Eating Deeply in the Deep South: Memphis and Nashville

Food is foundational to everything else a traveller will experience in the southern United States of America. After food, music fills in the cracks to build three unique cities that I love. At the end of December we set out to Nashville on a flight from Toronto; our purpose was to experience as much music, food and fun that we could fit into the span of eight days. The journey would require a rental car, $600 in cash, a sense of humour, the acceptance that weight would be gained, beer would probably be consumed in an even ratio to the music heard, and a spirit of adventure to guide us along the path to enlightenment. Plans were few, experiences were open-ended.

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The first place we hit: Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen in Hurricane Mills. Why? The billboards just led us here – to a dive diner that seemed like countless others I had grown to love as a child in the 70s. The Kitchen was certainly from the 70s and had seen better days cosmetically. However, like Lynn herself, what is served up is a heaping plate of southern comfort. We clearly needed to go with the lunch buffet option, if only for the fried chicken and turnip greens.  The food was typically classic, southern homestyle cooking, and unlike the hundreds of fast food joints, this place felt real. Not for the faint of heart, but perhaps for those with a large appetite. We were off to a stellar start.

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Next up was Memphis, which was about four hours drive from the Nashville Airport. Memphis is not what you might expect from the birthplace of Blues, the home of Elvis Presley, and where Beale Street has you walking on a mythical strip of Americana. Memphis is a city in decline. Sun Studios, Graceland, The Lorraine Motel, and Beale Street are all great reasons for Memphis to be alive and kicking, but frankly the downtown core is empty, Beale Street is a parody of itself, and Elvis’s spirit has left every building in this town. Still, I loved it there. I loved it for the farmer’s market where we bought bread, milk, arugula and green beans (note: I also had to tell a man that his uncle, Dave Nichol, was now dead). I loved the Madison Hotel where we stayed. I loved the time we spent talking with people and listening to the Plantation All-Stars play an afternoon set that leaked into the night at Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall. Memphis has soul, but you can tell why it also owns the blues.

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We ate barbecue at Central BBQ, a popular greasy place where locals and tourists head in droves. We went with a combo plate that we shared – American portion sizes will kill a witless Canadian – and it worked out well. How did it compare to the restaurant we live across from, Electric Mud? Nope, not even close to being as good, but still, well worth the eating and time spent. Overall, Memphis was a lot of fun. I even enjoyed playing some Gibson guitars made at the local factory. B.B. King and Elvis would have been critical, but some things cannot be helped.

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Driving back to Nashville was another four hours, but we took our time to stop for dinner at a Texas Roadhouse chain restaurant (white gravy on my fried chicken), and to visit a lookout where migratory birds congregate. One thing I noticed was how little one sees when hurtling down various interstate highways. If we had had more time, then I would have taken the smaller routes so as to experience a bit more of Alabama and Mississippi. As it was, our eight hour trek from Nashville to New Orleans and back would tax my driving skills and ability to focus; in another life I would have preferred to split the drive by spending a night in Birmingham, Alabama.

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If there is one place to eat in Nashville, then it would have to be Edley’s BBQ in the 12 South district of the city. We randomly came across this place on our four mile walk past The Gulch. After playing a few sweet vintage guitars, being too scared to visit Third Man Records due to the adjacent homeless shelter, and realizing the hipster profile finds its way everywhere, we were turned onto the 12 South area by a clerk who sold us rings at my favourite silversmith: King Baby Studios. What is great about Edley’s? Cool atmosphere, laid back counter service, and a truly amazing beef brisket taco and Nashville’s trademark “hot chicken”. We loved it here, and were tempted to stop in on the way to the airport, but resisted with all of our might.

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Nashville is a different place in comparison to Memphis. It is a big city, with a big city feel. We were here to hear Old Crow Medicine Show perform at Ryman Auditorium, to sample the country music along the strip of bars on Broadway Avenue and to spend two nights at the luxurious Hutton Hotel. On all fronts, Nashville is a good city. Not my favourite by a long shot, but the music we heard at Ryman and Robert’s Western World was truly world-class. We had a great time in Nashville…except for The Slider House. I have to say this was the worst place I have attempted to eat at in a long time. We arrived, sat at a table for 10 minutes before being spoken to, waited another 15 minutes for our drinks to come only to be told that the waitress “lost our order, and now the kitchen was probably closed”. No apology, no drinks, no nothing. I walked out in a way that would have made my grandmother proud. Avoid this place. We did better at the Checker’s Drive Thru and Take-out.

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On the road again, and tired from our travels; we stopped at one of the restaurants in the Cracker Barrel chain. What a pleasant experience. A nice roaring fire, the most polite service, giant portions of southern cooking and the feeling like you were back in the “good old days” before the I-65 killed all of little towns and diners along America’s great roads. As I said, eight hours is a long drive to do in an afternoon, but at the end of the road was New Orleans. New Orleans: the reward for all of the time we give to other things just to get back here as often as possible. God, I love that town. Why? That is a whole entry onto itself…

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