What’s Wrong With Memphis?

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Memphis was as far east as I got on this trip, which is to say that I skipped the Carolinas. This neglect no doubt excommunicates me from the royal and ancient club of barbecue. I bypassed the Carolinas because I’ve already eaten a lot of barbecue there—in South Carolina, especially, where they douse it with a weird mustard sauce. It was impossible for me to hit Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, and the Carolinas—at least if I wanted to stay married—so I sacrificed the region I knew best.

Memphis styles itself the first city of barbecue. It’s home to “Memphis in May,” the competition known as the Mardi Gras of Barbecue. According to Amir Abdol, director of operations for Memphis barbecue giant Corky’s, the average Memphian has a craving for barbecue once every seven days. (They polled the question. Really.)

The sanctum sanctorum of Memphis barbecue is Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, a subterranean restaurant located in a downtown alley. At lunchtime on Friday, I met proprietor John Vergos (son of Charlie) and our mutual friend Tennessee state Sen. Roy Herron there. The Rendezvous is a great joint. It’s decorated like a crazy person’s house: Every wall is covered with random old paintings, posters, maps, and street signs. Glass cases are crammed with peculiar bric-a-brac and thingamajigs like ancient bars of soap. The place is loud, busy, and friendly. And it’s staffed by waiters who’ve been there forever; one of ours had worked there 45 years, the other 24 years.

Memphis is a rib town, and the great debate is wet or dry. Wet ribs, the specialty of Rendezvous rival Corky’s, are served with sauce on them. Dry ribs, the Rendezvous’ forte, are coated with a tangy seasoning powder. Vergos ordered us some ribs and a shoulder sandwich, then recounted the history of the Rendezvous.

His father, Charlie, the son of a Greek hot-dog vendor, opened the Rendezvous in 1948 in a crummy basement. One day a meat salesman brought Charlie some pork ribs, a very unpopular—and thus cheap—cut of meat. At the time, barbecue was popular in black Memphis, but pork shoulder, not ribs, was the main dish. Charlie Vergos tried cooking the ribs in a Greek style, over charcoal with oregano and other spices. The ribs were a sensation, imitators sprang up, and soon Memphis was famous as the rib city. The Rendezvous has cooked for Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and the Rolling Stones. The Rendezvous ribs and shoulder sandwiches were excellent compared to what I am used to, but, I must admit, a little bland after all that great KC barbecue.

Figuring four men could eat barbecue better than one, I had invited my college roommates to meet me for a bacchanalian weekend in Memphis. On Friday night, we headed over to Corky’s in East Memphis. Corky’s may be the most popular barbecue restaurant in the world. It is also a symbol of all that is wrong with Memphis barbecue. The luckiest thing that happened to Memphis meat is Federal Express. The overnight carrier’s headquarters and hub are in the city, which has made it easy for Memphis barbecue restaurants to express their meat around the country. Corky’s is by far the most successful at it. It ships ribs all over and sells to Costco, Sam’s Club, and national supermarket chains. As a result, Memphis ribs—in particular Corky’s ribs—have somehow become the national gold standard of great barbecue.

Once you have eaten at Corky’s, you may find this popularity baffling and infuriating. Corky’s is a factory business, and it shows at the restaurant. Corky’s founder was a furniture-store owner before he went into barbecue, and our dinner had a somewhat wooden quality. The dry ribs were too dry; so were the wet ones. Only the pork shoulder gave us real pleasure. At the end of the meal, my roommate from California said bitterly, “I didn’t fly 2,000 miles to eat barbecue like this.”

On Saturday, we visited Graceland, which, I was surprised to learn, has its own small barbecue theme. Elvis himself liked barbecue—he used to order in from The Rendezvous, says John Vergos—though he was more partial to grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But that’s not the Graceland connection. Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley, smoked meats in a small room next to the garage for a while. Eventually, Elvis turned the smokehouse into a shooting range.

Which might be the right thing to do with Corky’s and some other Memphis barbecues. We ate another mediocre meal on Saturday, a dinner at Jim Neely’s Interstate Barbecue, another restaurant that ships its ribs. The sausage was delicious. Everything else was forgettable, except for barbecued spaghetti, which was memorable for being totally queer: pasta topped with barbecue sauce and bits of smoked pork.

We did find one joint in Memphis that hit the spot, perhaps because it was only trying to serve a little good barbecue, not to launch a national brand. Cozy Corner, located in a decrepit, partially boarded-up shopping strip north of downtown, has fluorescent lights and no atmosphere. But the proprietors—three generations of family overseen by Desiree Robinson—are very hospitable, and they served us a mean barbecued Cornish hen and fantastic beef and coleslaw and pork and coleslaw sandwiches. Their most sublime concoction, though my roommates might dispute this, is the barbecued bologna sandwich—a thick slice of bologna cooked in the smoker just long enough to brown on the outside. Once you ignore the odd, mushy texture, it’s pretty great.

I left Memphis on Sunday morning not at all sure why it counts as a world-class barbecue town. Perhaps it’s Memphis’ deft boosterism. This city has genius marketers. Memphis is very grungy, yet the marketers have managed to enshrine Graceland as a national monument and to convince tourists that Beale Street—a rowdy boozefest—is a major cultural landmark. Perhaps they have done the same with Memphis barbecue, an illusionist’s trick to make it seem more appealing than it is.

Off to Texas to cleanse the palate.