Memphis is one of my favorite Weekend Cities. Since it’s just a one-hour flight from DFW, you can leave work, pack a bag, hop on a one-hour flight from DFW, and be wiping barbecue sauce from your hands at Central BBQ before the sun sets.
Last weekend, I popped into Memphis to catch up on my fill of ribs, history, and the inaugural Cochon Heritage BBQ festival, a three-day celebration of porky goodness whose goal was to connect heritage pig farmers with southern barbecue culture. That meant three days of eating, drinking (it’s also National Bourbon Month, and Tennessee knows a thing or two about bourbon) and southern hospitality. The event brought chefs, farmers, butchers, ‘cue experts and barbecue enthusiasts together in one spot: the iconic Peabody Hotel, right smack in the middle of downtown, which is where you’d want to base a weekend getaway anyway.
Memphis is one of those rare Southern cities that offers as much sizzle as smoke. With 70 (mostly) exceptional bbq joints, you’re never far from a hickory pit and a plate of ribs and pulled pork. I’ve visited nearly every one of those 70 ‘cue emporiums. Central BBQ and the Bar-B-Q Shop rank highest on my list, but everyone seems to have his or her favorite. I’d never refuse a slab of grilled ribs from Rendezvous, a barbecued Cornish hen from Cozy Corner or anything at on the pit at Interstate Barbecue.
If you’ve never been to Memphis, prepare yourself to be wowed. Elvis, Graceland, MLK, and BB King loom almost as large as the Mississippi River– and grow larger every year. Memphis is also home to the best civil rights museum in America, Sun Studio, a zoo with pandas, and a hotel with ducks.
As you’d probably expect, most of the Cochon Heritage BBQ Festival involved eating barbecue, planning to eat barbecue or talking about eating barbecue. I had a bacon breakfast with the America’s foremost bacon producer, Allan Benton. I learned how to break down a 160-pound heritage pig with meat scientist David Newman. And at the festival’s main event, the Heritage BBQ Competition, nine teams of chefs each butchered and processed a different heritage pig, producing a six-course meal that required the use of nearly every piggy part of the carcass.
Each whole-hog team was responsible for preparing and serving to the crowd four meats – divided into the categories of Pulled meats, Muscle, Bone, and Stew – plus two sides, one mayonnaise-based and another mustard-based.
I sampled everything from bone broth to pies, all made from a single hog. The winning menu featured a “Memphis State Fair Sandwich,” consisting of a mustard-grilled pork loin sandwich withbroccoli chow-chow and a schmear of lard aioli; plus Master Chang’s Szechuan Bone Broth, enriched with smoked mushrooms, chile lard and cilantro; a pork-stuffed chile relleno, plus cassoulet of house-cured pastrami, cranberry beans, smoked pork belly and a bourbon-mustard sauce.
Next: Allan Benton talks about the art of making bacon