April 17th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
When I went off to college to the University of Tennessee, I was braced for change.
I knew I would have to figure out how to do laundry. And that no one was going to wake me up and make sure I got my butt to class, or tell me to do my homework, or to eat more vegetables. And that the last thing I wanted to do was call my father and tell him I needed more money – he’d made that abundantly clear.
But I knew I’d still have what I’d always had to get me through tough spots, to look forward to even in the stress of the moment, to restore order in chaos.
I’d always have barbecue. In all the vast experience of my 17 years, wherever I was in the city and in the world I roamed, barbecue was never more than three blocks away. Some better than others, but all good, all close, all comforting. That would be the case where I was going.
Wrong. Like so many assumptions about college, so very wrong.
Even though it’s in my state, Knoxville doesn’t know any more about barbecue than a pig knows about Sunday. Then and now.
However, there were a couple of places that provided affordable consolation in greasy bags, personality unavailable in the chain choices, taste unavailable on the strip below the campus.
In the time of Covid-19, our memories are surfacing, bringing us together in our time apart, reminding us of each other, and of the things and times we shared in our time together.
This week, several friends sent me messages independent of each other, and photos, of those two places that we shared a half century ago – places for comfort food.
One was on University, just a mile or so from campus, but much further in experience and circumstance, the other side of the interstate, the other side of town. By day, the building was shared space between a small grocery and fish market on one side, and a meat market on the other – but I was never there by day. By night – or very early in the morning depending on what two or three a.m. is to you – the meat market side was Brother Jack’s.
There was pork in there, and hot sauce, and the warmth it brings. It also looked like frat row in there – no women while dorms had hours, and only the bravest of dates after hours were lifted, willing to face the fare.
What I remember, and the visits are as fuzzy as I was at the time, Brother Jack sat in the corner on a stool next to a popcorn machine converted to rotisserie basting God-knows-what was turning in there, and his son-in-law, Sarge, manned the counter in his army sergeant uniform jacket. There were ribs, but ribs weren’t the main fare for this bunch.
The frat boys wanted pig burgers – supposedly meat cut from the backs of slabs of ribs, ground, pressed into patties by hand, seasoned, cooked on a flat top, disturbingly white even after being cooked, and served between two pieces of white marshmallow bread ... think Wonder. I think they were a quarter.
We stood packing the small place and overflowing outside, there were no seats, and imploring, “Hit me, Sarge.” That meant to douse your pig burger with their hot sauce, a nuclear concoction that set your tongue on fire and melted the roof of your mouth.
When somebody yelled “Hit me, Sarge,” Brother Jack would cackle over by the popcorn rotisserie.
The hangover cure value of pig burgers was based on that sauce. You were so busy dealing with the aftermath of eating them, you forgot your headache.
The other place was the Smoky Mountain Market – or the Smoky Mtn. Market as the pole sign said – or the Smoky Mt. Market as the sign on the front said. It was a convenience store on Chapman Highway just across the Tennessee River, but the convenience was the food.
There were hot dogs in there. Better yet, there were Smoky Mountain Market Chili Cheese Dogs in there. Two dogs, split and grilled crispy black on the bottom, slapped on a hot dog bun open face, covered with chili, mustard, onions and a couple of squares of sliced American, and then topped with another hot dog bun. Damn. Then there was the Full House. Take a big Styrofoam cup, stand two tamales up inside end-to-end, and fill it with chopped onions, grated cheese, and chili. OMG.
Most of the times when I’d visit, weeknights around 10 or 11 on a study break or a what-the-hell, why-not break, the guy running the counter crew was named Red, skinny and about five-five, the styled eponymous hair about six inches of that. I used to order milk just to hear him scream out, “Pint-a-white!” The scream was so the guy on the covered porch out front where the cooler was could hear him. When he had the milk, he’d scream back, “Pint-a-white!”, and toss the pint carton 20 feet through the open window to Red.
We remember the food, and what it meant to us.
After this is over, I’m going to remember the windows at Caritas Village turned into takeout, manned by volunteers, and serving those out front kept six feet apart by handmade numbered signs. Those who could pay and those who couldn’t were all served.
I’m going to remember Elwood’s Shack feeding the health care workers, and the Salvation Army feeding the homeless with food bought from local restaurants.
I’m going to remember that each takeout entrée I bought from Mortimer’s came with a roll of toilet paper, and every takeout package I bought from Huey’s came with a handwritten message of thanks and good wishes from the staff styled on the top.
And there’s still barbecue every three blocks or so.
You and I will both remember the unforgettable, those who served us and others through all of this.
Remember them when you give, and when you tip for takeout now, and when you tip period.
I’m a Memphian, and as they say, you are what you eat.
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