Monday, April 09, 2007

I’m going to have to check my luggage

April 9

Long day.
I left home at 4:30 this morning to catch a 6:10 flight to Atlanta and one from there to Memphis, where I went to the Holiday Inn University of Memphis to check into the hotel, check my e-mail, interview a Chicago restaurant operator about her frying oil, print out the text for a PowerPoint presentation and then walk upstairs to classroom 432 for a slice of pizza and a lecture.
I thought I was just having lunch with some hospitality students — all of the classrooms are at the hotel — but it turns out that I was to talk to them and answer questions about myself and the restaurant world for an hour-and-half as part of an ongoing lunchtime lecture series.
Well hey, I can do that. I know all about myself, and I write about restaurants.
So I gave them my verbal post-high-school biography (plus a mention of the article on dessert mousses I wrote and sold when I was 17), talked about a couple of food trends and opened up the floor to questions. It was fun. I managed to work in my opinions on Whole Foods' removal of lobster tanks, using Homeland Security mandates to restrict immigration from Mexico, strategies for what to do when you’re a server and the non-paying member of a couple starts flirting with you, the role of Rocky Mountain Oysters in the Colorado foodservice scene, the complexities of our seafood supply and the importance of pursuing your dreams.
I was presented with a commemorative plate.
Then back in my hotel room I called a friend to ask about a lease he signed for his second restaurant and then called a Brooklyn restaurateur to ask what he was going to do now that his chef and pastry chef had quit.
Then it was off to the Hilton to be the educational program for a meeting of the Memphis Restaurant Association.
That’s what the PowerPoint text I printed out was for. I showed them 30-some-odd slides of growth projections, menu innovations, popular chains, potential trends and figures about how many meals Americans are believed to have eaten in their cars over the past year. Then over an incongruous but not disagreeable combination of cake and wine I chatted with the MRA members about topics such as the use of surveillance cameras, how to alter the menu mix of a steakhouse in the face of escalating beef prices and where to get the best barbecue in Memphis.
To be honest, I don't think I asked their opinion of barbecue, because I knew my fate had been sealed. My host, Bob O'Halloran, was taking me to Neely’s Bar-B-Que. Still, people in barbecue country like to tell you what they think of barbecue.
Back at the hotel I had 15 minutes to change (one dresses down from lecturing to eating barbecue) and engage in an e-mail conversation with my colleagues about whether sake, the Japanese rice brew, should be spelled with an accent over the e (é). I maintain that it doesn’t need it, but henceforth in Nation’s Restaurant News it will have it. I’m not going to lose sleep over that.
At Neely's I quizzed Bob and Christopher Roan — a Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau guy who was joining us — about the salient features of Memphis barbecue.
I learned that Memphis is pork country, where pulled pork with cole slaw on a bun is a signature item, but where ribs — usually wet- but sometimes dry-rubbed — also are important. Barbecue spaghetti, nachos and pizza also are part of the custom. Sausage and cheese are popular appetizers.
All of that was part of our first course, sent out by owner Patrick Neely, except for the spaghetti.
Patrick then came out and chatted with us. He has two restaurants in Memphis, one in Nashville, and various on-site operations. I asked him about bringing Memphis barbecue to Nashville, and he didn’t shudder, but it was clear that the ways of Nashville were strange to him.
“They wanted barbecue with cornbread,” he said. They also wanted pulled pork on sandwiches with mayonnaise and pickles, but no cole slaw. Clearly they were mad.
"Nashville's really a meat-and-three town,” he said, referring to the standard traditional southern meal of meat with three sides (green beans, mac & cheese and cornbread, say).
Then again, if you get much west of Arkansas, they look at the cole slaw on their sandwich and say “get that sauerkraut off of there!”
But he said that even Memphis has only been an important barbecue center for the past 25 years or so, since Memphis in May, a monthlong festival, put it on the map for barbecue — specifically a weekend barbecue competition that now draws 300 contestants.
He recounted all of this as we dug into a sampler of wet and dry ribs, beef brisket, smoked turkey, pulled pork and sausage. Barbecue spaghetti (barbecue sauce slowly cooked with sautéed onions and peppers and then mixed with cooked spaghetti) and baked beans. We each had our own side bowls of barbecue sauce.
As Patrick left to take his daughter to a recital, he sent word to the kitchen that I was to get a bottle of dry rub and barbecue sauce, which was sent out as I ate my pecan pie à la mode.
That bottle of sauce, of course, is why I’m going to have to check my luggage.

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