You won’t have a quiet meal in Tennessee…and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just that the incredible concentration of music talent fills the air—from live bands on every inch of Memphis’ Beale Street to the radio pumping Elvis’ very best at the local BBQ joint—and song is at the heart of the Tennessee spirit. Read on and you’re sure to have a tune stuck in your head (“I’m goin’ to Jackson, I’m gonna mess around. Yeah, I’m goin’ to Jackson, Look out Jackson town.”) and a real craving for barbecued pork ribs with a side of Jack Daniels’ Tennessee-made whiskey.
You shake my nerves and your rattle my brain.
Too much love drives a man insane.
You broke my will, oh what a thrill.
Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!
–“Great Balls of Fire” sung by Jerry Lee Lewis (who recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, TN)
I was more than thrilled devouring a plated-to-share meal at Central BBQ. The super-crunchy homemade chips had a salty, lingering heat. The saucy ribs are spicy, though they never took away from the meal, and they finished slightly sweet. The dry-rubbed ribs tingled with pepper and had the clear memory of their recent day in the smoker. The sautéed turnip greens offered a bitter bite as a complement to the sugar of the welcomed icy glass of sweet tea.
Oh what’s love got to do, go to do with it?
What’s love but a second-hand emotion?
What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart
When a heart can be broken.
–“What’s Love Got to Do with It” sung by Tina Turner (who was born in Nutbush, TN)
As Tina’s song spins through my head, I’m taken to the Peabody Hotel, home of the famous Peabody ducks and their delightful Duckmaster, where I fell in love (sorry, Ms. Turner) with their Peach Bourbon Sour, complete with a stir stick featuring a tiny duck on one end. Even non-bourbon lovers (guilty!) will appreciate this incredible, gently sweet sipper.
I’m sorry, so sorry
That I was such a fool.
I didn’t know
Love could be so cruel.
–“I’m Sorry” sung by Brenda Lee (member of Tennessee’s International Rockabilly Hall of Fame)
Well, I’m not sorry about the desserts I enjoyed at Historic Lafayette’s Music Room. While foot-tapping to the stage-set music of a great local band, I dipped a spoon into the Bananas Foster (normally served in mason jars), which was lush and creamy with a crunchy candied pecan topper that made it feel decadent and, somehow, light at the same time. The old-fashioned take on banana pudding also featured a smooth caramel sauce for a well-rounded bite.
Well it’s one for the money,
Two for the show,
Three to get ready,
Now go, cat, go.
–“Blue Suede Shoes” sung by Elvis Presley (visit his historic Graceland in Memphis, TN)
The most famous Tennessee musician and the best meal of my time there deserve to be together. Helen’s Bar-B-Q doesn’t have a Web site or a social media presence, so let me just print the address so you can swing into Brownsville after your time in nearby Memphis or Jackson.
1016 North Washington Avenue
Brownsville, TN 38012
Now go, cat, go! Helen (a constant presence at the side-of-the-road joint), personally served me the best baked beans I’ve ever had. She cooks the beans with delicately smoked shredded pork and mixes in ripe tomatoes and a sweetness (brown sugar, maybe?) so balanced and memorable that I went for seconds. I could have made a meal out of them. But then, I suppose, I would have missed the salty-sweet pickle relish in the delightfully chunky potato salad; the refreshing and actually juicy coleslaw; and the main course of glides-off-your-fork-so-put-the-knife-down pulled pork you can sandwich between white-bread buns and top with Helen’s perfectly balanced mild sauce.
The rock, blues, and country music and the barbeque- and cocktail-menus of West Tennessee were full of history and paired like fried catfish with a side of crispy potato fries. And yes, I enjoyed that combo in Tennessee, too.