The Crossroads-Mississippi Delta to Memphis
Posted in Mississippi on December 17, 2011 by Victoria Allman
We drove through the pecan colors of the Mississippi Delta in late fall. We passed the barren cut remains of cotton fields that were in bloom as recently as last week and dried rusted oak trees that shed their leaves as fast as the levees had broken. Although the skies were bright blue, the scenery was brown.
We were on our way to Memphis in search of blues music and barbecues. I wasn’t sure which Patrick was more excited about. The week before, we’d seen a sign reading Caution: You are entering a Ribs and Biscuit Zone, but really, that warning could apply to all our expeditions in the south.
The plan was to eat nothing but barbecue for four days.
“Isn’t that cheating?” Patrick asked as I packed a bag of oranges for snacks.
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t consider shredded cabbage coated in mayonnaise and flavored with sweet relish a vegetable.”
We started at the crossroads of highway 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the blues. Our first barbecue venture, Abe’s in the shadow of the crossroads, had us licking our fingers while tender, moist pieces of pork shoulder dripped with a vinegary sauce. Crisp and cool coleslaw crunched and cut the richness of the meat. It was just the start of our southern pilgrimage.
That night we walked into Red’s, one of the last real juke joints in the south. The ramshackle brick building looked more like a mechanics garage than a blues club. But the hand-written sign hung on the door promised Robert Bilbo Walker and Big T Tonite.
Red was behind the bar when we arrived, uncapping beers and greeting everyone like we were all old friends, as he’d been greeting lovers of the blues for the past forty years.
“I know why they call me Red.” I flipped my copper colored locks off my shoulder. “But, why do they call you Big Red?”
Red pushed his dark glasses further up his nose and laughed. “Because I’m large.” He grabbed his thick stomach and shook it. “And I get to talkin’ mean.”
I thought I saw him wink behind his glasses. It was dark and smoky in the small, cluttered space, so it was hard to tell.
On stage the bass player began the low hallow beat of the first song.
“You gonna enjoy this,” Red said to me. “This ain’t no watered down bullshit.”
The band exploded. Beside me, a man in a checkered black and white zoot suit rose from his stool, clapped his hands together and sang like he was responding to the preacher in a Baptist Gospel Church.
“You got that right, Red.” He tipped his felt black hat at me and began keeping time with wing-tip shoes.
The air shimmered with energy and the thunderous sound of guitar. It was as if Chuck Berry was reincarnated in front of us. Patrick smiled deeper than he had at Abe’s.
The men on stage wound down and a bottle of Patron appeared. It passed from hand to hand.
Once again, Red laughed. “Don’t let the bottle fool you.”
And as the moonshine made its rounds, I too, knew that nothing about Red’s was watered down.
The next day, I washed the smoke from Red’s out of my hair and swapped it for the smoke of barbecue.
The heavy smell of hickory hung in the air as we walked through the doors of our first Memphis-style barbecue. It was nothing fancy; a counter with a woman in a white apron behind it and a large open window that served as a pass-through from the man with a cleaver in the back.
“Two rib dinners, please.” Patrick had done his homework. “Dry.”
Memphis-style meant smoked pork that was rubbed with a thick coating of spices, slow-cooked for hours, and served with a thin tangy sauce on the side.
The ribs arrived on Styrofoam plates with cups of coleslaw and baked beans. The juicy meat fell from the bone when I bit into the first piece and ignited my taste buds. The endless hours of cooking had allowed the flavors to meld with the meat. This was worth the drive.
The days passed quickly with pulled pork sandwiches for lunch and barbecued ribs for dinner, but when my Lipitor-laden husband started requesting a salad for the next meal I found myself at another crossroads: head home to a week of conscious eating or squeeze in one more rack of succulent, melt-in-your-mouth ribs.
We packed up and headed back south and I found myself wishing we were back at the crossroads starting our trip over. I turned to Patrick and knew he was thinking the same thing,
“I wonder who is playing at Red’s tonight?”
Memphis-style Dry Ribs
1 teaspoon celery seeds
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup paprika
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon sea salt
¼ tsp. ground white pepper
3 racks St. Louis-cut pork spareribs
Hickory wood chips
Grind the celery seeds and fennel seeds in a spice grinder until smooth. Mix together with brown sugar, paprika, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, thyme, cumin, allspice, dry mustard, cayenne, sea salt and white pepper.
Rub ribs all over with the spice mixture. Refrigerate overnight.
Prepare your grill using hickory chips as the smoking wood. Place ribs, top side down, on grate. Maintaining a temperature of 225°-275°, cook for 2 hours and turn the meat, cook for another 2 hours until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.
***If, like me, you do not have a grill, this step can be done in a 275 degree oven. Place the ribs on a cookie sheet and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for three hours. Remove foil for the last hour.
Serve with BBQ Sauce on the side for dipping.
Memphis-style BBQ Sauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
½ cup onions, diced fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ¼ tablespoon chili powder
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons dry mustard
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
32 grinds fresh black pepper
½ teaspoon sea salt
1-20 ounce bottle ketchup
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
In a heavy-bottomed saucepot, sauté onions and garlic in vegetable oil for 5 minutes over medium-high heat until soft and golden. Add remaining ingredients and reduce heat to medium-low; simmer for 30 minutes.
Rendezvous is always good. Have not been to Flight. When gnoiwrg up, Memphis was a close traveling distance but not now so I've lost out on the newer places to eat. Glad you are having fun. The zoo was always nice too. Good picnic areas.
Well welcome, Sandy. And thank you! I hope you enjoy SEAsoned. And, the ribs in Memphis are the tastiest I've had.
Just browsing on Goodreads and found you re JL Burke. What an amazing blog. I love travel and cooking so just had to order SEAsoned from Amazon.UK. Those ribs sound delicious - will have to give them a try..