Book review: Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce, and Soul

My friend and former student Craig David Meek was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book, Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce, and Soul, to review prior to a booksigning and tasting event he is holding at the Cotton Museum on Thursday, July 10. All right, everyone. I am by no means a professional book reviewer. I can’t promise that this review is going to be any good.

But Craig’s book is. In fact, it is excellent.

Anyone who cooks BBQ, either professionally or as a hobby, needs to buy a copy of this book. You will learn something, I promise. There is no one “correct” way to make BBQ and Craig’s book pretty much runs the table of all the different ways it is done in Memphis.

Anyone who is on a Memphis in May BBQ team needs to buy a copy of this book for the same reason. It could very well put a few ideas in your head for the preparation of next year’s competition entry.

Anyone who lives in the greater Memphis area who likes to eat BBQ needs to buy a copy of this book. You will discover new places to try, and you will learn how your favorite restaurants prepare your food.

Anyone who likes to read about the history of Memphis needs to buy a copy of this book. The history of Memphis and its BBQ over the past 90 or so years are tightly intertwined. You will learn things about Memphis you didn’t know.

Craig starts out with a discussion of the origins of barbecue and the first restaurants that appeared in or near Memphis in the 1920s, including Leonard’s and Pig-N-Whistle in Memphis and Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q down highway 70 in Mason. The chapter also touches on the history of the Memphis tradition of putting cole slaw on BBQ pork sandwiches.

The book then goes on to discuss BBQ as history moved into the blues and rock’n’roll eras. I had no idea West Memphis was so prominent in the development of blues and ‘cue. Then Craig progresses into the 1960s with a look at the early days of The Rendezvous, which is still around, and Loeb’s and Coleman’s, popular chain eateries that have since gone away. He also gives a tip on the one place in town where you can still get an experience much like eating at an early ’60s Loeb’s. Sorry, you’ll have to buy the book to find out. (Hint: It has the only surviving Loeb’s pig-shaped sign with the pig painting preserved.)

Next Craig discusses Tops, and the decadence of topping a burger with BBQ pork. Tops’ Bellevue location had a very famous regular customer in the ’60s.

Next Craig moves into the decline of Memphis, with the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the demise of STAX. Craig points out that the restaurant that is now The Bar-B-Q Shop opened during this period under another name, and BBQ spaghetti is discussed.

The book then moves on to the late ’70s and ’80s, and the rise of Gridley’s, Corky’s, and the Neely family restaurants. Craig has a tip on how to feel like a caveman at Cozy Corner, and talks about Payne’s.

The origins of BBQ Fest and the rebirth of Beale Street are discussed next, as is the birth of BBQ nachos at Germantown Commissary.

Restaurants with their own smokehouses/pits are discussed next in a fascinating chapter. BBQ team pitmasters will love this part of the book.

The book then comes back to BBQ Fest, which by the 1980s was drawing hundreds of teams. Craig interviews several teams, with discussions of budgets, serious competitor teams vs. hobbyists, how teams find members, and many other insights into how BBQ teams work. He also talks about restaurants that have been opened by people who are were on BBQ teams, including Central BBQ. The next chapter goes on to discuss cooking techniques at BBQ Fest, and again is excellent reading for pitmasters. The only thing Craig didn’t mention about BBQ Fest that I would have included is that it is a great place for tube top watching.

Chapter 11 opens with a look at the Moody Ques team (!!!!!!!!!!! hey Squeal Street, I don’t see YOU mentioned in here) and a discussion with David Scott Walker about soon-to-open restaurant Schweinehaus, then segues into a discussion of Memphis music, and then a look at Alex’s Tavern on Jackson Avenue. There are many other tips for good places to eat as well. Find out where to get rib tip fried rice! Many “secrets to the perfect barbecue” are shared, and they’re all different.

Memphis Barbecue Co. in Horn Lake is one of my favorite places to eat lunch. It’s owned by BBQ Fest Grand Champions. I love what Craig had to say about the restaurant: “Despite its location flanked by national chains like Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel in an overdeveloped suburban commercial center off Goodman Road next to I-55, it represents an oasis of quality and service in a desert of corporate mediocrity.” Craig absolutely NAILED it there.

Later in the book, learn which well-known Memphis rapper wants to own his own BBQ joint. He already has sauce and rub in stores.

Craig goes on to discuss a one-page pamphlet called How to Clean Your Smokers and Grills for Dummies. You can get it at the corner of Macon and Oakland.

In short, this book is well worth the money. I wish I could buy a copy for every member of my BBQ team. The book is available at Booksellers at Laurelwood, the former Davis-Kidd bookstore in East Memphis. Craig is working to get it in other local booksellers as well. (In case anyone from Center for Southern Folklore is reading this: The book would be a great fit for your store.)

The book will also be available Downtown at a reception at the Cotton Museum on Thursday, July 10, in the evening. Craig will sign copies of the book and talk BBQ with guests. BBQ will be served to eat, naturally. I will post more details about this event as I get them.

Five stars out of five for the book, which Craig clearly put months and months of research into. Check out his Memphis Que blog as well.

UPDATE: Here is more information on the Cotton Museum event. The book is available at Burke’s and Barnes and Noble as well.