This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 6--The National Civil Rights Museum and Nashville, TN

We needed to get on to Nashville but before leaving Memphis we wanted to make sure we had seen the historic National Civil Rights Museum. We arrived just as it was opening for the day. Pulling up in front of the museum is like seeing a bit of history flashed before your eyes only instead of the tragic black and white images televised back in 1968 we were seeing a peaceful scene in living color.

The Lorraine Motel was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968, but today it has been incorporated in the National Civil Rights Museum. You walk through exhibits detailing the civil rights movement, winding your way through the historic events I'd seen on TV or read about in news magazines as a kid. The climax of the tour is standing at the window looking out on to the balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. I remember the black and white photo of Dr. King lying on his back mortally wounded while his friends and colleagues pointed in the direction from which the shots were fired. The rooms he and his associates used are also on view. It is a sad and emotional place to stand even after all these years.
The museum in general was a disappointment for me. It relied too heavily on wordy displays and included too little realia, memorabilia and interactive displays that would have made it much more interesting. I thought the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was much more appealing. Still, to stand in that place and realize the history that occurred there was a moving moment.

One last thing to do in Memphis before heading for Nashville. We stopped by The Cozy Corner BBQ, a local BBQ hole in the wall highly recommended by the Road Food team. The smell of the BBQ overwhelmed our senses as we got out of the car and when we walked into the shop we were nearly bowled over by the aromas. We had heard we needed to especially try three items on the menu so we ordered the thickly sliced bologna sandwich smothered in the spicy house BBQ sauce, the pulled pork sandwich and the ribs. The bologna sandwich was topped with a spicy cole slaw all on a hamburger style bun. I've had bologna sandwiches. In fact I grew up eating bologna sandwiches. But I've never had any bologna sandwich as good as that one. The bologna was BBQ'ed in the same way as their ribs and pork--smokey and delicious and then slathered with their sauce.

The ribs were a wet style, different than the ones at Rendezvous, but every bit as moist, tender and smokey.

The pulled pork was equally delicious. Topped with the Cozy Corner's own BBQ sauce and the cole slaw the pork was tender and melted in your mouth.

We took the food to go and balanced it on our lap as we drove out of town and headed east toward Nashville.

Arriving in Nashville we headed straight for the Ryman Auditorium to pick up our tickets for the concert we had purchased months ago. We discovered the tickets were for a concert the next evening instead so we parked and walked down Broadway into honky tonk row. Along this street you'll find one honky tonk after another, music pouring from every door. Walk into any bar, find a stool, order a beer and listen to musicians looking to be or that may have already been discovered. It was cool inside and they are almost all smoke-free now so it was a pleasant atmosphere to hear music--country, hillbilly, blue grass , rock and the blues. Over the next couple of days we heard two groups we particularly enjoyed. We tossed a few bucks in their tip jar and were handed an autographed CD of their music.

We headed over to another Road Food suggested spot for lunch--Arnold's Country Kitchen, a James Beard award winning cafeteria style restaurant. We found it easily, and got in the long line of folks waiting to get in. The line moved along quickly and we soon found ourselves standing in front of a wonderland of choices. Meat and three is what you do here--pick a meat and three side dishes. I chose the smothered country fried steak, the collard greens, fried green tomatoes and corn bread. The steak was so tender and the rich beefy gravy with chunks of onion must have been simmering on the stove for hours. Leslie decided to just go with some sides--corn bread, mac and cheese, creamed corn and greens. We had also heard about the fabulous pies at Arnold's so, what are going to do? I tried the chocolate cream pie and she went with the chess pie. They lived up to their reputation. Silky, rich, great flaky crust-yum!

After checking into our hotel and taking a quick dip in the pool and an afternoon nap, we decided that if we didn't hit another of the recommended Road Food spots we wouldn't get to all of them we had chosen in Nashville. So we headed over to Bolton's Hot Chicken and Fish. Bolton's was a real hole in the wall and in a shady part of town. We walked in to a concrete block building with little in the way of air conditioning and an order window covered with wrought iron bars. The floor was sticky with the dried remnants of sweet tea. The window slid open and a smiling face stuck her head out to take our order. We got an order of the chicken and the fish, both mildly spicy and two glasses of sweet tea. Two black ladies sat in the dining room arguing about their phone bill. Between their loud over the top dramatics and the black dialect it was difficult to understand the whole conversation but it was entertaining while we waited for our food. When it arrived my first taste told me I was in over my head. Unless you LOVE and I mean LOVE spicy food, order it as mild as possible. Whatever method they use to deliver the heat, Bolton's manages to get it deep into the juicy meat, not just in the batter they fry the food in. I gave up after a while and took it back to the room thinking maybe I'd try it later, but wound up tossing it. It was just too spicy hot for my taste. Wimp!

