I started daydreaming about Memphis a week before our trip was even a sure thing.
Because I’ve always loved New Orleans, the history of the place, the sound of jazz and smells of rich food wafting into the streets, I thought I might also enjoy Memphis. Besides, who isn’t a fool for BBQ & Elvis?!
I still haven’t forgiven my mother for not letting me go to an Elvis’ concert with my best friend in 1976. Yes, I was in the 4th grade, but it was a birthday gift from her mother! As I researched and planned the Memphis trip, I realized that visiting Graceland was not an option –too structured for a road trip. Generally, I choose a few things I’m interested in and just go with it, letting the rest of the trip spontaneously unfold. For some reason, the idea of keeping a ‘schedule’ seems to suck the fun out of things.
However, our route to Memphis, Tennessee took us straight through Tupelo, Mississippi –Elvis’ birthplace. At the time of Elvis’ birth in 1935, the town was commonly known as “the roughest town in north Mississippi”. It was a great stop. In less than twenty minutes we saw the house and rode around the town where Elvis had wandered the streets as a kid.
The two room shotgun house was built by Elvis’ father, uncle and grandfather.
The Presley family car, 1935.
It was late evening when we arrived in Memphis and not having any particular destination in mind my husband and I just enjoyed walking around downtown. Beale Street was already blocked off and lit up like a Christmas tree. Doors to the bars were thrown open wide and sure enough the heavy rhythmic sounds from local Blues bands lingered in the street.
But, I had other plans and pulled James into A. Schwab. When I was browsing the net I’d discovered the establishment had recently reintroduced an old-time soda bar. Immediately I’d set my heart on having an egg cream soda. *An egg cream doesn’t have egg in it at all but rather cream, soda water, chocolate or vanilla flavoring. As we strolled through the store, I found a couple of really nice hats and a metal paddle-car that would be great fun for the grandbaby. The place retains the charming feel of another time; perhaps it is the smell of old wood. Abraham Schwab, a Jewish immigrant, opened the store in 1876. In 1912 he moved it to its current location on 163 Beale Street where it is now the last original business.
True to form, I got carried away in my browsing -there are so many little nooks and crannies just filled with all sorts of things. We decided to return after dinner, thinking there would still be room for dessert.
Let me take a minute to say that if you have never been to Memphis, you may love Beale Street. It is bright, loud and covered up with folks out to have a good time. However, other than a stroll to take it all in, I am not a Beale Street kind of girl. I am smitten with Main Street though!
I’ve discovered that pretty much anything can be accomplished by bribing a husband with the promise of good beer -including covering the same area innumerable times, on foot, in frigid weather, when hungry.
While roaming around Main Street we came across the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium at 130 Peabody Place and decided to sample a few. The perks of walking around downtown Memphis are indeed great!
I fell hard for the Murphy’s Irish Stout. James had the Belhaven Black and a Spatan Lager. They were good, but mine was much better~
Beer finished, we headed back to 138 Beale Street & Blues City Cafe for the Gumbo Cheese Fries, a PBR -I’d never had one 😉 a Ghost Magic 16 & the tamales with a cup of chili -which we ended up sharing because the plate of cheese fries the bartender presented us with was monstrous.
I am now a huge fan of Blues City Cafe! The atmosphere is great and I honestly think that sitting at the tiny bar to the back made it even better!
There is a huge plate glass window separating the little bar (so cozy) from the rest of the cafe, so you can see everyone dining with family and still be snug as a bug. It was a packed house, but the bartender got us our appetizer in record time and warned us about ordering more food before we had the fries.
The gumbo is poured across the top before they are topped with shredded cheese….
I can’t even begin to describe how good they are!
Saturday Morning –
Out and about the night before we found City Market Groceries & Deli at 66 Main Street and realized they had a coffee bar. So that is where we were first thing -real espresso & real cappuccinos! We grabbed fresh baked sausage and chicken biscuits and sat at the bar that looked out over Main Street to watch the early morning joggers freeze their crazy asses off. It is truly shocking how many there were… If I lived in Memphis, I’d be here every morning, sipping cappuccino, doing a little writing and counting.
Our first stop for the day was probably the thing I was most excited about. I know how odd it sounds but I always visit a cemetery when I travel to a new city. The information I found on Elmwood Cemetery had me rushing through breakfast.
