Thursday, 9 October 2008

OUT OF TOWN REVIEW: MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE USA














Memphis blues, barbecue and dreams come true
I suppose you can't really be 'born' an Elvis Presley fan, but I've seen every cheesy Elvis film with my big sister, listened to my daddy's records and relived mama's swooning recollection of the Ed Sullivan Show appearance for as long as I can remember. For this reason, I call myself a lifelong fan, and since I could never overdose on the big E, it was, of course, necessary that I pay a visit to my mothership: Memphis.

With an allegiance also to soul, dirty blues and rockabilly, I needed to see the sites of Sun Studio and Stax Records. And as a devoted foodie, it was high time I get back to my southern roots and feast on as much barbecue and fried foods as humanly possible.

From the moment we pulled up to the hotel and heard One Night With You blaring outside on Elvis Radio ('where we don't just remember Elvis, we never forgot'), mama and I giddily knew that we had arrived. On our way to the Elvis-styled room with 24-hour Elvis movie channels, we walked past the guitar-shaped, yes, guitar-shaped pool, by which I would spend many glorious moments listening to the likes of Suspicious Minds and thinking of how incredibly enviable I must be to those traipsing around an already winter-worn Edinburgh.

Sun Studio was the first stop in the dreams-do-come-true tour. Next door we discovered the first of many fifties-style diners kicking around Memphis. I had an old-school, glass-bottled cream soda before beholding the scene that gave birth to legends like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Spine-tinglin' stuff.

We left Sun in search of grub, so on to Beale Street we went, where the smell of smoky ribs and barbecue permeates the air and the sound of the delta blues spills out onto every corner. Jerry Lee himself was performing for a cool 150 quid at the neighbouring Blues Ball on this particular eve — a heartbreaking rumour, it has to be said!

We settled for a walk through the famous street as the night had a pleasant warmth and a breeze from the truly spectacular Mississippi River. Soon our noses led us to Rendezvous, a recommended no-frills joint and Memphis institution. It's a simple-but-enormous place . I had a vanishing heap of pork shoulder drenched in BBQ sauce, and washed it down with the Champagne of the South — sweet iced tea.

Day two got even better with the tour of (drum roll) Graceland. It's a mighty-fine home on a hill with the ghosts of good times emanating all around, especially inside the kitchen. The man of the mansion's appetite is certainly no secret and no one knew better than grandma Minnie Mae. She catered constantly to his gastronomical extravagances, including his fave sammich: A mashed-up banana with peanut butter on buttered toast, pan-fried. Yum! Shocked that this isn't offered in the on-site Heartbreak Hotel Cafe, we decided to dine on more ever-faithful barbecue with baked beans and ate it all inside a real 1950s Cadillac! Later on, yet another jukebox-fitted diner called the Shake, Split and Dip served up plenty of giant ice cream cones that relieved us from the scorching Memphis sun before we toured the Lisa Marie, the Presley jet plane named after his one and only child.

On our last night, we dined in true Memphis style with a pink limousine Cadillac picking us up from the hotel and driving us down Elvis Presley Boulevard to Marlowe's Restaurant and Ribs, an old Elvis haunt. Wary of nothing, I had the voluminous Blue Suede Shoes Burger topped with one huge fried onion and lots of blue cheese. We also had a side of fried okra and a basket of some truly unrivalled fried pickles. Careful not to make us feel guilty, the menu proudly says that 'because we love y'all, we use fry oil with zero transfat!" The staff was sweet as pie, the owner's daughter chatting away to us about how racism still reigns so blatantly in many parts of Memphis, apart from inside Marlowe's.

On the final morning before my departing flight back to Auld Reekie, we made time for some reflection at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr's assassination changed the spirit of both the city and country. What happened there also reflected the kind of soul coming out of Stax Records, just a few miles up the street inside a neighbourhood rich in character but otherwise, very poor indeed. There we saw Memphis Slim's ol' shack of a house and managed to spot a gorgeous fifties automobile pull up in front of the Stax marquee for just a moment, long enough to impress upon me a surreal snapshot back in time.

One week later, I'm stuck inside my flat with the Memphis blues again. What's a girl to do when the dream is done? What else but put on my Elvis Sun Sessions record, sip on some tea from my Jailhouse Rock-singing coffee mug and thank the heavens that at least I'm not a herd-about tourist anymore — just your average, local Elvis freak.

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