just published: the walk of game

In a city known for its ribs, Anthony Petrina is something of an anomaly: a bird man. As duckmaster at Memphis’ stately Peabody Hotel, Petrina is responsible for the Peabody ducks, the quintet of waterfowl that parade daily, with great fanfare, from a well-appointed coop to the marble lobby fountain, just as their predecessors have done for the past 80 years. Read the full story HERE.

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live blog: if beale street could talk

As a teenager I discovered the writing of James Baldwin. His novels, plays, and essays fictionalized the fundamental intricacies of a mid-century America teeming with racial, sexual, and class distinctions. Individuals were placed in the context of complex social pressures which seemed to thwart their integration at every turn. Young and confused myself, I ate it up: Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, Another Country, and Blues for Mr. Charlie – works saturated with outrage, unrest, and a melancholic disappointment founded on a promise left unfulfilled. Yet one book has remained on my bookshelf unopened for some twenty-plus years: If Beale Street Could Talk. I’m not exactly sure why it’s gone unread for so long but that’s going to have to change after this trip. Beale Street was once the lifeblood of Memphis’ African American community, a National Historic Landmark and Home of the Blues. To quote B.B. King, “When you walked down Beale Street, you felt you really had something. Because you could get work on Beale Street. You could get justice on Beale Street. You could get whatever was available to people on Beale Street.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination near Beale Street, however, and the unrest that followed hastened the street’s decline. By the early 1970’s a disastrous experiment in urban renewal cleared most of the area’s old buildings to make way for a projected renovation that never materialized. I can only imagine how Baldwin would have reacted to such a scenario. Today, Beale Street is at the center of an economic revitalization happening all around downtown Memphis. The juke joints are once again lively and the food is too. Blues fills the air like a trumpet of triumph, not tragedy; making me wonder all the more what tales this street might tell, if only it could talk.

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live blog: restaurant iris

 

Lest you think Memphis is little more than barbecue, biscuits and yardbird, I’d like to turn your attention to Restaurant Iris – a sterling example of what owner/chef Kelly English has coined “progressive Southern” cuisine. The beautiful thing about that phrase is how perfectly it encapsulates the essence of what chef English is doing: farm-to-table cooking rooted in honest Southern traditions. Which means that of course the salad has a bacon component – yet it’s lardons of artisanal pork belly from Alan Benton’s local smokehouse. (If you don’t know Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the miracle of their mail order.) And the lettuces are a peppery local arugula, dressed with grilled scallions in a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Topped with crispy “croutons” of sweetbreads – a bit of genius – there’s nothing outwardly Southern about this dish, yet the counterpoint of tastes and textures is undeniably comfort food at its most refined. Shrimp and grits might be a classic of Southern cooking but it, too, transcends expectations in the hands of chef English: the coarse-grind Delta grits are closer to polenta, bathed in tomato broth au pistou that’s thick with the taste of the sea. A refined dice of andouille adds just enough heat to prickle the palate while six meaty Gulf shrimp top it off as regally as a crown roast. When it comes to dessert, I’m not at all surprised there’s a cheese course on offer. (It’s at this point that I berate myself for not indulging in the degustation menu.) As if the food were not enough, Restaurant Iris also has an ideal genteel setting: an intimate Victorian house on midtown’s Overton Square. Marked by exceptional service (a waiter drove to my hotel to return an accidentally left-behind credit card) and stellar cocktails to boot (the Sazerac sings) Chef English will upend everything you thought you knew about Southern dining. And masterfully so, I might add.

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live blog: just ducky

Back in 1933 Frank Schutt, General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend returned from a weekend hunting trip in Arkansas full of too much Tennessee sippin’ whiskey and thought it would be funny to deposit some of their live duck decoys in the hotel fountain. As a result three small English call ducks spent the night swimming in the lobby while their owners snored away in their beds. By morning the reaction of the other hotel guests was nothing short of enthusiastic and voila, a now-famous Memphis tradition was born.

Bellman Edward Pembroke took things a step further a few years later when he offered to help deliver the ducks to the fountain each morning. A former animal trainer with the circus, Pembroke brought considerable flair to bear on the ceremony, ushering the drake and four consorts from their rooftop aerie, down a red carpet, and into the lobby fountain to the delight of those who soon began gathering to witness the Peabody Duck March. The original ducks have long since gone. So, too, Mr. Pembroke, who for 50 years held the honorific of Duckmaster until his retirement. Yet after more than 75 years the ceremony continues – and the lobby fountain daily hosts a quintet of Memphis’ famous feathered friends. A local farmer and friend of the hotel now raises the mallards. They live in a Duck Palace atop the hotel and once fully-grown are retired and returned to the wild. A few lucky ducks guests such as myself are tapped each day to serve as Honorary Duckmaster and assist with stewarding the most famous ducks since Donald. Trust me: it’s everything it’s quacked up to be - and then some.