Elmwood Cemetery is open every day of the year 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and is located at 824 S. Dudley Street. It was literally a hop, skip and a jump from downtown. When James and I arrived we pulled into the cottage and went in to purchase a driving tour. We were not expecting a history lesson or for our new friends to pull out the copy of the deed. Nor did I expect a rub-down from Howard the resident cat.
The cemetery was established in 1852, but many of the tombstones are much older as they were moved from other cemeteries throughout the city. Elmwood is an example of a garden cemetery, set up in a park-like layout that includes “sweeping vistas, shady knolls, large stands of ancient trees, and magnificent monuments.” No kidding, it is beautiful.
An hour driving tour is not what you’re really in for, unless you never get out of the car. James and I stopped and walked so often and hit replay on the audio because we couldn’t trust that what we had heard was accurate, that it took us almost four hours! I still can’t believe we had that much fun. When it’s ‘your thing’ there is always worry when you drag the unsuspecting along. (I also got to keep the audio cd! No duplicates shall be made…)
Some of my favorite stories were about a madam who later turned her ‘mansion’ of pleasure into a hospital during the yellow fever epidemic; a lesbian tryst that ended with a slit throat- poor Alice; the tale about moved Union coffins, chalked-in names and unexpected rain. And, of course, Shelby Foote’s burial site. Every Southerner knows Shelby Foote –our Civil War historian. He is buried next to Nathan Bedford Forrest’s family plot. The general and his wife are no longer buried at Elmwood.
More than 75,000 people are buried in Elmwood. When the site lists “soldiers of the American Revolution through Vietnam, mayors, governors, senators, madams, blues singers, suffragists, martyrs, Union generals, Confederate generals, civil rights leaders, holy men and women, outlaws and millionaires” it means it! There are over 1,000 Confederate soldiers and veterans buried in the Confederate Soldier’s Rest.
LUNCH ran late…but there were several places we wanted to try! Lucky for me THRILLIST ran their first issue on Memphis several days before we left and I had every intention of breaking in the husband on our first road trip together.
We headed to The Second Line in Midtown for some “simple, authentic New Orleans fare”. I had roast beef po’boy on my mind -but I just couldn’t have one if it wasn’t at MOTHER’S in NO. So… we decided to split an order of the andouille, crawfish & pimento cheese fries.
Although I had not admitted it yet, my heart was set on eating at Hog & Hominy in East Memphis.
I’d heard about the wood-fired Red Eye Pizza – with pork belly, celery leaves, fried egg and fontina.
J. Cole with Southern Living Magazine ranked them #4 in “The South’s Best New Restaurants” in 2013 with food created by chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman. (They won the 2013 Food & Wine Best New Chefs award.) The two are known for combining their “Italian Roots with Southern cooking” and have just launched a new cookbook.
James and I sampled beer while we waited on our Red Eye, trying the Wise Kung Fu Draft, Mama’s LIttle Yellow Pill & Wise Tiny Bomb Draft. The pizza ended up being one of the best I’ve ever had. That’s saying a lot considering I grew up in Gadsden, Alabama feasting on Mater’s pizza. The charred crust added to the smokiness of the pork and it was surprising how much flavor the celery leaves added.
Our waitress made sure to tell me the recipe for the peanut butter pie was in the cookbook! The bottom layer was like cheese cake. It and a slight saltiness of the crust cut the sweet of the peanut butter; a layer of fresh sliced bananas separated the two. It was ice cold & divine! One slice to share was not enough.
Rather than venture out again later that evening, we opted to stay in and watch old WWII movies. Sunday morning we awakened to a downpour, reevaluated & adjusted our plans and headed back to Bama. A box of French pastries from la baguette on 3083 Poplar Ave & a couple of lottery tickets eased my angst at having missed the Peabody Ducks and breakfast at the Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’ oldest cafe.
So, another trip to Memphis will be necessary! I intend to see the Peabody ducks parade through their grand hotel and there are several more places I want to eat. Let’s not forget I didn’t get my egg cream soda! I’ve also decided that Memphis is the perfect location for a novel I’m working on…
…the reasons for another visit just keep adding up.
ELIZABETH MOZLEY MCGRADY
WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, a memoir