades! Long live the King!), we find ourselves lining up outside the Germantown Commissary.
Germantown Commissary is much bigger than I remember, and every seat is taken. After a short wait we take our seats and I order the exact same thing I ordered 16 years ago – a pulled pork sandwich with a side of beans.
I didn’t start these posts to write about food I didn’t like so I’ll keep it quick. Our meal wasn’t great. The pork was dry and the sandwich was bland. Maybe it was an off night for the Commissary? Maybe my expectations were too high? Maybe it was as good as the sandwich I had in 1997 and I’ve just eaten better barbecue since then? These questions ate at my brain while I sadly ate my sandwich.
I considered throwing my hands up in despair, shouting that everything I thought I knew was a lie and spending the rest of my life living in the sewer, breeding rats.
Maybe I should feel good about myself – that the pork I was cooking in Australia was better than the pork that had inspired me to cook pork in the first place! I knew one thing for certain – there are a lot of other BBQ joints in Memphis. So we left Germantown Commissary and went to Payne’s BBQ.
Payne’s BBQ is an old family run restaurant, and the exact kind of BBQ joint you should seek out as you travel through The States. It’s not glamourous at all from the outside, and on the inside even less so. An open space with a few tables and chairs to sit at, a counter to order from and a tiny kitchen serving the best pork sandwiches in the city.
As I’ve mentioned in previous BBQ Belt posts, BBQ is different all over America. Especially when in comes to pork. The spices you cook it in, the wood you smoke it with, the cuts of meat you use. Right down to the way you serve it. Most popular is pulled pork – where you take your big chunk of perfectly cooked pork shoulder and pull it apart into soft and smoky pieces – but Payne’s BBQ specialises in chopped pork – chopping the pork into small pieces and serving it on a sandwich. This method makes for a huge difference in texture, you get soft and crunchy pieces of pork on your sandwich, which is served on a soft, warm white roll. There’s your choice of BBQ sauce, made to three levels of heat. I order hot, Bianca orders mild. Both come with a big dollop of incredibly yellow mustard slaw. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.
It’s much easier to describe how something looks than how something tastes. Looking at the photo you get a pretty good idea of how fantastic this sandwich tasted. Just know that it tasted ten times better than that, and that this is the meal I think about returning to more than anything else I ate all trip. Maybe I’ll come back 16 years from now and it’ll be disappointing, and I’ll finally make that move to the sewer.
Next stop: Chicken in Alabama and Ribs in Atlanta!
Stay tuned for the rest of the smokey meat eating tour of America with Levins right here.
If you missed Part 1, see it here: When Levins did Austin, Texas
If you missed Part 2, see it here: When Levins did Lockhart, Texas
If you missed Part 3, see it here: When Levins did Spooney’s Bar-B-Que, Mississipi