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live blog: going to graceland

If Disneyland can lay claim to being the happiest place on Earth I’d like to nominate Graceland as one of the most depressing. Full disclosure: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Graceland. I went because that’s one of the things you do when you go to Memphis: you go to Graceland to observe the people who are making a pilgrimage to Graceland. You go to Graceland for the spectacle. And the irony. In that respect I was far from disappointed: a busload of Japanese tourists photographed absolutely everything in sight; two tour groups of Scandinavians stood slack-jawed over every pre-recorded recollection of the infanta, Lisa Marie; and a super-sized parade of the lame, the halt, and the obese reinforced everything I’ve come to abhor about America. So on the one hand, it was a roaring success. A lodestar of American overconsumption, Elvis’ estate is but the tip of the iceberg. For one, Graceland is – as everyone who’s ever visited is quick to point out – much, much smaller than expected.  It’s just a house. A good-sized house but a house nonetheless. It’s not Memphis’ answer to Versailles – though the extreme examples of 1970’s chic give it the feel of a too-groovy time capsule: the all-white living room, the carpeted kitchen, the basement pool room enveloped in a circus tent of fabric, the “jungle room.” A pair of out-buildings house Presley’s office and what was once a racquetball court – now home to a display of the infamous late-Elvis jumpsuits – before you come to a small swimming pool and the family graves. The entire self-guided tour takes an hour at most.  (Elvis’ upstairs bedroom and the toilet he expired on are off-limits.) Shuttled back to the central base station, the true assault begins. You can visit a museum dedicated solely to the King’s cars, tour his private planes, the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog, or shuffle down the block to Graceland Crossing, where the exhibits – and shopping options – continue:  Elvis on Tour, Elvis’ ’68 special, Elvis Lives. Of course if this is more than you can handle in a single day you can buy a multi-day pass and stay at the Heartbreak Hotel or Graceland RV Park and Campground, which are – you guessed it – down at the end of Lonely Street. Now I don’t begrudge Lisa Marie her legacy. And god knows, nobody wants her to put out another album. But Graceland is little more than an ugly exploitation of a man who – despite the caricature that may have marked the last years of his life – was one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century. For all the coin Graceland is pulling in the artist is only vaguely in evidence. That man has left the building. What remains isn’t in any way a tribute to Elvis but an embarrassing example of our country’s collective inability to separate idolatry from shopping.

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live blog: let the sun shine

A tour of Sun Studio is a Memphis-must, reflecting the diversity and vision of the talent that recorded on the Sun label as well as American popular culture itself. The Sun Sound began in 1952 when Sam Phillips launched his record company from a little studio on Union Avenue, Memphis, naming it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism. In a short while Sam gained a reputation for treating local artists with respect and honesty, providing a non-critical, spontaneous environment that invited creativity and vision. As a businessman, Phillips was patient and willing to listen to almost anyone who came in off the street to record. Memphis at the time was a happy home to diverse musical scenes: gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing. Taking advantage of this range of talent, there were no style limitations at the label. In one form or another Sun recorded them all.

Then in 1954 Sam found Elvis Presley, an artist who could perform with the excitement and unpredictability of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. He helped to form the beginnings of the Sun Sound by infusing country music with R&B. Elvis’s bright star attracted even more ground-breaking talent to the Sun galaxy. Listed among his contemporaries and lab mates were Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the “Rockin’ Guitar Man,” Carl Perkins. These four soon became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. And right behind them came Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Howlin’ Wolf and a whole host of musical talents. All eventually sold on pop, R&B and country charts, creating music that has weathered the test of time.

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live blog: at the arcade

Founded in 1919, the atmospheric Arcade is the oldest continually operating cafe in Memphis. Born of Greek immigrants – of course – the diner has weathered the precipitous decline of downtown and lived to see its rebirth, becoming an identifiable location in a dozen or so films as well as a magnet for tourists drawn by the mix of comfort food and retro 1950’s design. The Arcade serves through lunch but to be honest, it’s breakfast that’s the star attraction – unless you’re looking for a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich in the back booth once frequented by Elvis. (in which case, prepare to wait.) Redneck Eggs achieved infamy in a Travel Channel program where the host scarfed down the plate of three biscuits and sausage patties smothered in gravy and topped with hash browns and scrambled eggs with a beer. I opt for the more demure sweet potato pancakes instead – which come with grits, bacon, and two fried eggs – and am not disappointed. What is it about the south and what they are able to do with the sweet potato? This is my second day here and my second sweet potato discovery. Keep ’em coming.