Next Up--The Ryman and The Hermitage

Day 5--The Memphis Blues

Memphis, Tennessee is known for its blues houses along Beale Street. But did you know it is also famous for the Ducks at the Peabody Hotel, the Smithsonian Rock and Soul Museum, the Gibson guitar factory and museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. It is also infamous for the place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in April of 1968. So we had a lot to see while visiting Memphis AND a lot of BBQ to try before we left.

June 22nd was another bright sunny and humid day. We started out heading over to the National Civil Rights Museum but found it closed so our plans changed and we drove over to the Rock and Soul Museum which is a Smithsonian museum. It
was fabulous. It covered, as its name implies, the history of soul and rock music from their beginning through to the Beatles in the late 60's. It is a fabulous collection of costumes, instruments, recordings, and endless memorabilia. Anyone interested in the popular music of that era will love this place.

A couple of times a day the stately old Peabody Hotel downtown is th
e gathering place for dozens of people who come to watch an event that has been going on everyday since 1933. Originally meant as a practical joke the event caught on and has been a daily event ever since. We stopped by just in time to watch the elevator doors slide open and four ducks waddle up a red carpet and hop into the beautiful fountain in the center of the hotel lobby.

Our lunch that day was at the famous
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous. This rib joint has been operating in Memphis out of a back alley since 1948 and the rich and famous along with the rest of us have been flocking to the place ever since. Their dry rub ribs absolutely melt in your mouth. We got there before the whole menu was even available, but all that mattered was that the ribs were, and that's what we ordered. A vinegar-based sauce was available as was a hotter sauce if you wanted it but these ribs are all about the dry rub method used to BBQ them. People argue about which method and which part of the country makes the best ribs, whether they need sauce or no sauce, dry rub or wet, but in the end, its all good. Charlie knows his ribs and this is a great place to go to get some of the best. The restaurant is in a cozy downstairs location. The busy decor will keep you busy while waiting for your food. Autographed photos of just about anyone you can name adorn the walls as does a variety of other memorabilia. Definitely, GO to Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous when in Memphis.

We walked over to Beale Street because we wanted to have a chance to hear some music and we weren't disappointed when we walked into B.B. King's Blues Club. We were seated at a bar that was front row for a set with Blind Mississippi Morris, one of the greatest harp (harmonica) players in the world. No cover charge and a front row seat. An awesome way to end the day.

Next Up--The National Civil Rights Museum and Nashville, TN

Day 4--Memphis, Tennessee

The long drive across Mississippi left us parched and hungry for some more "road food." We stopped in the small town of Holly Springs where we went on a search for the Phillip's Grocery, which we had heard was a good stop for hamburgers and an object of real interest--fried pie! Finding Holly Springs didn't turn out to take too much effort but finding the restaurant was a bit of a mystery. Holly Springs is a small community with the town center surrounding an old fashioned town square like something out of To Kill A Mockingbird.

We had a rough map which directed us to the outskirts of town. We took a few wrong turn
s before noticing that the place was located across from the railroad station. The station wound up being down a side road that got progressively more pot holed until it dead ended between two ramshackle buildings--one the old railroad station circa 1850's and the other none other than the Philip's Grocery. We parked in the gravel lot next to the tracks and got out of the car. Immediately hit by the heat and humidity, we were also struck by the cacophony of sound coming from the trees. The screeching Cicadas added to the heat and the place and the southern accents of the locals let us know we were definitely in the deep south. Now we know why the folks in the south tend to talk and move a little slower. If you lived in this kind of heat and humidity, you would too.

We walked up
the wooden steps of the Phillip's Grocery and went on in. Immediately we felt we had found a real southern road stop. Ceiling fans twirled slowly and folks sat at tables scattered around a large room stuffed with memorabilia collected from over a hundred years of selling pop and groceries and cold beer. The building began as a saloon, then became a grocery store but has built its reputation on hamburgers since the 1940's. We ordered hamburgers and a fried pie along with our sweet tea. The burgers were fine though I can't say they were worth the drive. We didn't get what we had ordered on the burgers but decided not to object to the counter lady as she hadn't been that friendly in the first place. The fried pie was okay, but again, not worthy of the effort to find the place. It basically tasted like a Hostess fruit pie that had been squashed flat, then deep fried in oil that wasn't hot resulting in a pie that tasted of oil and peach jam.

