April 26th, 2018
Take notes. This is important.
Brisket is good stuff. Chicken is versatile and tasty. Bologna is better than its low reputation. All make good sandwiches.
None of them make a barbecue sandwich.
Bread is an important component of most sandwiches, defining in some cases, critical to a po boy.
Bread is incidental to a barbecue sandwich.
As published in The Memphis Daily News, April 27, 2018, and in The Daily News, April 28-May 4, 2018
SOMETHING MESSY, NOT TO BE MESSED WITH
In past columns I’ve chastised my fellow boomers who not only wish for times gone by; they live there. Gathered around lunch tables, they complain about things like technology – passing around pictures of their grandkids on smart phones and getting up and down from that table on knees and hips supplied by that technology.
However, risking sounding hypocritical, there are timeless truths that transcend technology, there are things that should not change, that should, in fact, be given the ultimate old fart endorsement heard at those lunch tables: “It was good enough then. It’s good enough now.”
The barbecue sandwich is one of those things.
There once was a magical place on South Parkway called Brady and Lil’s. Their sandwich was served on marshmallow bread … think Wonder Bread. You couldn’t pick it up. You wore some of that sandwich home on your shirt. It was wonderful. Their recipe survived and now thrives at the Bar-B-Q Shop. They serve it on grilled, butter-slathered slabs called Texas toast. They should be arrested.
Bread is simply a holding device for a barbecue sandwich. If the bread competes with the barbecue for attention, there’s either something wrong with the barbecue or the people serving it.
There’s a magical place on Lamar called Payne’s, in a barely converted filling station so lacking in pretense one wonders if a oil change is still possible while waiting for an order. The sandwich is transformative. There are a couple of relatively new places in town called One & Only BBQ. The sandwich is good, but the arrogance of the name writes a check they can’t cash in this town.
The barbecue sandwich is a simple thing, its availability around here so ubiquitous it’s an ordinary expectation. Its flavor makes it extraordinary, not the name of the place where it’s served or any trappings or artifice added to make the place look like it’s been there a while.
There are magical places allover town called TOPS Bar-B-Q. The name works – not just because they’ve been here forever, they’re working on 67 years – not because of plank walls, blackboards or precious pig art, they have none of that. The name works because the sandwich that defined a barbecue sandwich for me when I was five is the same barbecue sandwich I had yesterday. There are 15 or so TOPS around, every one with its own pit, and the sandwich is the same every time in every one. Addictive. I don’t know how they do it, but I think the same five women in the same hairnets work in all of them. They were in there in 1952, too.
For the record, a barbecue sandwich is slow-cooked pork shoulder pulled or chopped piled on a plain bun with sauce. Slaw and the temperature of the sauce are options. Pickles are not. Onions are not.
Anything else is a steak in a Chinese restaurant, a gin and soda.
I’m a Memphian, and as one standard after another falls, something beautiful survives.