As did much of the world who knew him, I grieved after hearing about Anthony Bourdain’s passing. He brought the humanity of food into our homes through his travels, showing us that there was so much more to our meals than what was on the plate in front of us. My own relationship with food over the years has taught me that it can function as both fuel and foe; it can be the center of celebration or the epicenter of sadness. There are also many life lessons to be found in the exploration of food experiences, as I recently learned when my family and I duplicated a road tour I initially read about in the July 13, 2014 edition of The Commercial Appeal.
Entitled “Barbecue Road Tour” the article detailed a road trip taken by “friends and fellow barbecue lovers” during which they visited barbecue restaurants across six states in one day and critiqued each restaurant’s take on this quintessentially American cuisine. Our intention was to do the same (since my husband Andre considers himself quite the barbecue connoisseur) but we quickly realized after our first stop that this trip, for us, would embody far more than comparing sauces and cuts of pork on buns. This trip was going to teach us a few things about life-and do so through our love of barbecue. I’d like to share with you some of what we learned as we traveled through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi those fourteen hours on a Friday.
Success isn’t always measured by money made. Sometimes loving what you do and doing it well is enough.
Our first stop was Prince Pit BBQ in Bardwell, Kentucky. We arrived a little before noon and were shocked to learn that we’d just made the cutoff: we bought the very last pork sandwich they’d made for the day. “So you’re not making any more? What do you do now?” Andre asked. “No Sir,” responded the cook, “I go home and enjoy the rest of my day.” We discovered that at Prince they cook an allotted number of pulled pork sandwiches and once they’re sold out, the time of which varies day to day but ALWAYS happens, they close and go home. To enjoy life.
A successful business can be built on giving and serving its community.
One resident described Shemwell’s Barbecue in Cairo, Illinois (our second stop) as “about the only restaurant left in Cairo.” When we drove into the city and down its main street of Washington Avenue to the restaurant, it was reminiscent of one of those old Western movies wherein the town has been deserted and everyone has moved on to greener pastures. But Stemwell’s was bustling with customers, its staff was gracious and personable, and once inside we were reminded that Cairo was once a place of relative wealth after becoming a regional railroad and shipping hub. When these industries left, taking the wealth and population with it, Shemwell’s remained sort of the last man standing, determined to continue serving and giving back to its community as it has done since 1946.
Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
Aesthetically, our favorite was the third restaurant visited: Dexter Queen in Dexter, Missouri. Its outside was rather unassuming but once we stepped inside the restaurant, we were amazed at the detail given to everything from the wall décor to the bathroom sinks. The food, location and city weren’t particularly remarkable but they had obviously poured a lot of effort into creating a beautiful and inviting space- even if they weren’t a five-star dining spot in a major city. They have big dreams for the restaurant- and you can see this as soon as you walk in. Our impression immediately after visiting was that this was not just some hole-in-the-wall, sticky table barbecue joint but a restaurant poised for commercial distinction.
We can spend a lifetime searching for what’s right in front of our face.
Evening had fallen and we were heading in the direction of home with three stops to go. We pulled into the very small parking lot of Ray’s World Famous BBQ in West Memphis, Arkansas and the first thing we noticed was the intoxicating smell coming from the enormous smoker taking up half the lot. I could not WAIT to get my hands on that pulled pork sandwich if the smoke was any indication of its taste. Turns out this would be our favorite sandwich of the entire trip. After our first bite we sat in awe at the delicious irony that after nearly a day of traveling hundreds of miles the best, thus far, was right in our backyard.
Everything tastes better with kindness.
Because of our time constraint in wanting to stick as closely to the original tour as possible we had to replace a visit to Payne’s Bar-B-Que (which closed at 5) with One & Only BBQ. Since it was in our hometown of Memphis we knew that, even subconsciously, it would be judged against our hometown favorites such as Central BBQ and Cozy Corner. But, we reminded ourselves-again- that this trip wasn’t only about how the food tasted but also about what we were learning through the food. While the restaurant was beautifully trendy inside (we went to the Perkins Extended location) it was the service that stood out most. The staff was so warm and friendly that, frankly, we didn’t care much what the sandwich tasted like (though it was wonderful!); we would definitely be returning.
Travel can be a wonderful adventure but nothing beats the feeling of your own bed.
“It was good ole pulled pork and it was good,” Andre shared about our last stop: Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que in Southaven, Mississippi. Of all the restaurants he found that their food was the most traditional- and I use “he” in this sense rather than “we” because he grew up with barbecue as opposed to my more recent introduction about ten years ago to the “real thing.” The flavors reminded him of the food on which he was raised, cooked by his grandmother, mother and aunts, and we talked about how an experience such as this can evoke feelings of comfort. “It’s what you know, what you love, and who you are, all mixed up in one,” Andre describes of our Jim Neely meal. And I’d say nothing beats that feeling.
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