Memphis in May: The 7 Best Things We Ate
Embedded with The Fatback Collective. Eating well!
This past weekend I spent four days embedded in a competitive BBQ team at the Memphis in May World Championship BBQ contest. The team, known as the Fatback Collective, is a group of all-star chefs, pitmasters, restaurateurs and writers including Nick Pihakis, Drew Robinson of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, Southern Foodways Director John T. Edge and Donald Link of Cochon in New Orleans.
Look for a full account of my experience with the team as part of next month’s installment of Food Republic’s Year of Barbecue series. But in the meantime, here are the seven best things that I ate and drink during the loooooong weekend in Memphis.
John Currence’s Fried Chicken Livers
Currence, who was recently profiled on Food Republic, is the heart and soul of the Fatback Collective. Known as “Johnny Snack” or “Big Bad Chef,” Currence was only able to attend Thursday night’s festivities because he had to return to his restaurant in Oxford, MS — City Grocery — to preside over the establishment’s 20th birthday party.
Before he left, he prepared a team meal that included transcendent fried chicken livers. Perfectly cooked to a crispy golden brown on the outside and unctuous and earthy on the inside, these chicken livers were a great demonstration of the talents that have earned Johnny Snack such acclaim.
Sean Brock’s Seafood Boil
If Currence is the heart of the Fatback team, Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston may well be the brains. Brock also fed the team exceptionally well with a heaping pile of clams and shrimp he brought from Charleston. They were boiled low-country style with corn, several varieties of heritage potatoes and all the delicious spice that diners at his restaurants have come to expect.
Ashley Christensen’s Pimento Cheese
As the sole female member of Fatback Collective, Christensen brought a distinct perspective to the team. As the meals were planned, she also made sure that everyone got at least one green leafy vegetable on the plate. I was never so glad to see a big bowl of salad on the bar after three days of pork overdose. Not that Christensen didn’t also make some wonderfully unhealthy treats as well. Her pimento cheese recipe is the basis of an outrageous pimento mac and cheese dish at her Raleigh restaurant, Poole’s Diner. With a creamy texture and tangy flavor contributed by the use of Hook's 3-year-old sharp cheddar, this pimento cheese hit the spot and rubbed it out.
Border Springs Lamb Asado
Craig Rogers is known as the purveyor of some of the best lamb in the United States. Rogers brought one of his finest lambs for the Fatback Collective to cook in the South American asado style, a technique the team learned while on a field trip to Uruguay, which Drew Robinson recounted this winter on Food Republic.
The intention was to enter this lamb in Memphis in May’s “Exotic” category, which basically covers everything that isn’t pork or poultry. While this smoky lamb was some of the most amazing meat I’ve ever been lucky enough to eat, the category was won by another team who grilled what they called “Rat Bastards,” a stuffed jalapeño wrapped it in bacon. Go figure.
It’s a Wednesday night tradition for the barbecue teams to host each other in their tents to rekindle old friendships and engage in a little good-natured trash talk. Ubon’s Smokehouse out of Yazoo City, MS makes some award-winning barbecue.
They are best known around Tom Lee Park in Memphis for their Ubon’s Special, a deceptively powerful concoction of whiskey, pineapple juice and Sprite. With the final addition of some fresh pineapple chunks in the glass, this drink goes down so easily that you might need help finding your way back to your tent after the second one. “Remind me, were we Pigzilla or Porkasaurus? Screw it, I’ll just sleep on this bench along the river.”
Dry-Aged Boneless Double Strip Steak from Lobel’s
While the Peg Leg Porkers team may be a bunch of Southern boys, it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a great steak from this legendary New York City butcher shop. Designed to be shared by two diners, this succulent strip steak was almost four inches thick and required a deft touch on the grill to achieve the perfect char on the outside while maintaining a cool pink center.
At almost $100 apiece, these steaks were a special treat from the team captain to those of us who worked hard setting up the tent before the rest of the slackers on the team rolled in for the weekend’s festivities.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
In the hour between the final judge’s booth visit and finding out whether the Fatback Collective would make it to the finals for the second year in a row, the tension in the tent was palpable. Each of the team members had already established their individual reputations in their field of expertise, but to turn their competitive fate over to a panel of anonymous judges eating their heritage swine out of white Styrofoam boxes was killing the Fatback team.
How best to take the edge off? Clearly the answer was a buffet spread of Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. The original location is still in a shack in Mason, TN about an hour from Memphis, but fortunately there are now several outposts within the city limits of the metropolis that deliver to the tent in a timely manner. Thanks to the extremely spicy fried chicken, the team members had an excuse for why they were sweating while they waited for the news from the judges’ tent.
So did the Fatback Collective make the finals? Did the upstart Peg Leg Porkers team pull an upset over some of their better-financed competition? Don’t just Google the results. Wait until the next chapters of “The Year of Barbecue” and all will be revealed.