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live blog: big wheels keep on turnin’

Memphis isn’t much of a port these days, but once upon a time cotton was king and the mighty Mississippi River was the city’s lifeblood. Paved in European cobblestones, the historic levee is now the departure dock for a leisurely paddlewheel cruise which travels up and down a stretch of the river. A highlight of which is watching the passing tug boats that still work the muddy water, pushing barges loaded down with coal and gravel. And I’m reminded that, yes, big wheels keep on turnin’ – Proud Mary was in fact an ode to a real life Memphis tug.

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live blog: walking in memphis

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live blog: meat sweats, part one

In 1948 Charlie Vergos cleaned out a basement below his Greek diner, discovered a coal chute, and started a Memphis legend, Rendezvous. The coal chute gave him a vent for his considerable talents over a charcoal grill, allowing him to expand from ham and cheese sandwiches to ribs. Today, several thousand people on an average night pour through Charlie’s basement and sink their teeth into a slab of what makes Memphis, well, Memphis. It started and stays about the local-style dry-rub ribs, but the menu is as eclectic as the kitchen sink decor: vegetarian red beans and rice, lamb riblets, barbecue nachos – all served with beans and slaw, pickles and peppers optional. I hear they still make a mean ham and cheese sandwich, too, but like most people I came for one thing only: ribs, perfected.

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live blog: welcome to memphis

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at the theatre: and the winner is ….

Tonight’s Tony Awards are a bit of a no-brainer: prepare for a Book of Mormon landslide. Yet while the Tony’s are always worth taping, this year it looks like they might actually be worth watching live due to the number of races that remain, well, races. First off, let’s get the obvious out-of-the-way. In addition to taking the top honor, Mormon will also claim prizes for Book, Direction and Score, despite the sentimental tilt toward Kander & Ebb’s last-ever score for The Scottsboro Boys. If two of those featured boys – Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon – cancel each other out and the Tony voters forget about the talented Laura Benanti and Patti Lupone from the long-shuttered and poorly-received Women on The Verge of Nervous Breakdown, expect Mormon to also cop Featured Actor and Actress trophies for both Rory O’Malley and Nikki M. James.  Unfortunately that show’s leads will suffer from what benefits their co-stars, leaving Priscilla‘s Tony Sheldon to deservedly squeak through to Best Actor glory – as well as putting a remarkable exclamation point on this season’s theatrical equivalent of Seabiscuit. Casey Nicholaw’s Mormon choreography is beyond clever but I think voters will give the award to Kathleen Marshall for the classic razzmatazz of Anything Goes, which will also win for Best Musical Revival. For her star turn in the same show, Sutton Foster will be adding a bookend to her earlier Best Actress win for Thoroughly Modern Millie.  In the play department all signs point to War Horse by a nose, despite the fact that it’s a stunning production of a pretty terrible script.  History shall prove out Jez Butterworth’s masterful Jerusalem – and you can expect Mark Rylance to say a few words to that effect when he picks up his second Tony for Best Actor in play.  Welcome to the Tony club, Frances McDormand, unless the still-running Born Yesterday somehow manages to turn the tide toward Nina Arianda’s widely praised turn. In the strongest group of the year, Featured Actress, my money is on The Normal Heart‘s Ellen Barkin to best Edie Falco, Judith Light, Joanna Lumley, and Elizabeth Rodriguez – deserving winners all.  And while there’s a lot of buzz for Heart‘s John Benjamin Hickey, Yul Vazquez is without peer in The Motherfu**er With The Hat – and it’s practically that play’s only chance to score a deserved award. Plus, Heart has a lock on Best Play Revival. That leaves us with the design awards – all of which will be handed out before tonight’s broadcast to make room for such essential viewing as Memphis, last year’s quote unquote Best Musical. Yawn. Perhaps TiVo is the way to go tonight after all.

 

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southern food stories

Led by food columnist John T. Edge, Southern Foodways Alliance is a non-profit cultural organization with an addictive blog that celebrates and shares Southern food traditions. They’ve also been collecting oral histories from BBQ pitmasters, Southern winemakers, bartenders, and farmers for years.  Now thanks to a cool new bit of technology from Broadcastr, stories which used to be housed in an online archive are alive in the places where they were told. Using the free iPhone app, each interview is pinned to a GPS location – making it handy for streaming the lives and legends of the immediate vicinity into your headphones. It’s a DIY audio guide that changes as you move through the world. For the armchair ethnographer (or if you’re just a food whore like me) you can listen to all of SFA’s food stories – like May Walker Archie espousing the virtues of barbecue at New Zion Church in Huntsville, Texas or Leslie Scott of Greenville, Kentucky on the distinctive curing process that goes into Scott Country Hams – on an interactive online map. One thing’s for certain:  it’ll make you hungry for more.

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