Why The Memphis Food Scene Matters


Well, we're halfway through another month (how?), and the seasons are clearly a-changin'. I haven't experienced a true autumn in years and am already embracing the fall transition in and out of the kitchen. Yesterday afternoon, I whipped up a few heirloom tomato recipes and a fruity cobbler. . .Look out for those recipes soon. Last week, I was honored to attend the National Association of Food Journalists' annual conference in Memphis. As one of fewer than ten Memphian attendees, I took full advantage of the conference location and strolled from my apartment to the Peabody Hotel for three packed days of thought-provoking panels, empowering conversations, and first-class meals. Seriously, the food lineup was more impressive with each bite or taste of Memphis, if you will.

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While I could write a novel about my new perspectives on the changing landscape of food journalism, new media, iPhone photography, restaurant transformations, etc., I will share five new lessons about my city's food scene. Despite previous dispositions or judgments on your behalf or mine, this city has a lot of history. And a lot to offer.

1. "All good Southerners do come home." -Chef Karen Carrier, Beauty Shop, Bar DKDC

It's true. There's a reason why Memphis-raised Karen Carrier left her Chelsea, New York restaurant (where Phillip Seymour Hoffman ate his last meal) and committed herself to never-seen-before Memphis dining and catering at the Beauty Shop and beyond. A gravity seems to pull us back to the place where we tasted our first homecooked meal, rich with history and passion and quality and purpose. Heck, it worked for me.

2. "Cooking is our cultural currency." -Kim Severson, New York Times

Cookbooks are still selling. Recipes are still circulating. People want touchstones to that tribal fire of cooking and eating in a community. Memphis is providing that cultural currency with inter-generational restaurants that value tradition above all else. Orange Mound Grill's 60-year-old sweet potato pie recipe will continue, according to founder Ms. Daisy Miller's granddaughter. The Folk and Boggs families are committed to refocusing Memphis' original steakhouse, Folk's Folly. Kat Gordon shares her mom Jan's toffee bar recipe with the entire city in Muddy's bake shops. The city is committed to continuing that "cultural currency" element that clearly holds us all together.


3. Barbecue may be our official food, but it's not our only specialty.

You can find an unbelievable slab of ribs at Charlie Vergos Rendezvous or a classic barbecue pizza at Coletta's; but the truth is, Memphis chefs are not settling with old-fashioned headliner dishes. They're making new headlines. They're pushing the envelope with innovation and recirculation of the city's most prized delicacies, such as two I just mentioned. Wednesday night's Taste of Memphis event at Stax illustrated the resurgence of culinary creativity and the rare unity found in a city's restauranteur scene. I walked past Coletta's barbecue pizza paired with Andy Ticer's modernized barbecue pizza popper (a take on our childhood frozen midnight snack). I watched Wally Joe take a gorgeous spin on Jonathan Magallanes' traditional-style quail tamale. Craft beers and Relevant Roasters are making a new name for Memphis' beverage offerings. Such creativity is placing Memphis on a much higher level than ever before. I only hope the public recognizes its quality as much as the James Beard house, who hosted a slew of my beloved Memphis chefs for a "Made in Memphis" dinner last Spring.

4. In Memphis, "Food is medicine." -Dr. Scott Morris, Church Health Center.

This city of soul views the family table as more than a literal dose of nourishment -- food is a tool of spiritual fulfillment, too. Chef Miles McMath of St. Jude has transformed a "cafeteria" approach into a farm-to-table creative warehouse for thousands of people every single day. The Church Health Center is teaching the alphabet to low income children through healthy foods. Baptist churches are changing the statistic and elevating the ritual of the meal through healthier options at social and religious events. People are clearly committed to making food a reference point -- and a game-changer.

I'm proud to be a part of this place.