Memphis has what most other cities have in a local food scene. Dig just a bit and you’ll find talented chefs, artisans, and innovators. In almost every case, there’s an underlying nod to Southern roots, to the traditions, recipes, and ingredients that make our region unique.
Pimento cheese is kept in home fridges and slathered on restaurant hamburgers. The versatile spread is welcomed at tailgates and enjoyed as an appetizer — paired with whiskey sweet tea, of course. People are as loyal to their pimento cheese recipe as they are to their alma mater.
Green tomatoes are served all year, pickled, fried, and as a delectable relish to go with country pâté. Collards, turnip, and mustard greens are truly ubiquitous. You’ll find them in long-simmering pots meant to feed the multitudes and as carefully crafted accompaniments on white-tablecloth menus.
And then it jumps to the next level.
Crawfish boils abound in spring. The rice fields just across the river are the symbiotic home to numerous crawfish farms. No one shies away from a table covered in newspaper, laden with mudbugs, corn, and potatoes. But you’re just as likely to find the succulent crustaceans artfully prepared in a multi-course meal or tucked into a flaky pastry.
Venison, duck, and trout fill hunters’ freezers but are also made into robust, perfectly seasoned charcuterie and sausage in any restaurants where the chefs are worth their salt. Catfish is fried and filleted and comes from Mississippi, of course. All the great chefs have their preferred beef, egg, and pork producer … doesn’t everyone?
Smoke is the unsung ingredient that wafts through Memphis food. The traditional approach to making juicy, tender, barbecued meat elevates salmon and squash, tenderloins and tofu, portobellos and pork, alike. There are fancy china boxes and MacGyver-esque smokers outside the back door of nearly every restaurant. “Low and slow” is the mantra for barbecue, but the careful infusion of smoke permeates seafood, vegetables, and game throughout the year and all over town.
The playmakers in the Memphis food scene are not content with “the way it’s always been,” and that mixture of traditional and ingenious is what makes food in the Mid-South delicious.
Follow the food
It’s tempting to look for the same food as you’ve always had. There is something comforting about a good steak and a potato. But, the heart and soul of a person or city is reflected in its food.
Every region has indigenous ingredients and local treasures, and they are worth seeking out. Fish pudding, tomato aspic, macaroni and cheese as a vegetable — just try them. Barbecue? Yes, you have to try it at many places, and, no, you can’t have your slaw on the side. If you find yourself in Memphis, look for lady peas, sorghum, muscadines, and greens. You might find them elsewhere, but nobody does them like Memphis.