IBE&TIHD, Tennessee Edition
By Jessica Conoley
For this dinner you’ll need a little backstory. 1) I am from Kansas City. 2) Kansas City invented real barbecue. 3) I love barbecue. 4) The rest of the world makes very delicious meats—sometimes they call them barbecue, and they are wrong but to be polite I don’t tell them when I eat it.
Now lets get to the road-trip part. I had driven to the southeast corner of Missouri to meet my cousin, Glen, and his wife, Linda, for the Tennessee adventure. Glen’s really my mom’s cousin, so he’s got four decades on me—but if you want to go on a road trip with someone, he makes the top three list for sure. He does all the driving, doesn’t care if you take a wrong turn, and he tells the best stories—ever. Serious face, stories that make you laugh and cry and say “no way!” and the real kick in the face is they’re true. (He’s actually one of the reasons I started writing; I thought somebody should write his biography and thought I’d take a stab at it. Then I realized I was too lazy to do the research about what kind of cigarettes people smoked in 1963 and moved on to straight up fantasy.)
Our plan is to eat in Dyersburg, TN because my Grandpa grew up not too far from there. Glen’s going to show me the town where Grandpa was born, and we’ll traipse around a graveyard. Somewhere the plan went one-hundred-miles awry and we ended up headed to Memphis instead. About forty-five minutes outside of town it hits me—I have entered the mythical and magical threshold of the hallowed Tops Bar-B-Q.
For half a decade my boyfriend, and his brothers, and his dad, and everyone I’ve ever met who has anything to do with the lot of them, has spun me the tale of Tops based out of Memphis. They speak of Tops with reverence and surety; letting the world know Tops is paramount—the standard to which all other smoked meats shall be compared.
It’s 1:19 pm on Sunday March 13, 2016 and I face the dilemma to tell my boyfriend or not to tell? Part of me thinks it’s cruel to eat there without him, but really if I have the opportunity I surely shouldn’t waste it. I grab my phone and text him: Let’s say, hypothetically, we were lost and ended up in Memphis eating at Tops. What should I order?
We cross over the Mississippi river, once, twice, and on third-times-a-charm land at the exit for Beale Street. Glen steers us down the heavily populated block of merriment, where it is clear we will have to walk a mile to get to any restaurant. I suggest we try out Tops. I know there are a couple of locations and one shouldn’t be too far from us. Glen and Linda are game, so I ask my robot phone to lead us there.
We’re sitting at a stop light when Linda says, “There’s Sun Studios.” On the other side of the intersection is a small brick-faced building with the letters S-U-N arched over the door. Glen and Linda tell me that’s the very studio where Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a whole slew of others got their start. And I’m happy we got lost, and ended up on the doorstep of the very place Johnny Cash got his start. The whole reason this IBE&TIHD project exists is because of the I’ve Been Everywhere song that Johnny Cash recorded. We couldn’t have planned it any better. The light turns green and we continue on to our real mission.
We’ve just pulled into the parking lot when a text message dings in: 2:30 p.m. Chopped pork sandwich and fries. And then order a second. I cruelly respond with a photo of the Tops sign and we head inside.
It’s an unassuming place. You order at the counter, and there’s a line half-a-dozen people deep, which is impressive because it’s well after the lunch hour. Booths cram together in the back of the restaurant. I tell Linda what we’re supposed to order and we translate my text to mean the “Regular Pork Shoulder” sandwich. All three of us get the sandwich with fries; I order beans while Glen and Linda get the coleslaw.
Our tray is laden with wax paper wrapped sandwiches, crinkle fries, and Styrofoam rounds of beans and slaw. I divvy out our supper and take the plastic cover off my beans. Baked beans, but not the doctored up variety I know. I look for chunks of roasted meat, or onions, or anther color of bean but all there is is red kidney beans with the syrupy goo that is the basis of every scoop of baked beans I’ve ever had. They’re sweet, filling, and warm, but they’re just plain old baked beans.
The fries are crinkle fries; the superior French-fries to all others. Don’t get me wrong, I am an equal opportunity French fry eater. I’ll take them any way they come, except for shoestring fries—those are stupid. (You have to eat twenty-seven of them to make one normal fry.) When I have my choice though, it is the crinkle fry that reigns supreme. Each little ridge provides more surface area for browning and makes for crisp, full fries that showcase everything a fluffy fried potato should be.
At last I unwrap the venerable chopped pork sandwich. It’s on a white bun with little bits of meat peaking out from the edge. It’s not pulled pork, (shredded-sauced shards that I’ve grown up with) or shaved (long thin slices), it is definitely chopped—small hunks of meat roughly the size of a chic-pea. I don’t lift the top of the bun, because sometimes barbecue sandwiches are carefully sealed with sauce and if you move the bread wrong all the stuffing falls out. I plow right in and take a bite. And I’m chewing and waiting for the spice of the meat-rub and the sweet-tomato sauce, but my sandwich is crunching-a little bit like a pickle and the meat flavor is in there but it’s got some strange cousin tagging along between the buns. I lift off the top bun to confirm my suspicions. Tops has gone and put coleslaw on my barbecue sandwich. I’m not really sure what to think about it, so I take another bite, and another, and another until the sandwich is gone. The slaw was pickle heavy and the vinegary tang was a good compliment to the meat, but if someone had me eat that sandwich and asked me to define it for their menu I never would have said that’s a barbecue sandwich.
All three of us clean our plates, and all agree we’d come back and try it again—but it’s safe to say none of us are going to wake up dreaming about this meal in the middle of the night.
We get in the car to head back to Missouri, and I report back to my boyfriend:
3:05 p.m. They put coleslaw on my sammich.
4:45 pm. I’m sorry, I should have told you slaw unless you ask otherwise.
4:47 p.m. I’m glad I had it. It was weird… I liked it but wouldn’t classify it as BBQ
5:43 I’d pay to have it overnighted.
And there’s the rub of it. If you grew up within the Memphis metro area I can see how Tops would work it’s way into your blood stream like bourbon flows through mine. It’s a distinct taste as unique as Beale Street and Sun Studios, a taste you go back for again and again because it tastes like home.
But for this girl, the one who was born in Kansas City, raised on burnt ends, and expects great big chunks of meat in her baked beans, Tops is a decent sandwich place that made for a good story.