Memphis-style grilling’s deep-rooted history and unique blend of sweet and tangy flavors make it one of the world’s greatest cuisines. Find out what makes it so special.
North American barbecue has four main regional styles: Texas, Carolina, Kansas City, and Memphis Style. Each of these styles of American grilling has its own distinct meats, cooking techniques, and flavor bases that make them just as delicious, but very different.
Today we’re going to take a look at the Memphis barbecue: how it came about, its most basic characteristics, and how it’s conducted to become the world’s most specific barbecue competition.
What is Memphis Style Barbecue?
Memphis-style barbecue can be summed up in a few words: flavorful, tender pork that falls off the bone. Memphisans love to slow cook their pork, their significant grilled meat choice, over a hickory charcoal pit to get that extra smoke.
The pork is made with dry rubs, although YOU won’t find many people willing to share their secret spice recipe! As a general rule of thumb, most true Memphis-style dressings have a base of paprika and chili to bring out those smoky flavors and give them a kick.
Memphis was incorporated as a city in 1819. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, it became a respected port for trading in cotton as well as some Memphis barbecue staples: molasses and hardwood.
Pork has always been a visible meat, particularly in parts south of the Mississippi River after the Spanish explorer introduced domesticated pigs in the mid-1600s.
Add this abundance of pork, the sweet taste of molasses, the tangy smell of hickory smoke, and people’s need to make money in a post-war era, and you have the perfect combination of ingredients for the birth of traditional Memphis. Grill the style we know and love today.
The BBQ scene started small, with small smokers popping up everywhere, in low-income areas as it was an inexpensive and profitable business for people to venture into.
As certain joints became more popular, the grilling style and recipes would become more sophisticated. In the late 1940s, pioneering restaurants like Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous soon began to open and further solidify Memphis as the only place for a decent smoked pork meal.
Fast forward another decade or so and we see the state of Tennessee becoming world famous for its influence on the music industry. Not only do you have Sun Records in Memphis, signing the likes of Elvis, Roy Orbison and Johny Cash, but you also have neighboring Nashville, which has become the center of country music.
In 1977, she combined music and good food with the first “Memphis in May” event, a month-long festival of activities across the city to celebrate all that the city has become most famous for.
In 1978, the first World Barbecue Cooking Championships(WCBCC) were held during the Memphis Festival in May of that year. The rest, as the saying goes, is history!
The world championship of grill cooking
The WCBCC is the world’s largest pork barbecue competition, with over 250 participating teams from different countries, over 100,000 people flocking to the city-wide event, and even media coverage from the BBC and The Food Network.
Memphis barbecue tradition
Use a dry massage
Most Memphisans keep their own dry rub recipes a top secret, but they generally consist of a paprika base along with black pepper or brown sugar, as this not only creates a delicious aroma but also enhances the intense red hue. .
Scrub the flesh
Whisking is a technique commonly used in Memphis-style grilling to keep the meat tender and to carry even more flavor as it cooks. YOU make a “mop” by mixing the dry rub with some water to create a thin sauce that can be added to the cooking meat every 30 minutes or so.
Cooked over a hickory smoke
The wood of choice for the traditional Memphis barbecue is hickory because it has a strong, savory, quick bacon-like(some assume) flavor that pairs beautifully with pork.
Pork Ribs(St Louis Style Cut)
The right cut of meat is essential when attempting to cook up a Memphis-style barbecue. Arguably one of the expected dishes for this style is slow-smoked ribs, but for that authentic Memphis vibe, consider cutting your ribs St. Louis-style.
St. Louis-style ribs start out like a traditional rib cut, but are sliced (rib tips, gristle, and breastbone removed) to give them a more even, rectangular shape that’s easier to cook and eat.
Classic Memphis grills
Every region has its own dishes, and Memphis is no different. All of these staples help define the region as one of the best in the world.
Dry or wet ribs
Ribs are THE staple of Memphis barbecue, but did you know you can cook them “dry” or “wet”?
Dry ribs are coated in a dry spice mix before cooking, which gives them a flavorful crust, and are usually eaten without sauce(although it doesn’t hurt to have a little on the side in case you want to dip).
Wet ribs are coated with the same seasoning as dry ribs, except the seasoning IS added to a base to create a liquid “mop” that is pre-stacked to meat and held during cooking to keep it tender.
You can cook your pork to perfection, but it’s not a real barbecue if you don’t have the right sauce.
Traditional Memphis BBQ sauce is thinner and spicier than most other barbecue sauces, but still has a delicious sweetness.
The tart acidity comes from its tomato and vinegar base, while the sweetness IS added with brown sugar or molasses(which also gives it its distinct dark hue).
Don’t forget pages!
While grilling is all about the meat, you can’t make Memphis Barbecue without adding classic side dishes like coleslaw, grilled baked beans and cornbread.
Famous BBQ joints in Memphis
If you’re craving authentic Memphis barbecue and find yourself in town, here are some of the best BBQ restaurants to visit.
Central BBQ has three lights across town, but the original(and arguably the best) is in Midtown on Central Avenue. They slow cook their meat at 250°F for 14 hours and it’s always tender and moist but with a delicious crust.
Must have menu item: pulled pork nachos and fries with blue cheese dressing
Quote from Charlie Vergos
Originally starting out as a street vendor selling pork sandwiches and coleslaw, Charlie opened his famous grill restaurant in 1948 on an alleyway in downtown Memphis. and tourists at the same time, all dying trying to get a table. Reserve early if you can; If not, there’s always an option to sit at the bar and soak up the atmosphere of this busy barbecue landmark.
Menu item “Must Try”: Sausage and cheese platter
Jim Neely’s Interstate BBQ
If you are visiting the King’s former home in person, Jim Neelys in Memphis’ Graceland area is well worth a visit. With an extensive menu of grilled specialties and the secret family BBQ sauce recipe, you can stop by for lunch, dinner, take out or even take out.
Must Try Menu Item: BBQ Spaghetti(pulled pork and sauce mixed with spaghetti noodles)
As the name suggests, this BBQ bastion is located in the center of Germantown in an old traditional country shop. Don’t let the small building get you hooked; The food served here has a lot of flavor. Enough YOU, if possible, to reserve a table as places fill up quickly with tourists and locals trying to snag a seat at said grill restaurant.
Must Try Menu Item: Smoked Sausage or Pork Tamales and Coconut Cream Pie.