Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Craig David Meek Writes the Book on Memphis BBQ

Posted By on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 8:53 AM

Craig David Meek is a former journalist, who’s been chronicling his quest to try every soul food and barbecue restaurant in the area on his blog Memphis Que.

Craig David Meek
  • Craig David Meek
The blog caught the eye of an editor at the History Press, with the result being Meek’s excellent Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce & Soul.

The book begins with Hernando de Soto introducing pigs to the region and covers everything from such old-time Memphis favorites like Brady and Lil’s and the barbecue contest to Corky’s on QVC. There are some amazing moments in Memphis Barbecue — like Jim Neely speaking quite frankly about his TV celebrity nephew Pat Neely and John Willingham’s widow remembering the barbecue legend’s last day.

Memphis Barbecue will be released on Tuesday, June 10th, and there will be a launch party and signing at the Booksellers at Laurelwood that same day at 6 p.m. Related events include the Whole Hog BBQ, Live Music & Book Party at the Hi-Tone on Friday, June 27th and a book talk and signing with a barbecue tasting at the Cotton Museum Thursday, July 10th.

Meek took some to time answer questions about writing the book.

Writing the history of barbecue seems like a massive and daunting task. How did you figure out how to organize the book?
Meek: By writing a first draft that was a rambling mess, then going back through and putting everything in a more chronological order. I originally tried to organize it around different aspects of barbecue I considered important like craftsmanship, business, and tradition with different restaurants and competition teams used to represent different components of each aspect. It ended up reading like the world's most disorganized barbecue restaurant guide, but reading over it I saw that I had the entire history of Memphis there if I reorganized it into the story of the city told through barbecue.

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You've been blogging about barbecue for three years, in working on this book, did you come upon anything that truly surprised you?
Looking into the history of William's Bar-B-Q across the river in West Memphis and realizing how important the neighborhood around it was to the development of the electric blues and early rock-and-roll in the '40s through the '60s. That was the vibrant, late-night music scene where the early Sun artists really honed their skills during a period when the nightlife and music scene on Beale Street was surprisingly dead.

What was your favorite part about writing the book?
Since the blog was always done anonymously, with me just coming in as an average Joe and eating, I loved gathering the oral histories that went into the book. Going into the kitchens with people like Jim Neely at Interstate, Barry Pelts at Corky's, Eric Vernon at the Bar-B-Q Shop, Craig Blondis at Central, and Helen Turner at Helen's over in Brownsville and hearing their stories and letting them show me the work that goes into their food. Standing behind the counter with Flora Payne while she makes a spicy jumbo sandwich for me. Going down to the basement at Coletta's to see the shoulders on the pit, then up to the kitchen to watch them make a fresh barbecue pizza and carrying that pizza straight to their Elvis room to eat it.

You very judiciously sidestep the question of your favorite barbecue places by saying it depends on the day, your mood, the weather, etc. Come on, man. You must have two or three places you frequent more than others. Spill it.
The Tops on Jackson Avenue is a few blocks from my house so their double cheeseburger with everything topped with two ounces of chopped pork would represent my most frequent barbecue order and it is a thing of savage beauty.

But really, I am in a different part of the Mid-South almost every day with my job, so I tend to have a favorite place to stop for each part of town. But even that gets hard to nail down. I can't tell you how many times I've been in the Fox Meadows/Hickory Hill area staring at my windshield, holding my keys, way overthinking the decision between a dry rib dinner from Leonard's and a shoulder plate from Showboat. I know either will be perfect, but choosing one means missing out on the other that day. I've literally flipped a coin on multiple occasions.

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