Memphis Cooking: Ribs of Rockabilly & Soul Stew
The post Second World War Memphis Mix was cooked up in the Memphis recording studios of Sun Records, and later, Stax Records, and delivered to a listening world that had tasted nothing like it.
All of Sun’s well-known recording artists were deeply influenced by black music, and mixed with black musicians. (see Elvis in Photography). Rockabilly redneck Charlie Feathers hung out with blues man Junior Kimbrough.
Both black and white grew up in a segregated world in Memphis in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the blacks on the receiving end of the segregation. But usually the food they favoured knew no racial boundary.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, on April 4, 1968, polarisation took place, or was enforced, between musicians who had worked together, whether black or white. The polarisation happened at Stax Records where threats were indirectly made towards the white half of Booker T and The MGs: Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. Though not from Memphis or Tennesee, the times were caught in Lousianna born Tony Joe White’s song Willie and Laura Mae Jones. Time did heal, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich were photographed at their pianos, either side of B.B.King at a concert at the Holiday Inn in Rivermont, Tennessee in the 198os
The Junior League of Memphis Cook Book, 1952 edition that Le Patron came across is a well used copy. The dedication in the copy was to Shirley, in June 1954.
June, 1954. This was just a month away from truck driver Elvis Presley being paired up with The Starlight Wranglers guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black by Sam Phillips, who was looking for a new pop sound. It is reported that Bill and Scotty weren’t too impressed with the vocal quality of the young Elvis. There were some rehearsals, and then they went into the Sun Studios on 5 July to try some songs out. Singing country numbers at the usual slow tempo didn’t impress anyone too much. So they all took a break. The famous break. Elvis seemingly started “fooling around” in the studio with an Arthur Crudup blues number That’s Alright Mama. Sam’s commercially tuned ears twitched, and he got Scotty and Bill to pick up their instruments and follow what Elvis was doing, whilst he wound the tape back. Things were suddenly falling into place. They gave some other material the same treatment, including taking the country standard Blue Moon of Kentucky out for a scorching hot rod ride. And history – oh boy, what history – was made.
We know that Elvis particularly liked a peanut butter and banana sandwich, with or without some bacon. He also liked pork chops, cheeseburgers, mashed potatoes and fried chicken. He also liked grape jelly and milkshakes. His liking for fried chicken echoed the Memphis and State of Tennessee liking for the dish. Shirley gives the Fried Chicken recipe three ticks, her highest accolade.
To finish the meal off she could serve another of her three ticks favourites: Southern Pecan Pie.
She didn’t tick Gumbo or Ribs, but here they are anyway.
Barbecue cooked meat is a Memphis favourite, with several highly rated restaurants specialising in the cuisine. In fact Memphis also hosts the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest every May. As the Wikipedia entry on Memphis highlights, Memphis barbecue is distinct by the sole use of pork, rather than beef, with a focus too on shoulder and rib cuts.
Elvis did not wax lyrical in the Sun or RCA recording studios about his peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but he did sing about a Southern staple, polk salad, in Polk Salad Annie, written by the previously mentioned above Tony Joe White.
When Le Patron came across the Junior League of Memphis 1952 Cook Book he searched hopefully through the list of recipe contributors:
No. No Mrs Vernon Presley, no Mrs Bill Black or Mrs Scotty (Winfield Scott) Moore. There are Phillips, yes, but no Mrs Sam Phillips, and there is a Kimbrough, but it is doubtful if the Junior League of Memphis in 1952 had many, if any, ladies from the black community. There is no Mrs Jim (or James) Stewart – Jim Stewart, founder of Stax records. Never mind.
The Junior League is still very much in business and A Sterling Cookbook: the Best of the Junior League of Memphis is a collection from fifty years of their Cook Books. Details of the book and current activities of the Junior League are available Here