We walked across the street to the railroad station to take a look and it turned out to be a lovely building in spite of its rundown condition. Parts of the station are homes and other parts are warehouses. Its glory days are still evident in its architecture and the plaque out front comments on the part it played during the Civil War.

We headed back out of town and drove quite a way along a back road towards the interstate that would take us on up to Memphis and a new state. Arriving in Memphis in the early afternoon, we decided we had time to head straight to Elvis Presley's Graceland for a tour. It turned out to be a good day to do it since the parking lot had plenty of room and we walked right on to a tour. There are several tour packages available depending on your level of infatuation with "the King." For a little more you can see the stables and for a little more you can tour his two jet planes and so on. We just wanted to see the house which included the grave site. The waiting area across the street from his home is where his planes sit and the rest of it is all cheesy souvenir shops. A shuttle bus takes small groups at a time across the four lane road and up the drive to Graceland. We were dropped off right at the front door to the home and welcomed in. We were able to tour the entire first floor but couldn't go upstairs. The home is furnished in a cheesy over the top style that had us saying to each other, "Money is wasted on the wrong people!" Just awful decor. The two rooms filled with his awards and costumes from movies and concerts were interesting. Sadly, the whole experience was just, sorry to use the word again, cheesy and tacky and just had no class at all. Still, we were glad we did it.

Our hotel for the night was only a couple of miles from Graceland but we decided to head for the next spot on our Road Food map--Gus's Fried Chicken downtown Memphis. We found a parking spot right at the front door an
d a got a table almost right away. We'd heard that Gus's had the best fried chicken in the world and while I am not ready to absolutely bestow that title, I am here to tell you that it was pretty terrific fried chicken. Fresh out of the fryer, crisp and juicy. We really got excited when the fried green tomatoes and fried pickles came out. The tomatoes were delicious, sweet, juicy but firm and the pickles were just to die for. Dipped in a ranch dressing or by themselves, the crunchy outer crust and the sour pickle flavor inside were a fabulous treat. The price is right as well. We left Gus's feeling much better about our southern food experience.

Next up--Memphis Blues and Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day 3--Birmingham, Alabama

Today we headed for one of the hot-beds of southern misery for African-Americans during the days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. Birmingham, Alabama has changed a lot since those days. It houses a very fine Civil Rights Institute which is directly across the street from the site of one of the most infamous acts of racist violence during that era--The 16th Street Baptist Church where on Sunday, September 16th, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church killing 4 young teenage black girls preparing to sing in the choir.

The museum chronicles the events of the civil rights movement as it unfolded in the city of Birmingham and follows it through to the election of the first black mayor of the city. It contains a compelling and honest look at the shameful horrors of an age in America we should all be ashamed of.

While in Birmingham we also stopped by Pete's Famous Hot Dogs downtown Birmingham. Pete's is a narrow hole in the wall hot dog stand that has been serving Birmingham patrons since 1920 and the current owner has been making hot dogs since 1946. Pete's dressed "all the way," dogs are only $2 each and come topped with mustard, sauerkraut, onions, and homemade sauce, all on a steamed bun.

Dinner that night was at the Bright Star in Bessemer, Alabama, a small suburb outside Birmingham. Opened in 1907, this restaurant has been serving delicious meals ever since, finally gaining well-deserved recognition in 2010 with a James Beard Award. It was like walking into a time machine. The walls are covered with frescoes painted by a an itinerant artist decades ago and the paneled booths with sconces make for a very romantic atmosphere. It seems frozen in time around the 1930' or 40's. A warm, friendly staff and patrons made for a wonderful evening. We had a delightful conversation with a family of regulars who were thrilled that we'd come so far just to eat at "their" restaurant. They introduced us to one of the owners and in no time we were treated like regulars. The buzz around the restaurant that evening was that Saundra Bullock, the movie star, was eating their in a private back room (she is apparently a Birmingham native). We didn't see her. I tried the seafood gumbo and the Greek-style combo plate that included Greek-style snapper, tenderloin of beef and breast of chicken. The food was good though not as wonderful as we had hoped, but the memories of our experience at this place will not soon be forgotten.

Next up--Memphis, Tennessee and the Blues