The Soul of Memphis

Despite setbacks, the Mississippi River city has held onto its rollicking blues joints, smokin’ barbecue and welcoming, can-do spirit

A throbbing two-block entertainment district is all that is left of old Beale Street, most of which was razed in urban renewal schemes. (Lucian Perkins)
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Sessoms, an African-American, came to Memphis in 1994 and became active with the National Civil Rights Museum and the United Way. “This is still fundamentally a racially divided city,” he said. “But I think people are starting to figure out how can we live better together, support one another’s agendas.”

He pointed out his office window to the airport tarmac, where FedEx handlers were ferrying packages to a DC-10. “It’s hard work out here,” Sessoms said. “Especially when it’s 98 degrees out, which means it’s 110 down there. But people who work here have pride. They can say, ‘I’m throwing packages out here in the heat, but I’ve got a good job with good benefits. I’m wearing a uniform.’” And they’re the backbone of FedEx, he said. “I’m an executive vice president. If I don’t come to work, we’re OK. If they don’t come to work, we’re S.O.L.”

“What’s that?” I asked.
“Sh-t outta luck.”


There are said to be some excellent high-end restaurants in Memphis. I never found out. I went for the barbecue. The Memphis variety is all about pork—ribs or shoulder meat, prepared “dry” (with a spicy rub) or “wet” (with a basted-on sauce). I’m still dreaming about some of the places where I pigged out. There’s the much-celebrated Rendezvous, tucked away in a downtown passageway called Gen. Washburn Alley (named for a Union general who fled in his nightclothes during a Rebel cavalry raid in 1864). Then there’s Payne’s Bar-B-Q, a converted Exxon service station out on Lamar Avenue. Walk past the gumball machine into a large room with a salmon-colored cinder-block wall. Belly up to the counter and order a “chopped hot”—a pork shoulder sandwich on a soft bun with hot sauce and mustardy slaw. Crunchy on the outside, smoky tender inside. With a Diet Coke, it comes to $4.10—possibly the greatest culinary bargain in these United States. Payne’s was opened in 1972 by the late Horton Payne, whose widow, Flora, carries on the tradition today. I asked her how business was going. “It’s holding its own,” she said. “Damn right!” thundered a customer nearing the counter. “Give me two just like his, all right, baby?” She flashed a smile and turned toward the kitchen.

But the heavyweight champ has to be Cozy Corner, at the intersection of North Parkway and Manassas Street. The sign over the front door is hand-lettered. The charcoal cooker is just inside. I ordered ribs. White bread makes a good napkin to sop up what happens next. My sauce-splattered notes from that foray consist of two words: the first is “Holy”; the second is unreadable. Smokes, maybe.


The mighty Mississippi has spawned triumph and tragedy, song and legend—and, as I learned one sultry afternoon, a great number of scary-looking catfish. The kind that weigh more than your mama. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain tells of a catfish over six feet long, weighing 250 pounds. Who knows? Today some catfish competitions require anglers to strap on lie detectors to verify they didn’t cheat, say, by submitting the same fish that won last time.

At the Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest Tournament, which I attended on Mud Island, actually a peninsula jutting into the Mississippi, the catch must be brought in live (“No catfish on ice,” the rules state). This was all patiently explained to me by one of the judges, Wesley Robertson, from Jackson, Tennessee. “I’m a little-town guy,” he said, glancing warily toward the Memphis skyline.

With a possible $75,000 in cash prizes at stake, a long line of river craft inched toward the official weigh-in, bristling with rods and nets. Robertson told me the world- record catfish was actually 124 pounds. The best bait? “Shad and skipjack,” he said. The best catfishing? “James River, Virginia.” The one he dreams about? “I’ll take three dams on the Tennessee River. There’s a world record in there.” I observed that he wasn’t being very specific. He shot me a sidelong grin that made me feel I just might be catching on.


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