DBBBBQ: Chapter 11

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The National Civil Rights Museum - Memphis, TN

Payne, Pleasure and the Southern Dream of Freedom
My final day in Tennessee began with a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is built from what used to be The Lorraine Motel, former congregation point of Memphis musicians and assassination site of Martin Luther King, Jr. After its initial opening, it expanded to include the staging grounds of King’s murderer across the street. The condition of both the motel and the annexed buildings has been maintained as a powerful tribute to the civil rights movement and to the aging legacy of Memphis. From Dr King’s balcony outside to the installation of the Memphis garbage strike deep within, the exhibits here are probably the emotionally engaging I’ve ever seen. I’d feel differently if I had a deeper interest in architecture, art, or European history, but the full scope of America’s defining struggle presented within its own symbolic deathbed produces a resonance going far deeper than anything I’ve felt in Berlin, London or New York. Russian literary museums present a challenge in this regard, but as an American I’d have to say that the Civil Rights Museum is a much more important destination for my people than anywhere abroad.

Payne’s Bar-B-Q - Memphis, TN
Payne’s Bar-B-Q - Memphis, TN Payne’s Bar-B-Q - Memphis, TN

My next destination was Payne’s Bar-B-Q, which in a former life was an abandoned Exxon gas station on an abandoned street corner at the edge of Midtown Memphis. Today, still on a street corner without a decent storefront in sight, Payne’s is a local favorite for pork sandwiches. As much as I loved the Bar-B-Q Shop’s cozy, old boy restaurant atmosphere, the interior of Paynes’ acted served as a much appreciated callback to the rootsy aesthetic of the smokehouses in North Carolina. I ordered a sandwich and beans at the counter and sat down with the most alarming spectacle of Q of the entire tour.

Chopped Pork Sandwich - Payne’s Bar-B-Q - Memphis, TN Chopped Pork Sandwich - Payne’s Bar-B-Q - Memphis, TN

Yes, that is NEON YELLOW SLAW adorning the wonderful mess of chopped pork and red sauce in these photos. The meat itself screamed Memphis: rough and smoky with plenty of brown to go around, but for all its sharp corners and chewy bits still a fine cut of tender pork shoulder at its core. The neon slaw was a swirl of pickled and sweet mashed into a wholly unidentifiable clump of yellow trickling into every pocket of pork available. The sauce was nothing special on its own, but as a bridge between the gritty meat and the outlandish slaw it served its purpose well. The blending of tastes and textures in a Payne’s sandwich exemplifies the phrase “symphony of flavor” like no sandwich I had encountered since Lexington.

My next destination was the Stax Museum of American Soul, easily the most anticipated visit of my tour of Memphis. Like the Civil Rights Museum, the Stax Museum is built from what was once ground zero for southern soul music, a hotbed of creativity and passion that defied the racial tensions of ’60s Memphis with a sound and determination perennially overlooked by those won over by the bigger names of the decade. A renovated marquee now towers like a beacon over the entrance to Stax and Satellite Records at the corner of College and McLemore, brightly painted and inviting all in for the story of Memphis, Muscle Shoals and every other place and face that had parts to play in the dynamic family of southern soul.

The tour began with a short film, then barreled down hallways of history filled with stories, wardrobes, instruments and one hot buttered 1972 peacock blue, gold-trimmed Eldorado Cadillac owned by Isaac Hayes. The birth, growth, impact and dissolution of southern soul is well documented and beautifully presented, though bias towards the Stax namesake is more than obvious. As a Stax loyalist, I’m not complaining: Lorraine may have been the most moving museum experience of my life but Stax proved to be the most satisfying. Fat and happy, I swung by A&R Barbecue for a handful of fried pies and made tracks for Texas.

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